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Should suppliers pay to speak at tradeshows?

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: February 26, 2018

In the past year I have been invited to speak at two different, but equally prestigious tradeshows. Both attract an audience of my ideal clients and both are free to attend. But my invite to speak came with a catch, the organisers would love to have me speak … if I were only to purchase a stand at the event.

Now, let’s put this in context. As one lovely salesperson at one of those events made clear to me, the “buy a stand to speak” rule mostly applies to suppliers, especially “niche” ones. If you are a buyer or have already made your name, the floor is yours. If your business is in making buyers’ lives more comfortable and more successful, come with cash in hand, please.

Honestly, it is understandable. The truth is that suppliers go to tradeshows with selling in mind and the Return on Investment at any of these shows should easily outstrip the initial investment. Notice the “should“.

There are never any guarantees. Personally, I have seen some sessions at tradeshows where the speaker has obviously done everything they could to attract an audience (and probably paid a big chunk of their annual marketing budget for a stand) only to end up speaking to about three people, one of whom thought this was another session and only stayed because they were British.

And of course, if you are a smaller supplier, the likelihood is that your time in the limelight (if speaking to three people and a few moths can be seen as the limelight) means that noone is there on your stand. What you gain on the possibility of landing new business through speaking, you are losing in opportunity cost.

While I understand the underlying mathematics and logic of linking buying a stand with speaking, the speaker and buyer in me is growing sceptical. As a speaker, I know for sure that a need to sell will kill any talk and, if you have paid significant sums to speak, it will be tough to erase the need to sell from your presentation. Few speakers manage it and so encouraging a “buy a stand to do a talk” model is probably not in the interests of any tradeshow audience, who are there to learn, not to get the hard sell.

As a buyer (and yes I have looked to buy from companies I have met a tradeshows), I really want to see education and selling treated separately. Yes, buyer education is part of the sales process but I personally walk away from any presentation where the two get confused.

If you learn something from someone, you may wish to buy from them. But there is a difference between going to a talk to learn and meeting them with the intent to buy.

I am sure that there are lots of success stories of business people laying out the cash to speak at tradeshows and seeing success. But I have yet to read one on the website of any show. I am sure that there are cases of the pay-to-speak system opening paths for speakers who wouldn’t normally have even gotten near the stage at a big show. But again, I have yet to read one. And I wonder how many excellent speakers it is actively putting off.

Instead, I have read several speakers write rather bluntly and disparagingly about the practice. I have come across stories of people deciding not to attend a show at all when they found out that paying for a stand was a route to getting a speaking slot. I know of one show which saw less footfall last year and can’t help wonder if their “buy a stand to speak” policy had something to do with it.

As a trained researcher, I have to go with the data and at the moment, I haven’t seen any data that shows me that “buy a stand to speak” is in the interests of speakers, their audience or the bottom-line. I would love to see such data. But for now, if I am invited to speak, I will reflexively check if I have to buy a stand. And if I have to buy a stand, I will simply walk away, knowing that there are other, less financially onerous ways to get excellent content to potential clients, especially with excellent organisations, such as Hashtag Events, showing that the practice is anything but universal.

The Danger of Single Example Learning

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: August 17, 2016

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At most events I have been to, I have observed the same pattern. The speakers who get the best reaction from the audience are the ones who speak from their own experience and tell great stories. As a professional speaker myself, I know that this is completely normal and there is a lot to be said for this approach. As a researcher and events professional, however, part of me wonders whether we might be setting ourselves up for a fall.

 

To understand the danger of learning from the experience of one person, we need to understand a very basic research concept. If you want to research a phenomenon, there are two broad approaches. The first is to look really deeply into one particular example.

 

The advantage of this approach is that you can draw a wealth of information and can uncover insights that would simply not be visible any other way. A really good example is that of a researcher friend of mine, Jiqing Dong, who looked at communication inside a single interpreting agency. The depth of her analysis is incredible and it offers some amazing food for thought.

 

The disadvantage of going deep is that you can never be sure that you have found something that is valid in any other situation. Sure, you might discover the secrets behind this single event drawing crowds of thousands but how do you know that those same secrets will work for you or anyone else?

 

An alternative approach is to look at several examples on a more superficial level. The classic example of this is a survey. Hardly a day goes by when someone doesn’t want ten minutes of your time to get responses on your social media habits, political affiliation, response to a website redesign or something else.

 

The advantage of going wide is precisely that, if you have done your work properly, your results will tell you something about general trends and principles that apply to a large number of cases. Researchers can and do generalise on the basis of representative surveys, which allows us to know things like the fact that the whole discussion over “what Millenials want” is a load of nonsense, as any generational differences we perceive are simply continuations of existing trends.

 

The disadvantage is, of course, that in drawing from many examples, you have to limit the amount of information you get about any one example and often, you also have to limit the range of responses. You might learn, for example, that your twitter posts get more clicks if they go out between 6 and 7pm but you won’t know what people were doing at that point or their emotional reaction to the post.

 

All this is a rather long way of saying that, if we fixate on the insights of one person and on their experience, we can fall into the trap of trying to extrapolate from their experience to our situation when the two are not at all linked. Sure, there might be a corporate conference company turning over £150 million per year but their techniques might not apply to a sole trader wedding planner.

 

Stories of “how I did it” are fun to hear and read but they might not actually give you anything more relevant to your work than a case of the warm fuzzies. Much better to gather a number of case studies of people in similar context from you and learn from a multitude of counsel. While no two examples are the same, the more we look for patterns and trends, the more we gain relevant insights into our own work