At a trade show last month, I dropped my card in the fishbowl at a vendor’s booth to enter a sweepstakes. I never received an email telling me whether I won the free tablet computer. But a few weeks later I began receiving the vendor’s email promotions.

Here’s the problem: I never gave the vendor permission to add me to the mailing list. I wanted to win an iPad, not sign up for emails. So, after receiving my second unsolicited email from the vendor, I opted-out from the list.

Had the vendor merely asked when I dropped my card in the bowl, I probably would have welcomed the emails and stayed on the list. I probably would have been an engaged and active prospect. Instead, I was annoyed and off the list.

The moral of this story: Ask permission. Whether at a trade show, a networking event, or any other venue where you collect a prospect’s contact information, ask “May I add you to my email list?” Explain what you’ll send and why it may interest the prospect. Emphasize that you will honor opt-out requests and not send spam.

When you send that first email, the prospect will expect it, welcome it, and most likely open it.
If you ask permission and the person says, “No,” that person probably was not a good prospect anyway – at least not a prospect who would respond to email.

Live events are great ways to meet and engage new prospects. But you undermine the opportunity if you randomly collect business cards and indiscriminately email everyone. This is especially true if you use sweepstakes and other incentives to get otherwise uninterested people to drop their cards.

So many businesses collect as many business cards as they can and then assume every card represents a prospect. Then they spend time calling on the “prospects” who had no interest. That wastes time and energy that you can’t spare.

When you meet someone at a trade show, take the opportunity to nurture a relationship. That’s time and energy well invested.

This begins with you listening to their needs, not telling them all the great things you do. Ask the people you meet about their businesses. Your product or service may not be a match, but you may have other ways to help them. Identify those who are good prospects and focus on them. Maintain relationships with those who aren’t good prospects. You may be able to help them in other ways and they may be able to help you with referrals.

By making this effort to separate prospects from suspects when you meet them, you will improve email response rates and convert more sales.

This column first appeared in St. Louis Small Business Monthly for which Tom Ruwitch writes a regular column called “High-Voltage Marketing.” The column touched a nerve. Several people wrote to us to thank you for the column. One of those was Mary Kutheis, who publishes a great blog called “Real Contentment – Use time wisely. Communicate kindly.” She wrote about the same topic on her blog in February. Here’s her post. We think it’s excellent. 

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