A forum for debate is replacing the trade show hard sell

Trade shows are morphing into a battle for hearts and minds rather than direct sales.

Oh, the joy of a trade show. I suspect everyone approaches them with that curious mix of excitement and dread that normally only accompanies (for me) an encounter with a ‘pickleback’ cocktail (a shot of whisky chased with a shot of pickle brine). Mobile World Congress (MWC) is no exception – and this year in Barcelona it proved why the show is still so important for the mobile industry and the annual focal point for many brands.

Trade shows in general seem rather anachronistic in the digital age, but it is clear that the format – get everyone in a given industry together for a few days to network, carouse and fight it out for dominance – has not yet had its day. While several high-profile tech brands such as Apple are conspicuous by their absence, preferring to hold their own events rather than join the general scrum, many companies still invest heavily in a presence. It might not be the budget-busting extravaganza it used to be, but just a glance at the announcements, stands and parties at February’s MWC shows that it is still regarded as a strong platform for brands to showcase their wares.

The fact that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg gave the keynote speech shows how far MWC has come from its telecoms roots. In fact, Zuckerberg barely mentioned mobile, and many of the exhibitors and visitors come from non-mobile backgrounds. The challenge for the hundreds of companies scrambling for share of voice is how to make their story relevant – and exciting. If the keynote speaker (and outside world) is focused on meta issues such as internet access for all, or data privacy, how does a brand bring its handset or messaging infrastructure story to life?

As ever, it’s all about relevance – I won’t preach to the converted here about the importance of benefits vs product and taking a compelling thought leadership stance. But what we are seeing this year is the sheer scale and power of digital conversations in helping companies stand out. Some analysis we carried out into the top trends being mentioned via the MWC hashtag showed that the ‘Internet of Things’ garnered nearly 4,000 mentions, followed by ‘wearables’ with more than 2,000, ‘cars’ and ‘5G’ with about 1,500 each and ‘privacy’ with 1,100. The companies making an impact were those that drove these online conversations and engaged audiences in Barcelona and beyond, not with product announcements but with ideas and discussion.

Perhaps this is the future of the trade show – as a physical and virtual forum for debate. Bring together the brightest minds in the industry and let them battle for hearts and minds, rather than direct sales. Being able to provide that link for clients between their offering and their audience has always been the magic of PR. The smart use of digital is a great facilitator, so we expect many more brands will take a digital-first approach next year. In the meantime, whether you’re a drunken sales rep who has been locked out of their hotel room (naked), a CEO having a meltdown because their meeting room was double-booked or a PR who has been roped into dressing up as a mobile handset and handing out leaflets on a client’s stand, it is still worth it. Honestly.

Alex MacLaverty is UK group managing director at Hotwire

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