But things started to change about a year ago. The qualified leads that we had become accustomed to gathering at search shows started drying up. Even though the exhibit halls were jammed, the people rushing through them weren't prospects that we were remotely interested in talking to. Instead, it seemed that more and more we were talking to nothing but in-house search people, or people who spent so little on search that we couldn't help them.
What happened? Well, it seems that the show managers decided that they had to offer "something for everyone" to goose their traffic. The result was a smorgasbord of content offerings designed to appeal to everyone from the experienced PPC professional to guys who just discovered that they can buy keywords from Google.
You can't really blame the trade show guys for deciding to serve up diluted gruel to the masses: after all, their main obligation is to provide growth in the form of traffic, year after year, for their investors. But the result for exhibitors -- who pay the shows bills -- was devastating. Because as anyone who's attended these shows will tell you, today the majority of people who actually show up on the exhibit floor are either bottom-feeders seeking to acquire free memory sticks, pens, and other goofy giveaways -- or flat-out newbies seeking to pick up some "secret SEO tips" at a level-101 "search boot camp" session. Sophisticated C-Level influencers with budgetary authority? They huddle in the conference sessions and avoid the show floor at all costs, viewing it as a noisy, sales-crazed zoo. In fact, you'd have a better chance of meeting one on the subway than in the exhibit hall.
The thing that really bothers me is that just about everybody in the search industry is aware that the trade shows rarely produce any ROI for the folks that support them, but nobody wants to admit it. It's almost as if there was some grand conspiracy at work silencing any frank discussion. A couple of months ago, there actually was a candid discussion about shows that appeared on one of the industry's more popular online bulletin boards, and it turned out that the real reason that people kept going to the shows was to schmooze with their buddies. "It's all about networking," wrote one of these people. "That's where the real action is. And it's also where I hope to get my very next job (wink, wink)."
Wonderful. We as an industry are spending millions of dollars each year to subsidize a bunch of people who like to party late into the night, guzzle mojitos and trade business cards. Not only is this wasteful, but we're actually enabling the kind of rampant job-hopping that has made it so hard to keep qualified SEM professionals working at our own companies. Furthermore, the shows themselves, chocked with tips-and-trick sessions whose whole purpose is to prove that "SEM is something that anyone can do," is actually undermining the agency value proposition.
This isn't just crazy, folks; it's suicidal. Furthermore, you'd think that search marketing agencies, who preach all day to their clients about measurable, efficient media spending, would be the last ones to spend money on inefficient, unmeasurable junkets with negative ROI. You'd think that their clients would realize that all the expensive parties they sponsor and the huge fees they pay for booth space come out of the client's pocket. You might even think that in the world of the Internet, where information is truly at your fingertips and networking increasingly occurs across social media sites, there would be no need for the circus-like trade shows at all.
But then you'd be overestimating our intelligence and maturity as an industry. After all, why should the sane, frugal rules we preach to our clients apply to us? We're such special, rocket-science smart people, after all: don't we deserve to get together a couple of times a year and have a super-expensive party at our clients' expense?
Sorry, folks. I'm not buying it. Just like on Wall Street, this party is over, and while search trade shows might have been a luxury that this industry could afford in the flush times of yore, it's high time we give up this bad habit. If we want to be taken seriously, it's time to practice what we preach, avoid waste, sloth, drunkenness and gluttony, and find a more efficient way to find prospects. Maybe it's through e-mails, or cold-calling, or virtual trade shows, or maybe even some PPC ads, but there's got to be a better way to reach the people we're trying to reach.
I don't know what the answer is, but I do know that in this new age of frugal austerity, search trade shows have seen their day, and I for one will not be missing these wanton, wasteful bacchanals.