Wither Tradeshows?

If there’s one thing that I always loved as a Product Manager, it was a trade show.

No, really. All you other Product Manager can stop scoffing. It was a chance to get out of the office, to take a break from arguing with the development team. I got to meet not just customers, but honest-to-god PROSPECTS, people who might buy my product but haven’t or won’t. I got to check out the competition face-to-face and shoulder-surf a demo of their product. Heck, I even did a bit of networking to line up potential future jobs.

But the trade show has fallen on tough times: Novell Cancels BrainShare Conference After 20 Years. Apple announces its last year at Macworld Expo, no Jobs keynote. Attendance at conferences like SD West and JavaOne is way down from their glory days during the 2000-era bubble. Travel costs remain high, making it hard to get a compelling ROI on trade show lead generation while web- and email-based lead generation tools are better than they’ve ever been before.

So what’s a Product Manager to do? Stick around the office all day and stare sullenly at your half-finished MRD that lacks compelling user stories?

One – start your own conference. Eloqua (where I used to work) started their own user conference, Eloqua Experience. Eloqua isn’t a huge company – their customers number in the hundreds, not the thousands. But the product becomes the primary tool for the marketers that purchase it, so Eloqua has an incentive to get really deep with their users to help them be successful with the product and to try to understand what they need to do to make the product better. And since Eloqua is a Saas product, keeping customers happy and getting them to renew their contracts is incredibly important. Holding your own conference is a huge investment of both money and the time required to organize a big event, but it can pay off, both directly (it’s not hard to run a profitable conference) and through improved engagement with your customers.

Two – find an “adjacent” conference. If you can’t go to Brainshare, maybe a Microsoft conference would be the next best thing. Assuming you have the budget of course.

Three – find a new way to generate leads. If you’re going to a trade show just to scan badges and collect business cards then let me be the first to tell you that you’re behind the times. Web-based lead generation is far less expensive and far more effective than trade shows. And please don’t tell me you’re still running magazine ads too. I mean, how hard is it to start your own magazine these days?

Four – dedicate more time to making old-fashioned phone calls. Call small customers. Call big customers. Call everyone that dropped out of your sales funnel last month. I don’t think telephone calls can ever replace the much higher value of a face-to-face conversation but until it’s back to the good ol’ days of fat travel budgets, do what you can.

And finally, skim a few dollars out of your budget to buy some stupid tradeshow swag to hand out to everyone in the office. Nothing improves morale like a ceramic shot glass with your logo or a squeezable foam kidney.


7 responses to “Wither Tradeshows?

  1. First time I’ve visited your blog. Very cool. Great content with experienced insight. I have to agree (which I suppose is why I like it) with this post. I suppose part of the reason is that ActiveConversion is an SMB focused version of Eloqua so to speak, and we have similar views.

    You’ve put product management into a different light – a much brighter one.

    I always knew PM was a big career move at places like Microsoft. With what you guys cover here, I can see why. It can make or break a software company. A great combination of business, marketing and technical views.

    I will be directing others to this. And try to follow your advice – spend some time in product management.

    Thanks for doing this. Fred.

  2. Regarding point #3 – generate leads. Definitely! And you can do that by producing a virtual tradeshow. I’m blogging about virtual tradeshows at http://allvirtual.wordpress.com/

  3. So, not to be rude, but I have never been a fan of virtual tradeshows. We ran a few at a previous company and they were a) too much technology for what was essentially a web page with chat and b) no one came to them. Look at regular tradeshows – you get out of the office, you get a meal budget for restaurants, you get squeezie toys and, oh yeah, you get to check out a bunch of product demos. Attendees get a ton of perks. There’s not much with a virtual tradeshow that you couldn’t get by simply checking the vendor’s website. From an attendee’s point of view, I just don’t see any reason to bother with them.

  4. Ah, since you plugged your Beta article on the CPM’s blog today, TURNABOUT IS FAIR PLAY.

    Check out the Cranky PM’s post on the worthlessness of Trade shows here:

  5. Ethan: sorry to hear about your prior experience with virtual tradeshows (VTS). My experience has been quite different (not surprisingly). The VTS that I’ve participated in had industry expert presentations – and I had the opportunity to chat with those experts right there in the environment. Also, VTS providers have been doing prize giveaways that match what you’ve come to expect at physical shows (e.g. iPod, GPS, even flat screen HDTV’s).

    As for “no one came to them”, I think it’s key to partner with the right web sites or media companies (in your space) to help drive the audience demand.

  6. Count me in the “loves me a tradeshow” group. Why? For all the reasons mentioned + free drinks. And it seems the worse/nerdier the target attendees, the more free booze. I was at a trade show in San Fran last spring for network security vendors. Total nerd herd, but folks like McAfee put $$ into crazy after-parties at really nice venues with DJs and an open bar that could mix a nice Manhattan. It was like the clubbing scene at the beginning of The Matrix, except with actual professional hackers – not nearly as an attractive group as in the movie, and much less prone to hit the dance floor. Go figure.

  7. It’s not exactly deep or meaningful, but I too liked the free booze. And the parties… the 2000-era JavaOne parties were huge. Human foosball. All sorts of nosense. I went to one show in Texas that has a rodeo party complete with a bullriding ring in the middle of it all.