Being an exhibitor at mid-level conferences

06 April 2007

We're reeling a bit here at DX Towers: we've just exhibited at five conferences in a month. I've been jokingly calling it "conference season" but this was more like "conference blitz". Nobody had to do more than three conferences, since there were a couple of times when we simultaneously did two conferences at once, but even so. Despite the fact that exhibiting can be exhilarating and you feel pumped up meeting people and showing off the good stuff we have, when it's over you crash for a couple of days.

After this set of "mid-level" conferences (I'm going to define this as between 500 and 1500 attendees), we're taking a good look at what they're doing for us. After all, it costs us time (say, four days) and money (several thousand dollars) and resources (two, maybe three, people) to attend one of these mid-level conferences: what are we getting for all this outlay?

1. Goodwill. This is the biggest benefit for which we can provide no dollar value whatsoever. Meeting people on the exhibitor floor at your booth, engaging with them, giving sway t-shirts or CDs, chatting about what they're doing, and how your products may help them (or, equivalently, may not) is invaluable. It's networking if you like. My philosophy is that if you are open and likeable and are not trying to force them to buy your product, you will probably be remembered down the road when the potential customer needs advice or some software. Nevertheless, it's impossible to get to know more than a few people during the exhibit hours and it's nigh on impossible to quantify the value in doing so (any sales that may accrue may only happen several months later).

2. Visibility. Another good one for which it's hard to quantify the benefit. Existing customers feel comforted that Developer Express are exhibiting: it shows we're still around and active (and solvent enough to be able to pay to exhibit, I suppose). Potential customers, who may have seen one of our ads, or have heard about us from someone else, are reassured that we do really exist and are doing business, and the more new customers we reassure and encourage, the better our growth.

3. Demonstrations. No matter how we structure and write our documentation, seeing a product being used makes you want to try it. Obviously, the more pizzazz the demo has (and, yes, CodeRush and Refactor! Pro lend themselves to this very well, but XAF does extremely well too in this area), the more wowed your audience will be, and the more likely they will be to buy later on. And with demos, versus the personal one-on-one, you will at least get to present to the majority of the attendees. Plus, with demos we sometimes get invaluable feedback on existing and possible new features.

4. Meetings. Conferences are sometimes an ideal occasion to meet with our contacts at Microsoft, our resellers, and other vendors. We generally have at least one such meeting per conference, sometimes two or more. In essence, these face-to-face meetings with our business partners are free -- after all we're already there. Even in this age of instant communication, don't underestimate the benefits of actually seeing a business partner in the flesh and learning market insights directly.

5. Sales. We don't sell at the booth since we have no physical product. All our sales are online from our website or from our resellers. So in order to track sales due to our exhibiting we make use of such strategies as giveaway CDs with a discount code or that contain a special URL to link on. We also track sales to see if there's an uptick after a conference. An increase in sales from exhibiting at a conference is possibly the only quantifiable metric we have.

Of course, having laid all this out, I'm sure that you see the majority of intangible benefits I described above are achievable without going anywhere near an exhibit hall. For example, in many ways demos are probably better done as 8-minute screencasts downloadable from our website. You can pause, go back, watch carefully in comfort. The only negative aspect is that you can't ask the presenter a particular question right there and then: a recording doesn't answer. Similarly, visibility is achievable by releasing good software regularly, by publishing blogs, by getting satisfaction from support. Goodwill is realizable by being open with customers, by admitting mistakes, by making good problems that occur (even in the most well-run organization). And so on.

So over the next few weeks we'll be monitoring the only quantity we can, sales. If there's a visible uptick (or, worse, a downtick), it'll help us make decisions about whether we'll do as many, or more, mid-level conferences next year.

Of course, the big conferences, like TechEd and PDC, are inviolate: we'll certainly be there and continue to be there in spades.

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