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As a 25-year veteran technology public relations pro, I've been to Comdex more times than I ever want to remember. I've also seen untold millions wasted by lemming-like companies chasing greater market awareness at this trade show. The Comdex herding instinct seems to overpower all reason. Partially to blame are marketing and sales people who migrate from jobs with huge companies to jobs with smaller ones. The trouble is, they think the same promotional tactics that worked when they were at IBM, Intel, HP or Cisco will work for new companies. Small- and medium-sized marketers attempting to create awareness at Comdex are about as likely to succeed as someone holding a picnic in a hurricane. "Cash for splash" yes, but can anyone hear a splash in a hurricane?<

My basic recommendation for average size or new companies is: "zig when the mob zags," or "if you can't run with the big dogs, try running somewhere else." In marketing, thinking, acting and appearing differently has proven paybacks. Today Comdex is overgrown, just as the old National Computer Conference before it became too big for exhibitors to benefit. It's especially wasteful of small companies' marketing dollars, which can't anti up the requisite mega-bucks to break through the ever louder noise level.

Every year I'm amazed at the brainless techie trek to Vegas for the Comdex trade show. Although the business climate for many tech companies has changed with the current downturn, Comdex exhibitors persist in spending like drunken sailors. I received more ammunition yesterday from a nice woman doing PR for Comdex. She arranges the marathon press conferences for exhibitors. Her words were to the effect of, "last year start-up company XYZ's new widget attracted the attention of ABC's Peter Jennings." My response, had I bothered, would have been, "and they had to go to Comdex to do that?" (or) "How many other little companies spent tens of thousands to exhibit, travel to, stay and suffer through a week in the corner of The Las Vegas Convention Center, without a decent lead or a bit of publicity to show for it?" Couldn't they have created a well-targeted direct mail, Web promotion or PR program for the same amount for far greater effect? You bet your cost-per-thousand!

One of my theories about the "Gotta Go to Comdex Syndrome" is that it's caused by sales and marketing managers who previously worked for large companies which regularly (and perhaps successfully) attend Comdex. Now they believe that similar results can be achieved on a miniature scale by the new start-up they just joined, because their product is SO COOL!

Another is that these people like having bragging rights by being able to say, "our company just showed its stuff at Comdex." Finally, there's the truly nuts theory, which I've often heard repeated, that, "if you don't go to Comdex, the competition will tell everyone your company is out of business." Right! Especially when your competitors see your new advertising, direct mail, Web site and publicity campaigns paid for with cash saved by NOT going to Comdex. What's especially crazy is these same small- and medium-sized companies, which are ready to blow big marketing dollars on Comdex, are too often the same ones that haven't budgeted an appropriate investment for consistent marketing communications for the rest of the year. These are the same the brilliant marketers who expect and ask their agency to get them ready to go to Comdex, or some other trade show, with perhaps 10 days or two week's advance notice. Better still, they expect them to arrange press relations for them with no news to deliver. This happens WAY too often. Can you say "seat-of-the-pants marketing," or "strategy-du-jour?"

There's a real lack of marketing imagination among companies shooting their promotional dollars at Comdex. What have the big guys (Intel, HP, Microsoft, IBM, et-al) finally figured out that seems lost on everyone else? Comdex's self-serving message is "as the technology industry gets bigger and bigger, companies have to get louder and splashier in order to be noticed." Yeah, everyone should buy more booth space than last year. I recommend using less money more imaginatively on better things than five days at the "Vegas Hot Air Storm."

A large percentage of Comdex exhibitors are business-to-business marketers. They don't sell to millions of people, but hundreds or perhaps thousands. So why spend (or "invest," as Comdex says) $250,000 to $1 million in a single promotional venue of questionable value?

For example, one recent year semiconductor maker Conexant appears to have been separated from well over $1 million to get their message out to a relatively limited target audience. Just how many people in the world does Conexant think purchase or recommend buying computer chips? For a reported $500,000 open bar, I'm sure everyone had a great time, but not that many design engineers who are going to buy Conexant's chips were in the drinking crowd. Likewise, the pre-show press briefing was like spitting in the wind. Aside from asking about the poor turnout at this press gathering, did anyone look at who the media people are that write about semiconductors? As someone who's worked with over a dozen chip clients, I can confidently tell you, most of them probably weren't in the room. It's far less costly to contact them any other time and tell your story than spending hundreds of thousands during insanity week at Comdex.

Most media people I've spoken to are blown away by the marketing waste. If you want to create some media attention, and have lots of extra money to throw around, how about donating a million bucks and some volunteer help to a major relief effort, or some other high-profile needy cause, instead of to the trade show fat cats? Doing well (promotionally) by doing good humanitarian work is a far better investment in positive awareness. It'll get you far more than one story in a trade publication.

Considering how many bucks are dumped at Comdex, marketing managers ought to have a fairly precise understanding of what they're buying, not just "we think it's worth it." The belief by many tech marketers that the best way to let it be known that “we're a hot company” is by blowing a bundle at Comdex, is dead wrong. A great Web site, consistent public relations, and direct mail campaigns are far more cost-effective ways to get the message out. They lack glitz, flash and monster budgets, but then the idea isn't to enrich trade show promoters or rock bands.

In a recent SF Chronicle article John Inglis of American Show Management tried to make a point about network TV advertising costing more than going to Comdex. But how many Comdex exhibitors would benefit from such broad-reach advertising? Most sell to computer buyers or users with specialized needs who can be effectively reached through well-focused magazine or direct mail ad campaigns. His comment about going to Comdex to get media attention is 180 degrees off the mark.

There's probably no better way to insure NOT getting press coverage than to publicize around "The Comdex Scream-Fest." Getting your innovative products noticed would be far easier by doing something else, like a well-timed and targeted press tour. Comdex has long out-lived it's value to many companies large and small as a good way to get noticed. When are they going to get a clue?

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
image of Ford Kanzler

Ford Kanzler is principal at Marketing/PR Savvy, a public relations and communications firm.

LinkedIn: Ford Kanzler