If you want to see us, call us anytime

Events, Pimpin
13 Comments

I’ve had this on my mind for a while and seeing how it’s the time of the year for trade show sales I figured I’d write one post both and lay out my opinion for the event sales and the IT pros alike. I’m no longer in charge of OWN’s marketing budget so everything you’re about to read here is just my opinion – and you’re welcome to disagree with me since I’m not the one choosing what we sponsor. I’ve also been quite careful to avoid using any names because while trade show circuit is a business like any other, I do have friends there and some of them are really trying to do things that are in the best interest of both the vendors and the partners.

Problems (Law of large numbers and diminishing returns)

There are way too many trade shows aimed at the IT Solution Provider, VAR, MSP. Everyone with an audience has an event – and more of them – with seemingly no purpose other than to bill vendors.

Content at most of these shows is pedestrian at best – expert panels made up of sales guys masquerading as content. Some shamelessly hold a bucket of cash up just to keep the audience in their seats until the end of the day.

Audience is unqualified. At some events you’ll meet college students attending the event for extra credit, at others you’ll meet end users while at some you’ll just stand there and be pitched by other vendors who didn’t spring for a booth.

There is seemingly no point for vendors to be there. At some events even the show floor layout reinforces the vendor carival boardwalk games as the attendees go from the entrance to the main location. “Step over here ma’am, I can guess your weight or you get a free tshirt!”

Engagement is difficult. Most shows never tell you who will actually be in attendance. Some tell you a day or even a week ahead of time giving you little time to get in touch with anyone.

There are way too many vendors. It’s quite clear what the objective is when you see 40 vendor logos with a show that promises 300 people to be there (which is likely including the 120+ vendor staff, show staff and the valet out front)

Biggest problem: Vendors are an accessory – that pays for lunch, venue, maybe a party, parting gifts and whatnot. They are not seen as a vital component of the event (“Hey, connect XYZ from the booths and charge $X for it”)

Our Story

I don’t want to sit here and lie to you by saying that the show circuit is useless. Far from it. We’ve managed to build an extremely successful company that had the shows at the core of our marketing.

The return on investment over the years has been heading south and it nearly fell off the cliff recently.

I had two options: double down or walk away. In 2011, we walked away from tier 2 and tier 3 shows. There are several reasons:

1. I kept on seeing the same people everywhere. I know some small shops have a demented illusion that the CEO’s job is to deal with strategy, not to build a business – but when you’ve got less than 10 employees you’re spending more time with me than your clients it’s pretty clear where you business is going.

2. I got the wrong sales guy. When I’m told “But we’re the best, all your competitors will be there” that only tells me I’m about to burn a lot of money on a lot of leads that won’t go anywhere. No thanks.

3. I asked my biggest partners where they were going. I sponsored their answers. If you can’t tell me why you are going to an event (or if the answer is to play golf, party, got a free hotel room, etc) then I see no reason to interrupt your vacation with my spam.

4. Lower ROI. I don’t run a business for the sake of sustaining the employment of my marketing department. “But people will think you’re dead” is not a valid reason to spend marketing dollars. When we pulled 40-50 shows a year we were barely breaking even on some.

5. Lower purpose. I’m “connected” to 1,300 of my partners and their staff in realtime, every day. I can touch base with the rest of them through email, newsletters, our portal, support services and so on. So why should I go to an event?

The result? Higher ROI on marketing investment, more focused marketing and sales staff, better mood around the office.. I can go on but reducing the travel schedule helped us out a lot – and we have more partners now than when we started 2011, with better revenue/profit.

I don’t really have many encouraging words to share regarding the problem however – If I were an IT Solution Provider I don’t know which trips I would spend $ on or even if I’d take a half day at work to attend one of the local ones. It’s gotten so bad that you can learn more useful stuff from blogs and your vendors marketing collateral than you can at the average industry event. The only downside is that you won’t get any swag and beer will be exponentially more expensive.

2012

I don’t know the exact layout of 2012 yet but I’ve heard that we’re even taking a razor to our tier 1 sponsorships. We’re only going to events where we’ve got a strategic relationship with the event and can squeeze something else out of it (video, case study, etc). It’s strictly business.

To my vendor brotherin that are facing the same issues I’ve outlined here, do what I’ve done and shift the entire responsibility to an unbiased person. I have many friends, alliances, etc, etc and we’ve in the past sponsored stuff just because the folks were nice or we did really well at the show in the past or I knew they were doing something good for the community even if it didn’t directly benefit me. Let someone deal with the numbers, returns and the investment objectively. The downside to that is that your mommy and daddy may decide that the party you want to go to or a playground where all your friends will be at is a ginormous waste of company resources and your time.

To everyone else: Don’t let this discourage you from creating great events and attending great events. This is by no means a conviction of the channel or the showmanship – all I’m offering is the reason why we’re going to stay off the road in 2012 and focus on our partners more instead.

