The Changing Face of Face-to-Face Marketing

The face of America is changing. It is getting younger. The mighty ranks of the Baby Boomer generation are dwindling against the rising tide of their children, the Echo Boomers, also called Generation Y. Historically, trade shows were the primary tool used by businesses for sharing information, networking, gaining industry specific education, and staying up-to-date. Many executives continue to cling to this obsolete, Precambrian vision of tradeshows and refuse to believe the world could be anything but flat.


The face of America is changing. It is getting younger. The mighty ranks of the Baby Boomer generation are dwindling against the rising tide of their children, the Echo Boomers, also called Generation Y. Historically, trade shows were the primary tool used by businesses for sharing information, networking, gaining industry specific education, and staying up-to-date. Many executives continue to cling to this obsolete, Precambrian vision of tradeshows and refuse to believe the world could be anything but flat. The old, content laden, information driven philosophy is dying a painful (and painfully boring) death.


Enter generation Y. Generation Y includes those of us born between 1977 and 1994, are just turning 30, and in seven years we will inherit the earth and constitute a majority of the population. And, hold on to your seats… because these new boomers are beginning to take the reins and steer corporations from administrative and leadership roles (check out the blog ‘young people who rock). This changing of the guard means changing the way we do business.

In a recent interview with Smart Meetings magazine, Phil Goodman, President and CEO of Generation Transitional Marketing, describes the different psyche displayed by generation Y. “They like one-on-one personal communication.” “They are basically more optimistic than Gen X; they like challenges. You don’t command them, you collaborate with them. They want a work/life balance.” He also describes Gen Y as self-inventive team members who often get bored in meetings (Read the Article).

As a member of the up and coming generation I resent the conception that Generation Y “gets bored in meetings” and that we have somehow devolved from upright humans into hunched creatures sporting casual short sleeves and even shorter attention spans. Taking advantage of a 20 minute layover in a bustling international airport, I chewed on the mildly bitter notion. Meanwhile, I glanced up at CNN playing on the flat screen above me, checked the text messages, voice mails, and missed calls on my Blackberry, turned on my iPod, connected wirelessly on my laptop, instant messaged a friend in New Zealand, and began pulling up research for an article. And it hit me. Maybe Phil Goodman was right. We do interact with the world differently. Trade Shows will have to change too.


In his article, “Trade Show Reality: ‘This is This,’” featured in Motivational Strategies magazine, Jim Kilmetis pines over the bygone glorious trade show days of yore when the isles were all carpeted with golden fleece and packed with eager, party-going attendees who toted heavy purses and fat budgets that burst at the seams and overflowed with sparkling gems. His lamentations include several observations that help explain the shifting focus of tradeshows. By his account, trade shows were the main source of up-to-date information, the main source of continuing education for a specific industry, and an invaluable method of relationship building. As Kilmetis hints, this type of trade show is in its death throws.

As for the out dated notion that trade shows are the main source of up-to-date information – forget it. A trade show maybe a good place to launch a new product, but to say that you need to fly across country to hear about it is just shy of ludicrous. The amount of information and the ease with which it can be obtained via internet is staggering. In a historical context, there is no parallel. Many grad students never even visit a library. I would venture that given a computer, an internet connection, and five minutes most 12 year olds could find something as inane and obscure as an up-to-date population estimate of Timbuktu, Mali. It should not be a problem then, finding specs on the new iPhone or Toyota Prius. Today there is a vastly expansive sea of continuously updated content that exists, quite literally, at our fingertips.


There is more damning news for trade shows. The days of cheap travel have “vanished like a fart in the wind” (Shawshank Redemption). Soaring gas prices do not equal happily soaring jets. “Jet fuel prices have changed the whole business model, so we don’t have any history to draw on here,” said Joe Schwieterman, a Transportation expert at DePaul University. A report by reports that many airlines are facing bankruptcy (read the article). And with bankruptcy looming dark on the horizon, airlines are looking for ways to pass those costs on to the customers. American Airlines and United Airlines have both implemented extra surcharges for previously free services like checked baggage. Southwest had hoped to make it through 2008 without significant price increases but has been forced to concede to the mounting pressure of rising fuel costs (read the article). Schwieterman concludes that, “at some point, air travel will just have to be 20% more expensive.” What does all this mean for trade shows? The costs of rocketing fuel prices will cut deeply into already tightening travel budgets.

What about Kilmetis’ assertion that trade shows are an invaluable method of relationship building? He points out, “Today’s younger generation is far more comfortable building relationships through e-mail, instant messaging, text messaging, facebook, etc, etc, etc.” Our networks are increasingly being bound by the invisible chords of cyberspace and cell phone frequencies. Face-to-face is facing steep competion.

The prognosis for trade shows seems dire at first glance. Vital signs are failing and the old prescriptions don’t work. The remedy is not more of the same. Companies must adapt to survive. However, the new face of trade shows is not bad news: its just new news. And new news is fantastic news for companies looking to reposition themselves at the pinnacle of their industry.


