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May 30, 2009

How to fix the dying industry of trade shows?

Trade shows are yet another victim of the splintering world created by the Internet and Google in particular. (Other similar victims include industry specific portals and directory listings - but that's a whole 'nuther post.)

The essence of a trade show is to meet with other like minded people, share experiences, learn about what is going on in terms of technology and innovation, and maybe even walk away with some leading practices to implement back at your plant.

At least, thats what they used to be about.

Consultants and vendors of all stripes flocked to them, they paid money for the right to spam the audience with unanticipated speeches during lunch breaks, and they worked the rooms like crazy looking for glimmers of the next big deal.

But thats all over now. Today trade shows are literally a dime a dozen. Some even dispense with membership costs just so they can still show high attendance figures to lure the poor and misguided vendors to pay for the entire event.

The big players don't go anymore. And if they do they are beset with hawkers, stickers and show bags. The speeches are rarely revolutionary, and the networking value has fallen away significantly.

I used to love these, but as a consultant the value of them to my business these days is exceptionally small and getting smaller. I don't go anymore. Every sector has one or two really high profile events each year - but even these are whithering on the vine.

Why? Aside from the uber-competitive nature of vendors or most of these sectors now, there is another factor. Most of the information that used to be showcased here can now be found online. And found extremely easily.

LinkedIn allows people to network 24/7 instead of once a year, and if someone wants to get a message out there are a range of industry specific groups, networking sites, and other means. So if it's networking you are after - there are many other forums both online and off that occur more than once a year.

And the information is out there. Take blogs for example - I have 8 different blogs that I regularly run through on engineering!! (And that is a pretty boring subject right!!)

Ever done a Google search for "marketing Blog"? Or "sales Blog"?  Do you really doubt that the information you seek is out there?

Why go through the drama of trying to work out which are truly the events to patronize, running the gauntlet of hawkers and vendors all over the place, only to come away with information that you could have found anyway?

Trade shows need a Steve Jobs moment. Something that will shake them up and revolutionize the whole concept for good. Here are some of my ideas on this issue...TedTalks  are already doing a lot of good things in this area - but there is much more that can be done I am sure of it.

First, holding an event once a year is nowhere near enough. Instead speeches and presentations need to be able to be presented to an interested audience regularly. Maybe even one or two times a week.

These can be canned presentations presented cold to a PC only. Or they could be webinars that were run on issues related to innovation or technology. Lastly, these should include presentations that are given to live audiences.

This goes to another concept. trade shows do not have to be a once a year event. In fact micro-shows could be run in each city with concepts and issues that relate to those cities. Turn it from a national / international event to a local one that is shared with an international audience.

Try to cap each session at (say) 200 - 1000 delegates, and make sure they see speakers who are innovators in the themes that they wish to talk about. For example, in engineering I would talk about Mining in Salt Lake city and manufacturing in Detroit.

Short one day sessions with high level speakers, or at least high level local personalities. The revenues would still be there and if you wanted to attract the right level of people then the speakers would have to be high.

Non-commercial speakers always have a high level of credibility. Local members of congress, or of state politics can lead the discussions on trends they see in (say) building up the IT innovation sector of this particular state.

Invite off topic speakers like economists from banks, famous (or infamous) marketers or other types.

More importantly - invite industry leaders, not just hawkers, to speak about whatever they are concerned about or something remarkable that they have achieved.

And make sure all videos are available online just like TED does.

Use this to develop the permission based asset. An asset where people trust you to regularly deliver high quality information and speakers on a range of subjects directly to their email or RSS feed.

Use these events and videos to publicize webinar style discussions and debates where some industry leading thinkers, along with community participants, can be involved in many-to-many discussions related to the issue at hand.

And use this permission asset of interested people to drive out survey style information related to best practices. (A la Aberdeen Group.)

There are many more ideas here that still need to be thought through. But there is no doubt that trade shows are dead or dying - the really fascinating part is what will rise to take their place (if anything) and who will do it?

I am willing to be that just like TED Talks it will be someone from outside of the industry rather than an established conference organizer.

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