The failure of trade shows

The cancellation of this year's Comdex show, along with the downsizing of the NetWorld+Interop conference, is another nail in the coffin of IT mega trade shows. Many view the cancellation as inevitable, given the cataclysmic effects of Sept. 11, 2001, on the travel industry and the lingering uncertainties within our own industry that have kept discretionary spending down on both the enterprise and vendor sides. However, the real culprit might be an older, more insidious issue: the failure of vendors to effectively capitalize on industry events from a marketing perspective.

The original premise of the trade show business was to create a meeting place for vendors and customers, where customers could learn about the latest technology trends, see the latest products and interact with the leading vendors. Over time, shows became more like bazaars, with vendors handing out T-shirts and trinkets to compete for attention rather than promoting their products' business benefits.

Now that focused events and the Internet have become convenient and effective alternatives for learning about technology and comparing vendors and products, few people are shedding a tear over the demise of the mega-conference. But a surprising number of vendors still are making the same mistakes that led them to believe trade shows were an ineffective marketing tool.

First, many vendors don't properly identify which events are most likely to attract their target buyers. Nearly every smart event organizer will claim to be targeting CXOs or IT decision-makers. But few vendors ask for more specific demographic information to ensure the attendees match their ideal buyers.

Second, many vendors fail to create an integrated plan that establishes key marketing themes and messages, details complementary marketing campaigns and develops marketing material that can be utilized beyond a single event.

Third, and most amazing, many vendors fail to follow up on the leads they generate at events. How many of the companies that have swiped your card at a trade show when you visited their booths actually have contacted you after the event?

Given their dismal track record, it's no wonder many vendors have given up on traditional trade shows. In addition, vendors' marketing failures as conference sponsors have caused enterprise decision-makers to doubt the real value of these events.

Customers clearly have voted against bad conference marketing tactics by staying away from mega trade shows. They now are looking for more focused venues - online and in person - where they can get more industry insight and intimate understanding of the best technology strategies and products to meet their specific business objectives.

Now the task for industry marketers is tougher. With their budgets razor thin, they must sort through myriad marketing alternatives to determine which promotional vehicles - industry conferences, corporate events or Webcasts - can attract the most qualified leads. Picking the right venue is only a small piece of the puzzle. The cornerstones of success will be better marketing preparation and follow-up.

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Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.