Frankly, I think this is something our partners deserve more than tshirts and I’ve seen firsthand how much the content we’re now generating is being used by our partners and how they are transforming their business with it. If I can pull a large 6 figure budget from the road and apply it to more of what we’ve done this year, I think all of my partners will be happier – and hopefully recommend us to those that haven’t heard of us before that I’ll miss on the road.

As far as I can tell (and this is a separate blog post) the IT business is getting much better in 2011 but it’s certainly not a tide that’s lifting all boats – the good are getting better and the poor are getting jobs. Every day you wake up you have an opportunity to either slide by or do something great – it’s really all up to you.

P.S. Every year around this time folks call me to ask what I’ll be sponsoring next year (as we all seem to have more options and all wonder if the ROI is as bad elsewhere) and I also get calls asking for money. Hopefully this post explains it in some context – Yes, the ROI is terrible with a few exceptions and if we want to sponsor your event we’ll get in touch with you.

13 Responses to If you want to see us, call us anytime

  1. Vlad Mazek says:

    Just FYI since some of you emailed.. We’re still going to be at 5-6 shows next year.

    So don’t worry, you’ll see us.

    And pretty soon you’ll be seeing a lot more of us 🙂 Stay tuned.

    -Vlad

  2. Vlad,

    I really enjoyed reading this post. It makes me think about what shows to attend and what ones not to attend. I would rather invest my travel dollars into seeing my clients and working with their people to make them better consulting firms.

    On a personal note, I like attending some of the shows to see my long time industry friends. I hope to see you on the road sometime in 2012.

    Stu

  3. Amy says:

    I like small conferences, the smaller the better. I’m there to connect with vendors not to be sold to. If you want to sell to me send an email. If you want my feedback and input and to hear how the market perceives your product be present in the vendor hall and the hallway of a small conference. Vendors should not see these events as sales opportunites but rather as product development events where you can really reach out and get real information.

  4. Vlad Mazek says:

    @Amy I like smaller conferences too and I’ve done the product development/testing at even larger ones. At times, that was the best use of the time/money mostly because we were disorganized in terms of handling development feedback and feature requests. Now all of that is not just public it’s also voted on by our partners who actually test it, prove business cases, etc.

    That said — event attendance is absolutely all about lead generation and sales. Each of these events is at $5-10,000 for a vendor just to show up. Like anything else in business, if you’re spending $ on a marketing activity you need to be able to make it back. But when you’re seeing the same person over and over again or are meeting college student or there is nowhere near the number of people at the event as were promised it becomes a business matter quickly.

    -Vlad

  5. Vlad Mazek says:

    By the way, there is an excellent response to this from my buddy Matt Makowicz here:

    http://vartrek.wordpress.com/2011/10/24/what-vlad-got-wrong/

    We’re going to have to agree to disagree about the perception attendees have of the vendors and I would suggest that it has to do with who you talk to. I’d be more than willing to make Matt sit in our booth and try to talk to random attendees who are just casually surfing for swag – there are a lot more of them out there than serious businesses which just goes back to the argument I made about the shows unqualified attendance.

    I also disagree with his other objection indirectly – yes, there are many great events – and whether there are TOO many of them is a subjective opinion. When I get calls from companies that had one or two shows a year and now they have 10 without having anything new to say.. Like i said, this is just my opinion.

    As for saying stuff that nobody else is saying – just about everyone on the show circuit is saying this. We’re constantly comparing each others notes, traffic, interest level, lead quality, etc.

  6. I’ve spent time in various booths over the years, and you’re right Vlad about the variance of quality of attendee. The attendees I’ve spoken with about the vendors are the one’s who you’d want to talk with (mostly)…

    The attendee quality is a big issue at some events. Ben Yarborough from Calyptix put it best. He said “I’d rather have 100 qualified partner prospects than 200 people wasting my guy’s time.”

  7. Vlad Mazek says:

    The words “attendee” and “partner prospect” should also be cleared up. If you’re advertising 100 partner prospects and ask $5000 for the sponsorship fee, thats $50/attendee which is not bad at all.

    However, when you discount for:
    … nonshows
    … 3 people from the same company
    … that you couuonted vendor staff as attendee

    And realize that out of 100 people you actually have 20 potential partners to do business with the cost of that event is $250/attendee. And even if you have a killer response rate the ROI will be damn near impossible.

    That said, I don’t want to be too harsh on the shows. You can’t make people show up. Attendees will lie for a free vacation and a 2 person shop will generate 10 million dollars in revenue per year. Things change at the last minute, weather, flights, etc. I am practical, which is why we’ve continued to sponsor a ton of stuff somewhat out of “Hey, this is still the best way to get leads” and somewhat out of “They’ll figure out a way to fix it”

    But after sitting on the sidelines and going to I think 11 or 12 events so far this year, I can tell you that it’s both worse than you think and that partners are responding much better to other forms of training/collateral.

    -Vlad

  8. Jeannine :) says:

    I think this is an interesting post…I actually appreciated it. I needed to rethink my event spend in 2011, while at the same time work hard to plan an event that brought the best ROI possible to participating sponsors. So I had a razor sharp focus on where I felt real ROI was to be had… and also made sure I baked those deliverables into IT Nation.

