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Who's the Attendee? Who's the Exhibitor? Who's Creating the Content?

Posted on July 11, 2006

By Rich Westerfield

The traditional exhibitor/attendee/speaker model of shows/conferences is all but kaput. 

"What?", you say.  Why there are still a number of very successful shows out there that continue to use old models that are very successful.

True enough.  But we think you'll be seeing those shows start to disappear very soon.  Big shows built on the traditional model typically draw audiences that skew older (except CES, of course).  They are not bringing in new blood to replace the growing number of their attendee base that's retiring from the workforce.  Thus, extinction is on the horizon.

And we're about to explain why.  Enjoy the ride.  And if you disagree, feel free to comment - that's why we're doing this, to start a dialogue.

Industry consolidation, the aftermath of 9/11/2001, broadband proliferation and just good old-fashion American entrepreneurism have conspired to create a scenario where home-based small businesses are booming and more corporate bees have side gigs that help them stay sane.  More people are consultants and independent contractors (full time and part time) than at any period in history. 

And more consultants means there are more people exerting influence over what products are bought, even though they're not doing the actual buying.  That's a big part of what consultants do.

Blogging, along with sites like About.com, Squidoo and ChangeThis have also helped create a whole new breed of experts.  Name a subject, any niche, doesn't matter how small.  You have about a 99% chance that there's an "expert" publishing a blog on it today.  These people may or may not be actively consulting (some make a living from ads on their sites) but they are also important influencers, usually called "opinion leaders".  Get these folks to your show and lemmings will follow.

In short, what we now have are millions of people who should or could be attending events but can't be classified as primarily an exhibitor or an attendee.  They're both - and all three when you consider potential speakers. 

These folks are interested in selling their services (or at least increasing their influence), but they're not ready or willing to plunk down $2800 on a 10x10 space to do so.  They're interested in learning things at conferences, but not willing to spend $1295 for a three-day conference when they really only need four sessions, a floor pass and an invite to a couple of networking receptions. 

So they do what anyone in their position would do, submit speaker proposals in order to get free admission to the conference and full networking privileges so they can buttonhole their short list of top prospects in the hallways and at the bar.  Surprised?

This trend has been building since the mid-1990s zeniths of events like Comdex and Internet World (who?) when it seemed every fifth attendee was actually a budding CEO or CTO of start-up internet companies - potential exhibitors/attendees/speakers all in one.   That's why the parties at most tech and tech marketing events became more important than the show itself.

With the convergence of internet technology into all areas of life, the line between who's an exhibitor and who's an attendee has blurred further.  With the possible exceptions of poster sessions and seminars that offer CEUs, relevant content can pretty much be created by anyone with an interest in the subject at hand.

Let's use me as an example.  I've often thought about exhibiting at IAEM.  Not sure what I'd showcase in my exhibit since I offer services from copywriting to show management to internet marketing consulting, but with my 20 years of knowledge of our industry I know I'll get very little new information from walking the floor or sitting in sessions that I haven't already received prior to the show from talking to people.  The value of attending IAEM for me is the conversations I have with other attendees.  The networking.

Why don't I exhibit?  That's simple.  It's the expense.  I know that many of the people I want to meet are not walking the floor analyzing the exhibits just for the heck of it.  And they're not looking at pre-show mail.  The only way to reach them before the show is to get them on the phone or through email or messaging to set up an appointment.  But why does that interaction have to be at booth?  Why not the coffeeshop in the convention center lobby?  Why spend $2000 or more on a display and space?

Every industry consultant does exactly the same thing.  And without all those consultants walking the floor, IAEM's attendance would plummet.  Trust me on this.  Consultants know how many other consultants are in the room.

IAEM is not unique.  Many, if not most, shows are in a similar predicament. 

But the rise of the consultant is not the biggest threat to the traditional show model.  That threat is the public in general.  They are increasing distrustful of mass marketing.  And increasingly discontent over the content they're being asked to watch and read by traditional media.  Especially those under 30 who've begun to learn that by raising their collective voices and combining their collective talents, they can almost willfully create their own entertainment and educational environments, walled-in though those environments may be.

In the period of just one decade we've seen the emergence of the public from a more-or-less willing stooge to be broadcast at to becoming active participants in the development and publication of content.   Some call it citizen journalism.  But most of it isn't journalism.  Most of it is more like an ongoing audition, whether as a writer/columnist through blogging (or podcasting), a video director through YouTube, a potential platinum recording artist through MySpace, a business development guru through any of the thousands of mash-ups being created or a coding wunderkind through some new open source project.

Let's consider a couple of the more notable and utlitarian success stories:

Wikipedia is the second-most visited reference site in the US (although #1 globally) and closing in on #1.  It has no advertising.  It's content comes from people like you.  It pays its bills through donations from people like you.

Craig's List is the seventh most visited English-language site in the US, trailing only Yahoo!, Microsoft, Amazon, AOL, News Corp. and eBay.  It's content is advertising - for the most part FREE advertising from people like you.  It pays its bills by charging below market rates for classified and help wanted ads placed by businesses.  But there are no Google ads or banners.

Movie attendance is down.  DVR rentals are down87% of DVR users skip commercials.  Local search has become a viable alternative to newspaper and yellow page advertising.  Personal publishing site Blogger had the largest percentage growth in usage of any major site last year.  The closed garden of MySpace was right behind it - once the favored community of musicians and teens, it's now attracting businesses and professionals.

And Open Source seems like it's everywhere.  Flickr for sharing photos.  Planzo and Eventful for sharing calendars.  del.icio.us for sharing links.  feedmap.net for sharing maps.  And many others.

It's not a secret that there's a growing animosity towards marketing.  At least towards marketing that's not relevant to this person at this very moment.  Banner ad buys are falling.  Contextual ad buys are rising.  Where most blogs (reading) failed to generate significant ad revenue, podcasts appear to be doing well, possibly because of the (listening) delivery system.  And users of sites like YouTube, iMDB and popular vidcast sites don't seem to be too put off by ads, although we don't know the actual returns that advertisers on these sites are generating.

It's not just the animosity towards advertising that is behind the creation of new communication and marketing models.  It's the antipathy toward much of the pre-programmed content that's out there.  If you haven't noticed, there are a lot of unemployed television writers out there.  Every network, including just about every cable niche network, has a stable of cheap "reality" shows where audience participation is a part of the deal.

While the open source movement was created to counter the growing influence of Microsoft, much of what's happening today has nothing to do with Microsoft.  And in many circles Microsoft isn't even viewed as public enemy #1.  The open source movement has grown to include content production (see: Creative Commons).

The generations entering the professional workforce demand influence.  If they're not happy with what they're seeing through their media, they'll create their own content.  At the very least they seem to demand interaction with the people producing the content, either through ripping on/supporting their favorite shows/products in blogs, satirizing them on YouTube or CurrentTV or voting for American Idol.

They first wave of "citizen journalists" have already exerted influence on newsrooms at the major networks and leading newspapers.  They've been followed by a generation whose "right to personalized content" has been the driving force in the continuing growth of reality shows as well as the trend toward alternative endings of DVD releases (to make them similar to the video games they grew up with).  Soon they'll be creating their own events - which we're seeing happening already on a small scale as with MeetUp and a larger scale as with Gnomedex.

So how do you plan shows and conferences that will satisfy this generation while keeping your bread-and-butter "traditional" attendees and revenue streams content? 

We have three days left to explain.  See you then.


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