Better Trade Shows

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Remember that mobile, networked, multimedia rich future that debuted at the Consumer Electronics Show (“CES”) early last month? That’s good, since it went away pretty much the day the trade show closed its doors. It’s back to the less awe-inspiring present for all of those visionary manufacturers, hopeful retailers, and fawning media.

There has to be a better way to deliver and use trade shows, doesn’t there?

Events have beginnings and ends, by definition, which is a problem in an era of constant, ongoing communications. The past isn’t so much history as it’s forgotten, so even a huge trade show like CES is mostly irrelevant before the booths have been knocked down and shipped to the next gig. Shows are a glimpse into an artificially constructed moment in time, disparate from other moments, and disconnected from any longer-term dialogue…however conversations might be conducted between manufacturers, retailers, consumers, and the media.

A great CES tells us little more than everyone involved knows how to put on one helluva trade show.

Imagine if CES weren’t a series of discreet annual events and instead bookends for conversations that went on all year long (or were bookmarks in a multi-year dialogue). How would that change the way the participants approached and used it?

Here are some starter ideas:

Manufacturers: The huge opportunity here is social media. CES could be a part of an ongoing dialogue, begun many months prior when stakeholder groups opted-in to campaigns about upcoming products and their potential benefits and uses; the trade show wouldn’t be the place to underwhelm the cosmos with announcements of upgraded latency speeds or new smart phones, but rather an opportunity to move those conversations forward by a leap instead of a step; newly-energized dialogue would continue after the show, with manufacturers providing more information, sponsoring more ideation, and explicitly encouraging consumers to buy their gizmos.

You could take most of the fun, entertaining, and marketing-centric social campaigns that they fund and simply switch them off.

Retailers: They could redefine the sell-in process. Retailers have a bum deal these days, as direct selling has enabled a competition they can never win, and the Internet allows such information transparency that they can’t hope to charge price premiums. All they possess that’s unique and unmatched my any other channel are 1) geophysical display space, and 2) real-live employees trolling those aisles. So why not create more explicit an expansive ways for brands to access these tools? Flip the funnel, so CES isn’t about retail buyers locating product but rather manufacturers competing for the best utilization for retail space and people?

You could take the MDF and other extortion that retailers exact from brands in order to perpetuate a doomed system, and apply it to end-user programs that actually made a difference.

Media: Be critical. There’s never any real “news” coming out of CES (or any trade show) and if there were the attending media wouldn’t discover it. They’re there to be advocates and to celebrate the glitz; worse, the bloggers who go to the show have a vested interest in perpetuating the fantasy that CES matters (gizmo sites reporting on cool gizmos) or are paid outright by manufacturers and/or retailers to work on other programs (primarily social media campaigns). How about using the event to foster a real conversation, filled with substantive and honest analyses of what’s going on, what’s working and what isn’t?

You could take the cheerleading nonsense about the future of which manufacturers dream and replace it with a compelling narrative of how we all see it actually coming to be.

These ideas could be applied to any trade show, not just CES. Do you know of any that are embracing such innovation? Seems like the time has long since passed for them to get better.

(Image credit: Toronto Trade Show)

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