Are Trade Shows a Thing of the Past?

It is sad to say that but Trade Shows as we know it (Buyers and vendors physically meeting together at corporate booths in Convention centers), will dissapear. Slowly, but surely, it is a matter of time.  I just can’t tell when exactly. And like for many other old school marketing activities, there is one culprit behind that slow decline: Internet. More specifically, Search Engine Marketing over the internet. Let me explain myself by going through the main reasons why we participate in trade shows:

To Introduce New Products

In the past, industry trade shows represented fixed new product launch windows. Mostly on an annual basis. In the months prior to THE show, there was always a rush in R&D departments to finalize the development of their latest widget not to miss THE opportunity to present it at THE show. This is still true, but to a lesser extent. Now, new products are launched at a faster pace than ever before, and companies can’t no longer wait for trade shows to launch them. Where do they announce their new products first? Yes, on the Internet.

To Do Some Competitive Intelligence or « Reconnaissance »

I used to be responsible for the Business and Market Intelligence function at MAAX and Venmar. Back then, part of of my role was to track and monitor marketing activities, pricing strategies, new product launches from all of our key competitors. In the early 2000s, I would say that 20% of the valuable information could be found over the internet and the remaining 80% was in the hands of our reps, at our customers retail locations or, gathered through spying sessions at major trade shows. Now, I would say, it is quite the opposite. You can easily find most of the valuable information about your competitors over the internet (Specs, pictures, videos and so on). And the interesting part is that you will find an increasing share of unbiased information coming directly from users of your competitive products through online customer reviews or youtube rants about products. Let me tell you that you gotta to invest tons of money in consumer focus groups to obtain the richness of information you can get by reading a few product review on Buzzillions or watching an video customer reviews about your competitive products!

To Create and Maintain Business Relationships

One of the main advantages that will always remain with traditional trade shows is that they represent a wonderful window for all the key people in any given industry to gather and physically meet in one single place and discuss. Yes, this could be done over the internet or over the phone but nothing beats a real hand-shake and a face-to-face meeting. But at what cost? With all the professional networking tools such as Linked In and their group discussion board features, business professionals no longer wait for the annual trade show to discuss together on important matters. They do it live on the internet throughout the year. The nice thing about those written discussion tools: it leaves permanent traces.

To Get Press Coverage

Most trade shows have their Press Centers where trade and mainstream media journalists go to find great stories to diffuse in their papers or other media. Get your act together and prepare a complete press kit including a press release. Have a remarkable story to tell at the show and you might get some coverage if you are lucky. If you do a real good job and your story is original enough, you may have journalists seeking  interviews to get more details about your story and then, you will have greater chances to get your story vehicled.

To Reinforce Your Brand

Trade shows still represent a nice opportunity to do a big splash about a remarkable new product introduction, an important corporate announcement or to communicate intangible benefits about your organization and its products  (i.e. The friendliness and warmth of your company through your staff, your brand personnality through the signage and marketing material you use at your booth and so on).

To me, branding is probably one of the most important element to justify the investments in traditional trade shows. For many SMB, besides your product itself ,that could be seen and touched at your retail locations, trade shows do represent one of the last element of your marketing mix which let your customer literally « touch and feel » your organization. With the  materials, colors, messages, signage, products, POP, the way your staff is dressed, etc, you communicate about YOUR brand.

Therefore, if you decide to participate in traditional trade shows, because that is still the name of the game in your sector, you better do it right and use this opportunity to clearly brand your organization! Be smarter than your competition. Be clear and consistent. Have ONE or TWO clear messages.  Do not try to be everything to everyone.  Execution is key. Do it with a high level of professionalism (in your overall presentation) or… just don’t show up!.

You only have money to pay for your booth space to display a few products? Then, do not show up! It won’t do justice to your company.

This last one  remembers me an experience I had a couple of years ago at the K/BIS show. I was working for a North American leader in the bathroom fixtures and plumbing sector. It was well known in the industry that our financial situation was not very solid and although we always showed up to the KBIS with a nice booth and investing approx. 1/2 million in that show in the prvious years, some executives, decided, with their great marketing mind, that we could skip a year at the K/BIS and not show up….. After a long debate amongst Marketing & Sales Executives and other key executives, they finally agreed that we couldn’t just skip a year, especially with the rumors about our weak financial situation that were spread across our customer base. Therefore, to make sure we would communicate a strong « personalized » message to our key customers about our not-so-bad financial situation, we organized a big VIP party at a nice hotel location in downtown Chicago. It was on invitation only. A real « WOW » evening. With acrobats, sushis, open bar, DJ and some of our key new products showcased. That was an amazing night and our customers really enjoyed it and still remember it… I think! 😉  The only problem with that approach: this wonderful celebration was on Saturday night and the show was opening on Friday morning. You can imagine how much a evening like that can cost so, to save money, and still show some presence on the show floor, we rented a tiny 10’X10′ space (we used to have a 40’X40′ booth) that we loaded with a few LCD flat screen TVs,2 leather sofas and we played corporate videos in loop on the screens. Can you imagine what was the reaction of our customers when they came to see us the first 2 days of the show? It putted us in complete defensive mode. After they’d spent hours to locate our booth (which was lost in the sea of chinese gimmicks importers!), they had only ONE thing to say: « your company is really in a weak financial situation ». Our overall booth presentation was, by our fault, confirming the rumors that were spread about ourselves. It was « talking » silently on our behalf. So even if our sales forces was trying to reinforce the corporate message that we were still strong financially and so on, our marketing actions were not in line with that speech and the message was completely distorted.

In my honest opinion, marketing-wise, we should have just focused on the big evening party or not show up at all on the show floor.

Key takeaway of this post: Internet is redefining how we will do trade shows in the future. So, be prepared. Web sites, blogs, media sites, etc make it possible to find products and services 24 by 7 very easily and in an amazingly convenient way. The younger generations might never have to participate in trade shows in their whole life ;-). Internet is becoming the biggest tradeshow in many sectors. It is open night and day and has a worldwide reach. Depending on your sector, you might have to balance between Internet and traditional trade shows for a few years still. Therefore, if you need to exhibit in your industry trade shows, make sure you do it right or don’t show up and put this hard earned marketing money elsewhere!

FYI, you will find an interesting article on how to maximize the ROI on your trade shows here.