There are those who will argue the trade show is dead, and while I've witnessed some decline of the industry event over the past few years, let's assume for a moment that the trade show is still an unquestioned staple of B2B marketing.  Bear with me now…

A typical story might go like this: Mike Marketer picks four or five important shows to attend every year. How does he know they're important?  Easy. Everybody who's anybody in the industry sector is there, and, of course, it's teeming with prospective customers who might be in need of the innovative, best-in-class solution from Mike’s company, TechTitan.  There are usually a few current customers at the events, as well to whom the TechTitan event team might want to show a little love.  Mike's usually part of that team, as are a few of TechTitan's product geniuses and sales wizards. 

Mike starts planning months in advance.  There are booth graphics and slogans to design; he usually picks an event or two to pour extra money into so TechTitan can grab a speaking slot for thought leadership; and then there's the question of getting everyone interested.  Usually this involves spending a little extra for give-aways, preferably the latest i_____ (insert Apple product name here).

Visibility, a thought leadership platform, conversations with prospects, and new leads for sales are the reward for Mike's time, energy, and budget if all goes well at the event.

What if jumping into social media weren't really all that different from including an event in your marketing program?  We hear a lot that companies don't see the value or don't have time.  Often, they don't really know how either, or they want to just jump right in because how hard can it really be to write 140 characters?  It may seem like a far-fetched comparison, but social media might not be all that different from the old staple of marketing – events.

A couple lessons about social from events:

1.  Go because your target market is there

This was the first reason I started thinking about the comparison.  In researching social media for a client, I was surprised to see how many people were saying "I need an innovative, best-in-class solution," or "Does anyone know about TechTitan? Do you like their products?"  Okay, no, they weren't saying that exactly, but they were asking for solutions and product advice. It makes sense to show up at the shows where your customers and prospects are showing up.  If they're showing up on Twitter or Facebook or LinkedIn, why shouldn't you show up there?  (If they're not, then by all means, stay away from social media.)

2. Give something away

You can't actually hand someone an iPrize through Twitter (though you can certainly raffle one off), but just like at events, people love free stuff.  Give them help!  Give them information they can use!  Share your network!  If you do, they'll come visit your booth social media profile again.  They might even bring their friends back to visit.

3.  Please don't show up and start screaming.  It's not very becoming.

At an event, if you want a captive audience to listen to your presentation, you can get it in one of a few ways.  One, you're pretty darn smart and cool, so event coordinators want you to speak.   Two, you pay up for a speaking slot or to host your own side-ring event.  Or, three (which is becoming increasingly rare), you're articulate and have an out-of-this world idea and you earn your speaking slot.

You don't just walk out onto the event floor and start yelling about how awesome your company is and expect a crowd to emerge from the woodwork.

Along the lines of giving something away, in social media, you can't expect people to just spontaneously converge into an audience.  While you can't buy your followers/fans/connections (at least just yet), you still need to be so cool people want to hear you (think Steve Jobs) or willing to invest (a lot of time and effort) or you're articulate and share great ideas.  Usually, reality requires a combination of the latter two, just as Mike Marketer probably sponsors some shows and tries to earn speaking slots at others.  And of course, being cool never hurts.

4. You need a plan

Mike from TechTitan puts a lot of planning effort into his events.  Social media requires the same.  What's the personality of your booth/profile?  Who's on the team at the show/online?  Ideally you've got a cross-section of people.  Which shows/channels are best for reaching customers?  For reaching analysts?  What give-aways/content types really get prospects excited?

I'll stop here to avoid continuing the argument too far.  Yes, it's somewhat of an apples-to-oranges comparison, but my hope is that it will help raise a few questions about why we're sometimes so quick to write off social media as not applicable for B2B marketing, in particular in the tech sector.  And, while I do strongly believe that social media should not be solely a marketing initiative, that's often where it will gain foothold first.  Any other ways one of the oldest tools of the trade and one of the newest may not be so different?

Contributed by Catharine Morgan.  Follow her @c_morgan.