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20 Years Of Tech: Four Biggest Changes In The Exhibition Marketing Space Trade shows and exhibitions have been around as long as selling itself.

By Omar Rahman

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Trade shows and exhibitions have been around as long as selling itself. We've become more organized and more segmented specialized exhibitions allow today's buyers to explore an entire category in depth– but the principle remains unchanged. Our purpose? To trade face-to-face. To build relationships. To explore products.

In 2018 and beyond, the incredible pace of technological advance, the growth of big data and the demand for an interconnected experience have changed forever how this is achieved. As CEIR observe, today's exhibition attendees have two primary engagement needs– people-to-people engagement, and people-to-product engagement.

If the principle is the same though, the execution couldn't look more different. Let's look at the four biggest changes in the exhibition marketing space over the past two decades.

1. Explosive technological advance
Technological advances merit addressing first because the tech landscape is so dramatically different today than it was twenty years ago. Consider how we have witnessed such rapid advancement in the last two decades. Technology disrupts our markets and disciplines regularly with new offerings. As businesspeople and marketers, we must be mindful of this pace and strive to match it consistently to remain competitive.

However seismic the developments though, the intention behind the technology hasn't changed much at all.

Today's tech news speaks of virtual reality, AI and robotics, when twenty years ago you might have been talking about new lighting or the power of digital video. In 2018 and beyond, we can choose from a dizzying range of technologies with which to create genuinely exciting experiences that emotionally resonate with visitors. This allows us to bring subjects to life and engage with our audiences in ways that were simply impossible before.

A 2016 study New Media Display Technology and the Exhibition Experience demonstrates this: owners of the Chinese National Palace Museum identified the need to increase the value of their exhibitions. Presentation of the museum content and artefacts was purely physical, lacking any form of digitization or interaction. So an extensive modernization project was initiated, aimed at digitizing content and bringing about the integration of creative thinking and interdisciplinary technologies such as augmented reality, floating projection and other sensory media.

The sudden adaptation of this new tech gave exceptional results.

Their flagship exhibition concerning East Asian maritime history was a resounding success, winning prestigious awards for its innovation. Of over 54,000 visitors to the new exhibition, 99.4% were satisfied and audience interest rose from 58.9% to 81.6%.

This unique snapshot of a dramatic shift from more traditional exhibition technology to a cutting-edge, interactive design is a telling lesson on how powerful our modern "toolkit' can be.

2. The rise of big data
You'll no doubt have heard the statistic that 90% of all the world's data has been generated over the past two years. IBM estimates that in 2017 2.5 quintillion bytes of data were created every day.

What does this mean for us as exhibition marketers? Simply put, we can understand more about our exhibition visitors than ever before. We can consistently achieve that hallowed goal: the "joined-up customer experience'. Think back twenty years and we barely had the Internet, let alone any way to track people from channel to channel. Omni-channel marketing didn't exist. CRM systems didn't really exist – not as we know them today. We had no way to know how a potential customer had engaged with you, and nurturing visitors towards a sale was far more time-consuming. Today, we can identify, track and progress leads through an omni-channel customer journey from the first moment they engage to the moment they buy.

Truthfully, more people did business on the day of the exhibition twenty years ago because the mechanisms for longer buying cycles didn't exist in the same way. But that meant a missed opportunity was usually missed for good. Today we're able to interact with people in a more complex, multi-faceted way, for longer. That's definitely a positive.

The rise of big data also has another important implication.

Twenty years ago, marketers were not as accountable, because there was less understanding of ways to make them accountable. If your marketing team told you they had done a good job, you took their word for it. At least until your sales figures came in, but even then, there could be a million things impacting sales performance.

Global studies even within the last five years highlight trust of marketers and accountability as key issues, partly due to how decentralized marketing activities become once tasks are placed in the hands of local marketing managers. As a result, proving ROI is commonly a challenging yet necessary requirement– and exhibition marketers are no exception.

Big data has changed how we prove ROI dramatically. Today we can understand and measure exhibition performance through new metrics like social media engagement, direct and organic website traffic, and in-depth satisfaction polling. Now more than ever, we can quickly see what's working and what's not.

We're more agile, which is fantastic news for brands that understand and harness their data. Especially those who are unafraid of using creative experimentation to get the best results.