    I also appreciated the importance of the unbiased perspective. I think it’s important to remember why we’re spending the money we’re spending – to spend time with partners and potential customers, not our friends – that’s a nice to have when the opportunity presents itself, not a must have.

    Net net, I do still find the face to face community the best place to engage with our partners, and potential partners, so I’ll spend the money – maybe less of it, but I do see value in the conduit.

    Bold and interesting post pal.

  9. Steve says:

    Wow, this definitely treading in some bold territory. I think I have a unique perspective on this as someone that worked in the channel and as someone who is building a new company. Yes Vlad, I have less than 10 employees and I have attended these events. We are 6 months old and needed to invest into those shows for one reason, after 5 years in this business at a large MSP it made sense for us to attend these meetings for one reason only…the free t-shirt. No seriously we needed to attend to ensure that we got the face time with our vendors, ensuring that our little voice was heard and we had a relationship we could count on.
    There have been 3 events, 2 with ASCII and 1 with SMB Nation, this year we attended that helped us immensely. The trick with that is being able to keep your eye on the ball and develop those relationships. I agree that some people attend to get free beer and say hi to friends, while others attend to get free chotchkis, I took the time to attend to develop those relationships. I couldn’t afford too, I couldn’t take the time off but I had too to make sure I developed the relationships I needed to ensure we were successful. It was a must for me. I did this while focusing on bringing in new clients and engineering my own company up. It allowed me to develop a competitive and complete solution while building my business and I couldn’t have done it without these events and I couldn’t have done it without the right partners taking the time to work with me.
    I will say that some of the vendors at these events do nothing to engage people, and yes I saw your booth. Some of them sit there and look bored, when you ask them something it was more of a bother for them to respond and they didn’t look they cared. That is a turn off and made me walk away from more than one vendor at these events.
    If you aren’t getting the results maybe you need to look at which people you approach and why, also expecting people to come to you and buy from you is a bit naïve. Look for the right partners that can increase your business while you help them increase theirs, we are usually on the phone while walking around and in my case we are outside smoking half the time and while nice, we dont care about the chotchkis.

  10. Vlad Mazek says:

    @Steve,

    Good for you man, I hope you stick to what you’re doing and what’s working for you. My post was not meant to discourage you from doing that, only to explain why we can’t be at all the events — consider the problem of it being too expensive and too time consuming that you have. Now multiply each of those by a few thousand dollars and same time away from the office that the vendors have and you see the predicament we’re in.

    Everyone has to make a decision on the best way to spend their time and their money. I don’t know if we work together yet, but imagine what you’d say if I called you all the time to see if you’re going to buy something soon. That’s kind of what the position the vendors get put into.

    Make no mistake, the results we get at some of these events aren’t a factor of the people we employ or products we have as much as they are a factor of being in a crowded room with a ton of vendors where the whole point is to bill us. If the people or products sucked they wouldn’t sell anywhere – to anyone.

    Great points and I appreciate them, but I hope you can appreciate our perspective.

    -Vlad

  11. Steve says:

    I do appreciate the perspective and even understand it. The issue as I see it is where you spend your time and what you invest in.
    I appreciate when the CEO is there and get more done.
    I actually walk away when the booth is staffed with interns that are bothered to be there.
    We arent partners and probably would have been if you had been at one of those events 🙂
    -Steve

  12. Vlad Mazek says:

    @Steve God damn it, I knew I should have been there. So did you talk to Steve Balmer or Larry Page while you were at SMB Nation, I would love to talk to you if either of those guys that sell comparable products stop taking your calls 🙂

    -Vlad

  13. Arlin Sorensen says:

    Vlad

    Very thought provoking and solid post. As someone who tries very hard to put on two solid vendor events each year, you have nailed some of the realities in the marketplace. There are too many shows, at least from the vendor perspective, because you are expected to be at all of them.

    Solution providers and MSPs belong to a variety of communities and groups and aren’t faced with the literally hundreds of shows that are available to the vendor community. I agree, even though most SPs and MSPs have a more limited menu of options than a vendor does, they should not attend any event just for the sake of something to do. If it doesn’t drive their business they should stay home and be working on it.

    We at HTG are completely focused on driving ROI to our sponsors and supporters. And equally important, providing real tangible value to our members. If those two aren’t in alignment we have to make changes to make it so. Our goal is a quality set of vendors and members who are willing to build relationships and have conversations. That is what we focus on – creating an atmosphere where people can succeed on both sides.

    Running trade shows is a challenge to be sure we stay fresh and continue to add value. We are evaluating ideas and will be piloting some ways to increase the interaction, and relationships, in 2012 and beyond.

    Thanks for the thoughtful and very insightful post. Great food for thought as we make plans for next year.

    My advice to solutions providers and MSPs – know why you are going to any event – have an agenda ahead of time and a list of people you want to connect with. Spend your time doing that. Relationships are the real value of these events. You can get content lots of places. The face to face opportunity is the real value.

    – Arlin

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