After years of struggle, there are legitimate signs of recovery in the world of tech PR. Start-ups are emerging in a number of tech sectors, and there are some healthy dollar signs backing up many of these new ventures.
The big tech vendors also have been busy lately; one example is the veritable PR battle going on for ownership of the emerging utility computing craze (HP, IBM, Sun, and BEA have been very active on this PR front). Throw in the fact that the tech trades are restoring their editorial staffs, and it seems as if we not only have great stories to tell, but more journalists to tell them to.
So given the overall upswing in tech, how is it that IT industry events continue to be such an enigma? COMDEX 2004, for example, was recently postponed until 2005. This is following an event last year with fewer than 50,000 attendees, roughly 25% of its peak attendance numbers in the late '90s. The COMDEX saga (not to mention the recent demise of CeBIT America) reflects just how fickle and unpredictable the IT event industry can be.
As PR pros, it's become a real challenge to stay on top of the event industry and make sound attendance recommendations to our clients.
It's important to recognize the IT event industry's shift from horizontal mega-shows to more targeted, technology-specific events. For networking professionals, NetWorld+Interop has become the annual gathering. For security professionals, RSA is the place to be. Linux developers flock to OSBC and LinuxWorld, while grid-computing experts gather at GlobusWORLD, and Digital ID World is the hotbed for identity management discussions.
A focused event brings focused attendees and media who are looking for specific answers to specific questions. As PR professionals, it's in our best interest to find the right event for our clients and determine the pros and cons of participation. It's also our responsibility to keep an eye on the industry and to pass along intelligent event recommendations to our clients.
Media coverage follows important IT events like dirt follows Pigpen, so a news search on the previous year's event will reveal some vital information. First, the volume (or lack thereof) of media coverage will be an indicator of how successful the event was. Based on which journalists covered the event, you'll also get a better sense of the publicity opportunities that participation might afford. Finally, see which trends and technologies were most prominently on display, which will give you a further idea of how appropriate the fit is for the client.
Anyone who has been burned by a lackluster event tends to have some strong opinions about the experience. A quick canvassing of your network of colleagues will typically reveal at least one useful piece of advice. If the client has a paid relationship with an analyst firm, I would strongly encourage soliciting feedback from that analyst, as well. Analysts have their fingers on the pulse of the IT event industry, and (in this case, anyway) can offer some unbiased advice.
Early on, reach out to the event management to test the responsiveness and professionalism of the organizers. Make a simple request - ask for some demographic information about the attendees or for last year's registered media and analyst list. If there is no response in a satisfactory time period or if you encounter rude or arrogant behavior, guess what - that's likely going to be the client's experience at the actual event.
Early contact with the event is a great litmus test for whether it's going to be a healthy or abusive relationship moving forward. Events make their money by getting people to participate. That means that leading up to the show, they paint a very rosy picture, often exaggerating the size of the audience, the pedigree of the attendees, and the overall importance of the event.
Companies evaluating an event should be primarily looking at the quantity and quality of the buyers in attendance (for lead generation) and the media and analysts in attendance (for publicity opportunities).
There are four vital stats/documents that will tell you almost everything you need to know: the registered media/analyst list from the previous year's event; the exhibitor list from the previous year; the final attendance number from the previous year, preferably verified by an outside auditor; and demographic information about the sheer number and purchasing power of the IT buyers from the previous year.
Depending on which event you're dealing with, it might be very difficult to obtain some of that information. If an event isn't willing to share at least two of the four with you, consider that a red flag.