By Chris Brown, EVP Conventions & Business Operations
National Association of Broadcasters
Research is always full of the good, the bad, the ugly and the subject-to-interpretation. No doubt there is nothing that beats good data for making a case, but there always tends to be a few ways to look at things; and the data we collect on the business-to-business exhibition industry is no different. For example, CEIR recently released a report titled Exhibitions Deliver Unique Value Not Provided by Other Marketing Channels. I love the premise because we tend to spend too much time shaking off comparisons with other mediums, particularly the Internet, when we should be more focused on the dynamics of our medium that make it special.
What is our biggest differentiator? We are about real, live interactions; we are THE face-to-face medium, and that is something the Internet or print advertising simply cannot possibly refute. The only other sales approach that involves real, live interaction is the personal sales call, and with respect to how we stack up against that alternative we can point to our other major differentiator – we aggregate . . . people, interactions, communities; and in so doing we are far more efficient.
The combination of the two – face-to-face and aggregation – is extremely powerful, and based on the results shared in the Exhibitions Deliver Unique Value report (which is drawn from the Changing Environments of Exhibitions study) it is good to see that marketers recognize this. According to the report, when asked what statement they feel best describes the unique value of exhibitions, six out of 10 respondents selected “ability to see a large number of prospects and customers over a short period of time;’ while roughly one-half selected ‘face-to-face meetings with prospects and customers’ (51 percent) or ‘ability to meet with a wide variety of players face-to-face: customers, suppliers, etc.’ (47 percent). This is further evidence, that despite the overwhelming influence of the Internet on modern communications, people – and more importantly, business people – still value human interaction. But we’ve always known this whether instinctively or because this is the business we chose.
What the data doesn’t go on to reveal, is that there are also many unique benefits derived from the dynamics the face-to-face opportunity creates; you might refer to it as the “serendipitous” side of our business. Case in point: for the show I help produce, the NAB Show, we always measure what sort of buying occurs that was never planned; meaning, the cases where a buyer just happened upon a company that was never on their radar, or a product; or on the flipside, the exhibitors that meet hundreds of real potential buyers that were never on their list. Typically at any given NAB Show, nearly one-third of the buyers attending plan purchases from companies with whom they had not done business before; and 60% tell us that they purchased or plan to purchase products that they had little or no interest in before attending the show. They discovered these companies and products at the show – live, face-to-face. These are results that are hard, if not impossible, to replicate in the web-o-sphere or on a piece of paper.
That’s the good news. The other side of what we see in the report is that our medium is still fighting an uphill battle on a couple of other fronts. Only 26% of the executives that responded selected “ability to demonstrate new and existing products and services” as the statement they feel summarizes the unique value of exhibitions. To the extent this signals that marketers are looking at business-to-business exhibitions less and less (26% isn’t nothing, but it is a significant drop from the 50-60 percent for the top answers) as a primary platform for launching new products, I think this is potentially disturbing news. It could be that the Internet has had an impact here. Certainly more and better information is available at the touch of a keyboard than ever before, and we are hearing more from buyers (power buyers at least) that they “expect” immediate information – that they are upset if they arrive at a show and learn of something new for the first time. “New” has always been one of the main drivers of attendance at our shows, so I would suggest that we as individual organizers, and as an industry, could benefit by focusing more attention on how we reestablish our value on this score.
Perhaps even a bit more troubling is that near the very bottom of the report’s list of statements related to what makes exhibitions unique is this: “is more time and cost effective than sales calls or visits.” Only 15% mentioned this. Ouch! This may be dredging up an age old subject for our industry, but from my perspective, this points out that we have not done a good job of watching the cost-value equation. Obviously a good percentage of our customer base feels that while shows deliver a good and unique return, they are not necessarily considered a good value; which really means they are considered expensive. Many years ago there was absolutely no contest between the cost of obtaining a sales lead via a business-to-business exhibitions versus through a sales call. The gap was more than five or six times in favor of shows. That gap has narrowed considerably, to the point where exhibitors are more inclined to consider proprietary events, road shows or just plain investment in sales resources as very cost-effective alternatives to business-to-business exhibitions. We need to take a hard look up and down the industry at what has driven up the overall cost of participation. This represents a real and growing threat to the long-term health of our business.
Happily, and coming full circle, the one element that we know will never change about what we do – at the core anyway – is we put people together face-to-face; and this sort of human interaction is still valued and extremely important . . . probably more than that it is built into our nature. We can’t go wrong doing what we are doing. But we cannot rest on our laurels. We have become expensive and the world is definitely changing. We need to evolve, we need to adapt, we need to focus not only our unique value but on the ultimate bottom line value (real dollars and cents return) we deliver.