Industry conferences, huh, what are they good for..?

Talking to the Head of Marketing of a fast-growing US software company the other day, reminded me about the trade-offs and decisions such companies have to make every day. Should they attend that prestigious European vendor-run conference, or buy more clicks for that hot keyword their online campaign?

The chance to meet around 5,000 attendees, hand-deliver brochures and demo software live on the stand and maybe brief press and analysts, seemed tempting. Not so the $50,000 bill for floor space

Of course that is just the start of the costs, there is the re-branded booth and literature to ship, the staff air fare, accommodation and catering and the expenses bill. But perhaps the greatest worry is the opportunity cost of having a sales team unable to visit potential customers for the duration of the show. A genuine dilemma – this year more than ever.

For the large vendors who have built brands and have partners to keep happy, European shows such as CeBIT, SAPPHIRE and Macworld make sense. They build loyalty, prove the momentum of their company and allow them to announce their latest offerings, literally, on a Big Stage. Indeed, due to the number of staff in one place, large vendors can and frequently do, piggyback internal meetings onto these events. But the value of attending is less clear cut for the smaller guys – especially these days.

In 2009, even vendor conferences are trying to break even and it is the partners who pay most for these shows, through sponsorships, booth rentals and even tickets for their staff. One show I worked on had plenty of partners and only 33% end user attendees. With that sort of ratio of prospects, the economics, not to say the carbon footprint, looks questionable.

There is a ton of value in networking with like-minded colleagues in this ‘specialist’ industry. When else can you use so many acronyms socially and not need to explain yourself? But while there is plenty of after-hours business transacted over cocktails, perhaps though we should be honest and call a sales junkets, sales junkets. If we really are ‘Tech educating’ customers and staff, what about all those wonderful free carbon-free web conferencing technologies? The same goes for internal meetings paid for by the ‘punters’.

Let the big brands spend their own money on brand-building. For those on a budget, grass-roots local campaigns, events and webinars, though hard to execute, not as ‘glamourous’ and requiring a lot of planning, put you in control of your own destiny and in front of your own prospects. They also save you from the sight of your best sales guys staring at Blackberries at the end of a long and deserted exhibition hall aisle.

Perhaps one positive from the downturn, is a focus on marketing that gets results, not betting big on someone else’s event bill.

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3 responses to “Industry conferences, huh, what are they good for..?

  1. I completely agree that marketing needs to be quantifiable and that we all need to be extremely positive in the downturn. Confident decision-making is all important – check out my blog on exciting business models and random thoughts on the economic profile of the downturn http://opencast.wordpress.com/

  2. Trade shows are decent vehicles for educating potential prospects but not great for lead generation. The “leads” gathered are likely to be very early in the buying process and not likely to make a purchase any time soon. Remember when we had all those SQL conferences? Then CRM conferences? Recently, it was the SOA conference that drew a crowd. In all those cases, the market was trying to figure things out. Attendees would come to hear other users speak in sessions and then drop by vendor booths for the perspective (clearly biased but nonetheless educational and perhaps even interesting) of someone trying to sell.

    Educating a market is very expensive, and it would be an easy choice for me if I were the VP of a startup.

  3. Pingback: CeBIT versus Woodstock – tradeshows revisited « Being Positive Blog

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