Do We Really Need Virtual Trade Shows?

2020 10 Virtual trade shows suck.jpg

A pandemic-era marketing manifesto

In the 1990’s internet provider America Online introduced virtual singles bars – chat rooms in various geographic areas where like-minded single people would meet and mingle.  The obvious goal was to try to replicate the in-person interactions online – creating a virtual Regal Beagle of sorts.  Today, those types of chat room dating platforms are about as popular as a 28.8K dial-up modem.  Singles looking for love no longer get placed in a chat room with 47 other people.  They use apps that create a series of short 1-on-1 evaluations and possible 1-on-1 interactions.  This method fosters quicker dismissals, stronger connections and allows participants to better determine which connections to pursue.

The Industry Trade Show

Large scale industry trade shows have been around for decades.  Both the Las Vegas Convention Center and Chicago's McCormick Place were built in the 1950's to facilitate such exhibitions.  In-person trade shows consistently deliver value to both exhibitors and attendees.  The appetite for in-person lighting trade shows is generally strong throughout the industry.

When we consider some of the most memorable aspects of the Industry Trade Show, they are often connected to the 1-on-1 interactions we have with other people.  The people with whom we attend.  The new people we meet.  The booth exhibitor who showed us that cool new product.  The engineer who was beckoned to address our super technical questions.  Our former coworkers.  Our old friends.  That amazing lighting person we've admired for years and actually got to meet.

The 1-on-1 interactions mean so much.  When attendees engage in good 1-on-1 interactions, the surrounding chaos of the trade show is tuned out.  Without those valuable, in-person 1-on-1 interactions, it's nearly impossible to replicate a trade show.  Or a singles bar.


Questions Surrounding the Virtual Trade Show
  • Is the notion of bringing an in-person experience like an Industry Trade Show online flawed?
  • Are the in-person dynamics of an Industry Trade Show so unique that it’s nearly impossible to replicate a similar experience online?  
  • Are there superior solutions that could foster better connections between the brand and its customers?  We think so.

We recently wrote a review of the Acuity Brands October 2020 Virtual Trade Show which highlighted “8.5 Cool Features of the Acuity Brands Virtual Trade Show.”  We meant every word of it.  If an organization is going to put on a virtual trade show, we recommend replicating Acuity Brands’ best practices.

Furthermore, if we were in the board room of a 35+ brand lighting company, discussing how the pandemic is handcuffing in-person sales and marketing efforts, we probably would have considered the notion of a Virtual Trade Show to be an idea worth exploring.

But is a Virtual Trade Show really what the Customers want?
Customers travel from all over the region – or the globe – to attend various in-person trade shows.  There’s often many benefits to them for doing so.  In today’s world of Zoom sales calls and webinar fatigue, the benefits – and accompanying willingness of the customers to engage in long-form vendor-sponsored content seems more limited.

Ask your customers:

  • What are your favorite sources for work-related information?
  • To what associations do you belong ?
  • What social media platforms do you use most?
  • What social media accounts (lighting related or not) do you enjoy the most?
  • What email subscriptions do you value most?
  • Aside from required meetings, how many discretionary vendor webinars would you want to attend in the ideal week?

And then take that information to drive a multi-platform marketing campaign:

  1. Go where the customers are.
  2. Provide them with bite-sized content that sends a quick compelling message consistent with the brand.
  3. Repeat over and over across multiple platforms.

B2B no more.  It’s now H2H.

With salespeople mostly sidelined, Marketing is even more important during these pandemic times.  The 1-hour Zoom infomercial has seen its day.  The 30-minute Zoom infomercial is on the decline.  A big part of marketing and selling today is getting your customers’ attention 15 seconds to 2 minutes at a time.

In recent years, the best Business-to-Business marketing strategies have been morphing into Human-to-Human marketing.  Increased isolation caused by the pandemic might be magnifying the need for good H2H marketing engagement. Some examples:

  • Customers appreciate it when brands talk like an actual person.  They show vulnerabilities and behind-the-scenes peeks at what really goes on at headquarters or in the factory.  They tell stories rather than promote sales pitches.
  • When Vode Lighting sent us a marketing email about fixture customization, the email subject read “No pickles, no onions, extra cheese.”   We opened it, read it and remembered the message.  An hour later we received another company’s marketing email with “NEW Multi Head Downlight 1,2 & 3 Head Available” in the subject.  We didn’t open it.
  • More and more lighting people are creating work-related social media accounts dedicated to their professional persona.  This is not a company account – instead it’s an account for Suzy from XYZ Lighting.  This allows for further engagement with professional colleagues while keeping her personal social media shenanigans separate.
  • Instead of creating superbly produced 12-minute product videos, individuals are producing informal short form videos with messages about products and brands – and posting it across multiple platforms.  Maryland-based lighting agent, Lighting Environments, has many well-produced videos on its Instagram feed, but our favorite one is the unboxing of the Prudential Lighting PruCove which included some interference and admiration from Fluffy the cat.
  • Why don’t we see more videos of people taking hammers to vandal proof fixtures?  Or perhaps a pumpkin dropping on a prison sconce might be more festive in October.  Or what about jets of water -- or a pumpkin spice latte -- splashing against that IP-67 fixture?  Or someone chucking a basketball at the high bay.  Would that resonate with your customers on social media?   (IMPORTANT:  Please take proper safety precautions, under proper advisement of your company's safety and engineering teams.)
  • Companies are building and using their email lists to target messages to customers.  Building social media platforms is super important, but LinkedIn, Instagram and the social other platforms don’t belong to you.  That is rented land.  Your email list belongs to you.  Leverage the strength of it.
  • Sam from Lytei is becoming a favorite in specifier circles for providing concise, informative and sometimes entertaining videos about lighting products.  He even helped one architectural brand with a recent live launch that built suspense, interest and a big reveal.
  • Everything doesn’t have to sell.  We loved this Father’s Day image from Focal Point – a light-bulb themed post from a company that doesn’t make light bulbs.
  • Focus on the user experience.  Show the reaction of the customer when he dims the lights – or when she turns on that lovely fixture.
  • Speak in terms of what resonates with your customers.  Do you really think "Manufacturer Moday" and "Factory Friday" product infomercials get customers excited?  Instead, interview a contractor, specifier or distributor for 90 seconds asking why she selected a certain fixture for a recent project.  Then roll out that inspiration across 7 platforms in a way that doesn't feel like a commercial.

All marketeers know that one strategy alone does not achieve business goals.  Budgets are limited.  Customers are harder to reach.  Pandemic obstacles are abound.  Employ a multi-phase, multi-platform approach that works best for your brand.  Use a healthy mix of short-term marketing (promos, new product launch, upcoming event) with longer-term marketing (repetitive branding, quality, your brand USPs and values.)

And unless your lighting customers are clamoring for a virtual trade show, please consider investing your marketing efforts in other areas that better resonate with the customer base.



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October 13, 2020