People don’t need to go to trade shows for updated information. True. Thankfully though, there is a big ‘but.’ The ‘but’ is that companies still need to an exciting way to release information. An internet release of a PFD file is about as sexy as kissing your grandma. Posting the specs on the imposing 6,262 cc V12 Ferrari FXXis well and good, especially for analytical engineering types. But the majority of the population is not aroused or emotionally engaged by numbers. Instead, they are turned on by the FXX’s cherry paint, deep contours, smooth curves, and the guttural growl that revs into an 8,500 rpm scream. Though technologically enthralled as the echo boomers may be, first hand experience of a product confers knowledge and understanding that transcends factual data. This experiential advantage is denied websites and afforded to trade shows and other industry specific events. It is irreplaceable.

Rising travel costs and tightening budgets does not mean you should stop marketing (“Marketing in a Slow Economy”). If fuel is a resource in short supply, then efficiency is a boundless renewable resource. In Buzzmarketing, author Mark Hughes, discusses the necessity to create ‘buzz’ around your product. You need to do things to get people talking. He cites studies that conclude word-of-mouth marketing is the most trusted form of advertising in our marketing saturated society. Even better news is that word-of-mouth can be achieved for free. Live events like trade shows offer a face-to-face high-impact touch point to begin a ripple effect that can spread far beyond the initial contact. A study by the Event Marketing Institute describes 3 zones of influence created by events:

  • Attendee Zone: it includes visitors, viewers, engagers, and leads.
  • Influence Zone: it includes people who heard about the event second hand and is, on average, 4 times the number of the Attendee Zone.
  • Viral Zone: it includes all people touched by word-of-mouth, web, and viral influence and is 10 times larger than the Influence Zone.

Focus on spreading the impact of your event far beyond the event itself to achieve maximum marketing efficiency and make up for rising costs. If attendance at a trade show is low, it does not necessarily follow that the number of people touched by the trade show is also low.

David Clayton has been a critical observer and student of social networking behavior of the Echo Boomers’ collegiate lives as they move on towards the professional world. He is Director of Campus Ministries at Lipscomb University and has offered some insights into broad the effects of virtual networking. “It has changed the way we build relationships.” But has it changed for the better?

“Our fascination with technology has actually brought us to the point where we are trading in real relationships for artificial ones. I remember walking into one of our dorms this year and there were 15 guys in the computer lab, everyone of them chatting with someone on Facebook, yet no one was speaking to each other… We have traded in what is real for that which is not.”

This is why states that Generation Y is “the loneliest generation.” There exists a dearth of intimacy. Banking, work, chatting, and even dating can all be done online. And if you didn’t mind ordering in everyday, you would never even have to leave your cave. But as in the Plato’s allegory of the cave (The Republicbk. VII, 516b-c) offers some hope for marketing events. Once someone has entered the light of day, he will not want to return to the dark illusionary world of a cave in which everyone has created their own realities. Developing face-to-face personal business relationships at trade shows lends a sense of intimacy, trust, and emotional connection not offered by detached virtual relationships.


John Roberson, president of Advent, a marketing firm based in Nashville, Tennessee reveals his vision for the new trade show model that maintains focus on the unparralelled effectiveness of face-to-face. A staffed trade show exhibit used to exist by itself as a perfectly sound marketing strategy. “The traditional trade show model is too passive,” states Roberson. “You have so many ways to get connected.” Roberson advises that rather than viewing the internet and technology as an enemy, instead we need to embrace that technology and aggressively target Generation Y. Technology and virtual communication can be used in conjunction with traditional face-to-face approaches to create a seamless harmony.


“The event has become ‘the middle.’ It is only a part of an overall strategy,” states Roberson. Pre-show touch points should include emails, texts, and blogs in addition to traditional mailers. The oft neglected post-show follow ups are a vital component of maximizing your ROI. Videos, pictures, and promos from the event can all be sent via email and all make memorable impressions on the attendees.

Regardless of the advantages of getting virtually connected, Roberson is clear: “Its all about face-to-face.” The event or the trade show itself is the crowning capstone of the overall strategy. “Face-to-face marketing is the most effective form of marketing out there,” says Roberson. Don’t believe him? A study released by UCLA states that an astonishing 93 percent of communication effectiveness is determined by non-verbal cues (read the article). That means that anytime you text, email, or instant message you are losing a devastating 93 percent of your effectiveness. That face-to-face interaction is what will stir the emotions and loyalty of your audience. It is the same tool that will increase the effectiveness of your event and spread the impact far beyond that initial contact.

An article on by Paul Gillan of Exhibitor Online compliments Roberson’s philosophy. He writes, “Blogs and podcasts won’t detract from or compete with your events. In fact, these online juggernauts can give your marketing efforts a serious cyber boost – at little or no cost to you.” (Read the article.) He discusses how O’Reilly Media posted content from their Emerging Technology conference. Detractors complained that attendance and ticket sales would suffer. But event marketers rejoice! Low and behold, the opposite was true. Actual attendance rose significantly and overall exposure to the event grew exponentially due to the internet’s massive virtual audience.

The trade show is not dead. Face-to-face marketing remains the paragon of efficacy. But it must change in order to fulfill the needs of a new generation. There is an encroaching wave of short attention spanned, tech loving Echo Boomers sweeping towards the business world. In order for event marketing and trade shows to survive these new conditions, they cannot duck-dive under the wave. It is not a passing fad. Instead, marketers must drop headlong into the curl and ride it all the way in.

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