Several weeks ago I teamed up with Doug Fox of Event-Web to deliver a joint session at the midyear educational conference of the International Association for Exposition Management in Chicago. The feedback from attendees at that session was so overwhelming (more than half the class stayed an extra hour to continue discussing the topic) that I thought I should write about it here.
The controversial point we started with, and the topic that kept the audience in their seats well past ending time, is that show organizers need to reverse their thinking about the relationship between a show and its Web site. Right now, probably every show organizer in the world believes that their Web site is simply an adjunct to the show. But I argue that the show is simply an adjunct to the Web site. In other words, the Web site represents the real value, and should be the primary recipient of our attention and business efforts. The show itself will eventually drop to secondary importance.
Totally wacko, eh? Perhaps, but hear me out. The Audience, Not the Show First, let's return to an argument I made in an earlier column. In the November/December 1998 issue, I wrote that show planners are not really in the event planning business, but rather, they're in the audience capturing business. (Visit TM's Web site www.meetingsnet.com to read archived articles.) In other words, the only reason to hold a show at all is because it draws an audience. And that audience directly or indirectly pays for the cost of the show plus some profit margin. But the important point here is that it's the audience that matters, not the show. The show is only one means for capturing that audience.
The Internet gives us another method. And in some respects, it's far more effective. First, the Internet is available around the clock. Second, it's accessible from anywhere in the world with a computer and a phone line. Third, it's infinitely deep and wide, i.e. it's not limited by available floor space or hotel rooms. And finally, it's much cheaper to deliver content on the Internet than it is to do so at a show.
We should be using the Web as our primary tool for building and maintaining our communities, and repositioning the actual show as a periodic physical get-together for the community we've already nurtured online. Because our goal is to create communities of interest, we need to shift our attention to the Internet's long-term community-building potential--and the competitive necessity of using these new technologies to preserve our current positions.
Attendees Do Online Research There is a rapidly growing practice in the business world of using the Web for research on products, services, and of course, trade shows. A large proportion ofattendees now research shows on the Web, and make their attendance decisions based on what they see.
That means your audience is looking you up online and deciding on your show (in competition with every other show Web site) long before you ever get to impress them at the convention center. If you've spent the previous year attracting that audience to your Web site, and drawing them into your community, then getting them to your show should be easy.
The unavoidable implication of these trends is, I believe, that show organizers need to focus on their Web sites as their primary audience-building tools (and of course, learn to make money from the online audience--more about this in the next column). The show itself can then become the one-time celebration and physical gathering point for the community that your Web site has already built, and profited from, throughout the year.