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”)
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.
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.