“What does information age mean for future of trade shows?”

Written by Dell Deaton. Originally published in print edition of Marketing News (a bi-weekly magazine of the American Marketing Association [1], ISSN 0025-3790, April 27, 1998) at 714 words.

In light of the changes we’ve seen in information delivery in the last year or so, it’s reasonable to wonder about the future of physically sited, time-sensitive marketing. The short answer to the question is that trade shows are likely to take on an even greater importance in business-to-business marketing in the 21st century.

This prediction is not despite the latest revolutions in technology but rather because of them. Advances in digital image manipulation and speed compromise marketing and sales in four areas: Credibility, focus, competition and time. Trade shows solve these problems.

Credibility is perhaps the newest and most significant factor to differentiate trade shows from other media. Video has developed to the point where it’s virtually impossible to tell the difference between fact and fantasy. Build-up time used to be a limiting factor; now the creation of fiction is much closer to real-time. That may be an asset for theatrical releases, but it can severely compromise your work in commercial purchasing cycles.

Executives rely on credible information for serious purchasing. Buyers still depend on their ability to walk up to an exhibitor’s booth and watch a machine in operation — confirming an extended, zero-defect run with their own eyes and touching finished products with the same hands that ultimately will sign the purchase order. Their livelihoods depend on “reality.”

In addition to needing to trust the marketing, you’re faced with more choices. Your suppliers aren’t just domestic these days, and your staff has been downsized — and the lean and mean survivors are no longer experts in the areas related to the choices they face. The need to focus is greater now than ever before.

Does data coming in over the computer help much? No, the work is compromised by distractions; those who begin the vendor identification process on-line complain of constant interruption. Offices today are deluged with information — via voice mail, e-mail, overnight mail, faxes, express packages — and lots of redundancy.

Information technology advances have brought all this. But trade shows provide a way to concentrate on key decisions through an environment characterized by “immersion diversion.” Without distraction, attendees are totally engaged and attentive to their industry issues.

Trade shows also deliver a dynamic system through an arena of competitive interaction. Electronic media replace more-comprehensive industry overviews with the tunnel vision of screen-by-screen thinking. Print advertising often has been described as one-way communication. Web interfaces have been heralded as ushering in an age of dialogue — but that’s what trade shows have offered all along.

Something’s still missing: The competitive element that drives marketing machines — companies that compete with the suppliers you work with, and your own competition.

No other marketing medium creates a marketplace. This one is constantly in motion, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. While some try to time trade shows to optimized industry buy cycles, I have seen exhibitions create that timing. Product introductions were delayed so they could have maximum impact at “the” industry event. Purchasing decisions were accelerated by what buyers now saw on the trade show floor.

Timing always has been a traditional strong suit for exhibitions. Busy executives on both the buyer and seller side historically have carved out time to deal with one another at trade shows. They know the central role of the face-to-face link; trade shows easily beat one-at-a-time treks to customer locations over a calendar year. An electronic information superhighway can’t address these issues. A fixed time and place also force the coming together of buyers and sellers unlike any other marketing medium. This can be a godsend in an era of information overload, where the most common decision is to “decide later.”

The notion of a specified time and place may seem limiting, given the everywhere, around-the-clock promise of the Internet. But here’s the rub: It is just a promise. Dialogues across time zones are no more real-time than any other communications outside of office hours. Inquiries that can’t be addressed through fixed on-screen menus must wait in a queue.

That takes us back to the opening question. The answer: In the 21st Century, trade shows will become an increasingly vital, competitive vehicle for business. They will be the engines necessary to deliver results on the broader marketing reach provided by the latest revolutions in technology.

  1. Dell first became a Professional Member of the American Marketing Association in 1991.