3. The web of interconnectivity
It's easy to forget that things were ever so different, but twenty years ago puts us before the likes of Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn. Your exhibition audience was, mostly, the same as your real-world exhibition visitors. Word-of-mouth still existed but to a much lesser degree.

Compare that to now, and today's exhibition visitors are part of a dynamic, interconnected community that extends far beyond the exhibition's four walls.

By 2020, the number of worldwide social network users is expected to hit nearly 3 billion – 37.5% of the predicted global population. Global internet users spend an average 109 minutes browsing social networks daily, and the average user has more than 1,000 contacts, friends, followers or connections in total across all networks.

The reach of every social media user extends far beyond themselves. This presents as much of a challenge as it does an opportunity.

Twenty years ago, mistakes could slip more easily under the radar. Moments of poor judgement, lacklustre customer service or outright exhibition calamities tended to be just that– moments. Today these moments can be startlingly incendiary, spreading virally with help from social media and causing extended damage to brands and profits.

But this mechanism can also be turned on its head. Twenty years ago, one moment couldn't have the same transformative impact on brand perception that it can today. Today, news of the fantastic things you are doing can be significantly amplified.

This means investment into exciting new experiences can deliver greater returns if you get them right. The prospect of huge returns is one reason we've seen the exhibition industry explode. In fact, the 2017 CEIR index report predicts 2.8% growth throughout 2018 and 2019, following GDP growth every year since 2009.

The stakes might be higher today, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

4. Shifting consumer expectations
The strategies and tools of exhibition marketing aren't the only things that have changed over the past two decades. You're also talking to very different people who have formed their opinions, attitudes and behaviors in a very different environment.

Namely, the post-digital environment, where the buying experience is easy, fast, personal and flexible.

Today, that means your customers' expectations for service have changed forever, even in predominantly offline channels like exhibition marketing. Consider the much-publicized Microsoft statistic which states that from 2000 to 2013 the human attention span decreased by nearly 35% to only eight seconds. Exhibitions visitors today won't wait around for service.

Perhaps the biggest change is the movement towards experience. Mundane, forgettable brand interactions simply don't cut it anymore. Customers want a memorable, exciting and authentic interaction that stands out from the crowd.

Customers have been conditioned to understand what's possible today, not just in your category or vertical, but overall. You're not only competing with your competitors when it comes to customer experience. You're competing with Apple. With Uber. With Airbnb. That means you must go the extra mile to be remembered, in a way you didn't have to twenty years ago.

Luckily, we have the technology and data today to make those big experiences happen. And visitors have the online reach to ensure those same experiences transcend the exhibition dimension. Exhibitors today are certainly expected to give more, but you can definitely get more back too.

So, what can we learn from the past?

The narrowed limitations of marketing in the past –and the subsequent expansion into new tech and channels– should motivate us to use every new tool and technique at our disposal. Exhibitions and trade shows are as valuable as they've ever been, but the expectation of engagement and interaction means the slow-to-adopt will be left behind.

We now spend more and put more effort into justifying our budgets. We work harder to create a truly exceptional experience, with innovative technology, unique stand design and engaging brand moments. We have bigger, better, brighter ways of showcasing our products and brands – and we need them, in face of more demanding consumers and increased competitive pressure.

But we're still pursuing the same end-game.

The chance to tell people about the products and services we're passionate about; the chance to share our story, listen to theirs, and to build a deeper, more authentic connection to our customers. And hopefully, the opportunity to increase leads, sales and customer lifetime value as a result.

The only major difference is that the stakes are higher. And with them, the potential for exceptional results.

Related: The How-To: Increasing Your ROI From Your Post-Exhibition Strategies

Omar Rahman

Co-founder, TGP

Omar Rahman moved to the UAE from the UK in 1991 to take a business development position in the sales department of EMA Lubricants, a joint-venture with Exxon Mobil. In 1995, he teamed up with Alexander Maddock to launch Top Gear Promotions LLC – now known simply as TGP – an exhibitions and events solution provider, having executed over 2,000 successfully delivered projects locally, regionally and internationally, for organisations including Etihad, Dubai Holding, General Electric, Dubai Tourism, IPIC, Masdar, Qatar Airlines, Emaar, Expo 2020, and many more. Rahman studied Civil Engineering at the United Kingdom’s North East Surrey College of Technology.

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