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September 10, 2004

What If You Didn't Market?

This morning, Mr. Godin asks the question: "What would happen if you did better work and less marketing?"

Well, Seth, in the events industry, you'd likely die. At least as far as trade shows and executive conferences go.

But it's an interesting question.

Off the top of my head, I can think of perhaps three B2B events that wouldn't be negatively affected by less marketing: TED, DEMO and... well, two events.

I was going to add Burning Man to that list, but it doesn't really fit what we do.

Even CES, our industry's largest and arguably most successful event in terms of size, scope and content, would lose thousands of attendees without aggressive traditional promotion. The events my clients run have great content that should attract thousands of attendees without us telling them over and over and over. But our attendees have other things to do and if we're not in their face, they quickly forget about us.

One of my clients is going on its second year of a total sellout of exhibit space. So yeah, we can eliminate just about all of our exhibit marketing budget as we've got a waiting list of companies who want to exhibit. But we still have to get the buyers in the door. Perhaps a third of our customer base would come if we didn't market the show. But the other 2/3 would stay home.

TED and DEMO are almost the same event. They are technology focused and attract the folks who create the products that we don't even know we need today but which we can't live without tomorrow. These events are exclusive. They don't need to grow their attendance to attract more money, their exclusivity is what sells. If that were true for the rest of us, we'd be in good shape. But it's not. Many events find themselves in a self-fulfilling prophecy where they rely on their attendance numbers to sell to exhibitors, so if attendance doesn't increase year-to-year, exhibitors get scared and leave or reduce their investment.

You can say that that's the organizer's problem and they deserve the outcome and you'd be right. But our industry's lobbyists also rely on numbers to get their message across when fighting for new facilities, reforms on international travel restrictions, hotel development and other policy/legislative action. Not to mention selling the power of shows relative to other marketing media to ensure we're part of the mix. So to an extent, each individual's show's attendance numbers have an effect our industry's economic impact and our ability to lobby for what we collectively want from our government.

That's a cycle that's going to be difficult to get out of.

We'd love to spend less on marketing. But we're not doing raves. We can't just throw some flyers out there and hope the cool kids pass them out amongst friends. Some of us are getting the hang of viral, but to be profitable, most of our events demand a scale where we need a pretty big existing base for viral to matter.

The other thing is that we're not asking for an appointment to stop by for an hour. We're asking you to get on a plane and visit us. And we're telling you to pay for that. That's a big commitment. We're not just competing against other events and other purchasing resources. We're competing against missing your kids' soccer game, not sleeping with your spouse, airline safety or lack thereof, and having that backstabber in the office screw you over while you're out for a few days.

You need strong messaging to counter that. And in many cases, a lot of it. What else is going to be that little angel sitting on a prospect's shoulder saying, "You have to go to this," while the devil on the other shoulder is convincing them of all the bad things that will happen if they go away.

The thing that bugs me most about Godin's example (an ad agency named #17) is that it's an ad agency that seems to specialize in some brands that I'm not seeing as needing a lot of advertising. Let's take HBO and Nickleodeon for example. When you have the quality of content they do, I'd think you'd want to be cranking up the PR machine with local newspapers and family/kids-oriented media, not the ad budget. Why does Chateau Marmont need a high-flying 'cool' advertising agency? People still go there to see where Belushi died. Who are they competing with? Will and Grace? It's the only primetime network show with key characters who are gay. How much advertising do they need?

I'd hoped to find more on Number Seventeen in Ad Age or Variety, but some quick searches didn't come up with anything other than their posters for the Air America campaign. Oh, and they designed the "Sex and the City" book.

I'm wondering what they'd do differently for CES.

I'm lost on this one Seth. Please elaborate. That there is only a link to Press Kit with some pdfs on articles in about their attitude and design work on Number Seventeen's site might be 'cool' in a minimalist way, but if I'm in the market for using someone like them, I'd like to have a better idea of results. Give me something on their site I can look at other than a 22-page pdf that needs to be printed out in order to be read (try reading it online). Give me a reason to call and an opportunity to be turned away by them. I wouldn't call that advertising. That's self-service. Does Number Seventeen research prospects and go after them or is WOM their single modus operandi? Did the account execs grab their clients from the agencies where they use to work? That information would put some perspective on their choice of a one page web site.

My lack of understanding the relevance of Number Seventeen aside, there are a few things we could as an industry that would help us spend less money on marketing:

- Stop coming up with 'me-too' show ideas. Be more innovative with our show concepts.
- Be honest. I believe we spend an awful lot of money trying to convince our markets of things that just aren't real. Like inflated numbers of attendees and buying power stats. Being more contextual is the answer. That's where the value is to our paying customers.

- Fun, not work. What's your event's enjoyment factor? It doesn't matter what industry you represent, there are ways of making even the most mundane product showcase more enjoyable to visit. Engineers love to match wits with other engineers. Designers and architects want to show off their visions. Doctors want to experiment and be noted in journals. Flooring installers want to be the fastest in the business. What's your audience's hot button and how do you use that to get folks to attend?

- Community involvement. Ever show has a community that talks about the show. Or should be. If you're not being talked about, you're on your way to carrion status. Involve your community.

- Buy back your company from your investors. Then concentrate on high margin focused events rather than scale and get the staff who can take you there.

That last point only affects a handful of companies in our industry. But I think it's valid. It's also what Godin appears to be getting at when talking about the value of being small and choosing customers carefully as he does in his recent manifesto "Do Less".


10:45 AM in Trade Show Marketing, TSMR Rants | Permalink

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