In the 1992 U.S. presidential election, Bill Clinton's chief strategist James Carville coined the phrase, "It's the economy, stupid" as their primary strategy to unseat then-President George H. W. Bush. This saying helped refocus the campaign to the issue that would ultimately win Clinton the election.

In trade shows there are many objectives for exhibiting. But when it all boils down to it, there is only one real reason, and that is to generate leads. In my business I come in contact with a number of trade show managers and marketing executives, and they often tell me about other valuable benefits of exhibiting.

While some have merit, these alternative objectives sometimes feel liked misguided attempts to justify their lack of measurable results. I most often hear:

Getting to see old and current customers

While this is a valid benefit, it should be considered a side benefit of exhibiting, and not a primary objective. It's important to take care of your customers, but without new business, old business can wither and your sales will atrophy.

Conspicuous by absence

I hear companies mention this term when it comes to important shows in their industry. They are in a position where they feel they need to be at the trade show, or else it will look as if they are losing market share or that some other problem has arisen. They feel obligated to attend the show, and are afraid of what might happen if they don't. It's very similar to advertising in the yellow pages because your competition is there. You should exhibit at shows to increase your sales and build your business. Play to win instead of playing not to lose.

Market Research

Again, this is a nice side benefit because you are not going to drop $50,000 on a booth, drayage, shipping, and your space, just to do market research. You could send just one attendee to a show to do reconnaissance, and it would be 50 times cheaper.

Presence in the market place

While it's true that you need to make your presence felt and you need to capture the mindshare of your consumer, it's not really a measurable metric (sure, there are exit surveys). However, when you capture a lead, you now have the ability to drip on that prospective client through various channels (email, phone, mail, in person). Through consistent and persistent follow up, you can position your company as the only logical choice.

Many of you reading this right now may not agree with what I've said here, and that's fine. But let me ask you one question: How do you get a return on your investment from a trade show? You can't get a return from any of the listed objectives above. The only way you can truly generate a return is to create sales. To get more sales, you must create leads. Leads are a necessary component of the selling process, and we all know how important sales are to business. Sales make the world turn round.

If there is any doubt, where exactly do you think the money for your trade show budget comes from anyway? It's about the leads, stupid.