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  • Antony Reeve-Crook

Doing away with Pay-to-Play

According to the recent UFI & Explori Global Visitor Insights Study, which used multinational data from more than 13,000 trade show visitors, audiences are bored by the traditional trade show model. A quarter of American visitors said the events they attend are actually getting worse. They want events that are less sales-led, more engaging. In UFI CEO Kai Hattendorf’s words, “the ability to source new ideas and solutions is most closely correlated with overall visitor satisfaction”.

To counter this disinterest, exhibitors want more creative brand engagement solutions from organisers. Look at the preamble that led to the cancellation of Cebit and Interbike, and the withdrawal of Swatch Group’s 19 brands from Baselworld, all of which saw lead exhibitors ask the show director to be more inventive, to provide means of engaging their audience that couldn’t be measured in square feet. It’s the reason why suppliers such as Freeman and GES are evolving into full-blown experience specialists.

The model hasn’t changed, but the audience has. So how can we go about accommodating them? I have been covering this industry’s successes and failures for a decade now, and the more I try and predict how events will adapt in the next three years, the more I am drawn to the fact that we should be looking at how the publishing industry overcame its own sea change.

Many of the world’s leading trade show organisers grew from multinational business publishers. It wasn’t a big leap for companies such as United Business Media (UBM) or the Daily Mail Group (DMG Events) to gather their advertisers and place them in a large room instead, with exhibition stands and sponsorship taking the place of adverts, buyers taking the place of readers. Publications with an overseas presence had an open door to replicate these events using their little black book for that region too.

When print revenues slipped into seemingly unarrestable decline as the readership moved online and advertisers sought to reach them there instead, companies presumed the medium in which their adverts were printed would simply switch from ink to binary.

But it didn’t. Instead a backlash against advertising and soliciting emerged and rapidly went into full swing. Adverts could be dodged, windows closed. Browsers subverted the model by halting pop-ups, allowing ad-blockers to conceal adverts destined for a third of potential customers using personal computers or smartphones, as they sought to improve the user experience in a manner that had not previously existed. According to a 2018 report by eMarketer, 32% of users in Germany, 28.7% in France, 25.2% in the US and 22% in the UK enabled ad-blocking technology this year.

The line between commercial and content

The problem for advertisers bound by tradition is that when the well ran dry, they quickly found themselves seeking a drink elsewhere, and before long they arrived at the fresh water river of editorial.

The role of a good publisher, is to keep these two apart. I’m not prone to making analogies, but here’s a good one. Advertisers don’t belong at this river; they muddy the water. Muddied water sends silt downstream, and when this deposit eventually reaches the surface, the river will cease to flow; it soon becomes stagnant and drinkers leave in search of fresh water elsewhere.

In trade shows, this is the inexorable result of what we like to call pay-to-play, and it’s something we can’t afford to do, not if audiences are increasingly depending on our events for education, inspiration, perhaps even accreditation. Events are evolving, enriching, but to pass off advertising as bonafide content is to deceive the very community that you claim to serve. And if it’s not good enough for successful publishers, then it’s not good enough for successful organisers. If a speaker stands onstage and spouts slogans, or a workshop directs participants to hand over their emails, this discredits and devalues our events.

Of course, this is taking a rather naïve stance. Subterfuge is clearly a solution. While an advertiser cannot rightly authorise the content, they can request exposure in exchange for a parallel, bountiful, advertising campaign. But how long can this fast-buck culture last? Not long, if you’re paying attention to the headlines. Exhibitors want better solutions than this. Have we forgotten our roots in business publishing, the desire to provide a community with engaging, genuinely informative content?

Chris Day, the senior marketing director for both MJBizCon and associated publication Marijuana Business Daily, recently told Steph Selesnick (my collaborator on The Exhibitionists and regular contributor to this blog) that you have to come at it from a very clear credibility standpoint.

“Most of our editorial and programming team come from a traditional news background, that’s where they were before they came here; I come from ad agencies,” he explained. “We’re very clear on who does what. So when I work with a partner or a sponsor, it’s easy for me to say there’s no pay-to-play here, that I’m not guaranteeing them any kind of seat, and actually if they name-drop me to the editorial team, it’ll probably hurt them more than it will help them.”

Selesnick, a former organiser herself, points out that the pay-to-play model should be ineligible for speaking arrangements at events. “It’s bait-and-switch, if you have something to say, say it. If you want to share knowledge as a supplier, then there are places to do that properly, to show that you’re a thought leader. Educate people so that they want to do business with you as opposed to proclaiming you’re the best.”

Just as today’s culture of click-bait and pop-ups has led browsers to provide ad-blocking software, the role of a organiser is also that of an ombudsman, curating the content and ensuring falsehood and thinly-veiled solicitation is kept from the stage.

Going further with your creative solutions

However, removing pay-to-play is just one part of improving the visitor experience at trade shows, and there are other ways for exhibitors to tap into content in a way that keeps the water fresh. To quote Day again, “Creativity emerges once people get over the notion of ‘what do you mean I can’t just have a spot onstage?’. Do it in a way that engages folks whether its on the show floor or engaging people elsewhere, instead of doing the same old boring thing.”

In online publishing, the space vacated by traditional advertisers soon allowed viral marketing, multi-platform, multi-media campaigns and influencers to flourish (cold shiver, but who could have expected a six-year-old YouTuber to net $11 million last year just unboxing toys). Companies started thinking about what they could really achieve with this exciting new medium; they stopped trying to apply traditional thinking to a non-traditional medium. Well, the successful ones did; for every Netflix there was also a Blockbuster Video that completely failed to grasp the medium.

To my eye, and in my experience, several methods will cross over to tradeshows from publishing quite nicely. Click-bait doesn’t naturally transfer to trade shows, but contributing to research, funding initiatives that add value – not logos – to the event will be well perceived. Aiding visitor immersion through enriched experience and supplying the means (accreditation programmes, education) to improve the visitor journey would afford exhibitors some stakeholding in the event that extends beyond the flimsy walls of their booth.

Technology also broadens the offering of course, largely because it introduces actionable data and therefore insight that didn’t exist before. A digital presence also gives exhibitors an online space to engage the community they’re after, but it is not the be-all and end-all that was feared a decade ago.

When you combine large-scale organiser consolidation with large-scale event collapse, as is seemingly the case in our industry, a trend appears; there are going to be a lot of smaller shows with tremendous reach. And smaller shows are a lot easier to reimagine than large ones, so let’s keep an eye on those that are experimenting, get back to the drawing board and keep our exhibitors and visitors, advertisers and readers, coming back for more.

So when it comes to covering 2019’s events, I hope I can find plenty of success stories that warrant waving in the face of doubting marketing executives. The exhibitor pays the bills and I hope this is the year of giving them what they want.

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