Are DMA Conference Exhibitors Reinventing, Too?

From 1987 to 2008, I had attended every DMA conference, always enjoying the experience of reconnecting with long-time associates, hearing presentations to continually learn, and meeting with vendors who might be good resources for clients. Last week I found myself looking at the conference through a different lens as I walked the exhibit hall to learn from the exhibitors.

It had been five years since I last attended a DMA annual conference. I decided to return last week. If there were a score card of how direct marketing service providers are reinventing what they sell to end-user companies, one measure of that could be taken from the exhibit hall.

From 1987 to 2008, I had attended every DMA conference, always enjoying the experience of reconnecting with long-time associates, hearing presentations to continually learn, and meeting with vendors who might be good resources for clients.

Last week I found myself looking at the conference through a different lens as I walked the exhibit hall to learn from the exhibitors.

The first thing that astounded me was the shrinkage of the exhibit hall. The program listed 241 exhibitors. While I don’t have access to the number of exhibitors from, say, a decade ago, it feels like it was about one-third the size that it used to be.

The second thing that struck me was the type of exhibitors who were there. I’d generally divide into one of three camps:

  1. Traditional direct marketing vendors, mostly supporting direct mail. The convention program listed 112 exhibitors self-identified as in the Direct Mail and Print Services category. Add in some of the dozens of firms supporting Data Management (who weren’t already listed under Direct Mail and Print Services) and easily over half—perhaps two-thirds—of the exhibitors supported traditional direct mail marketing channels.
  2. Technology companies offering online services to direct marketers accounted for a significant representation as well. An exact count is difficult to infer because of vendors listing themselves under multiple categories including Affiliate Marketing, Content, E-commerce, Mobile, Online Advertising, Real-Time Automated Technologies, Search and Social, but the representation was strong. These are firms that, in my opinion, generally did a poor job of communicating how they support direct marketers. As I spoke to several of them, they glowed over their technology but didn’t connect their technology to how it would generate response. It feels like they want to attract business from direct marketers, but they don’t speak our language. Many technology companies seem to be in love with their buzz words on their booths, but failed to give the passer-by any clue of what their technology would do for me to build sales. At the expansive exhibit of one of the most recognized software companies in America, I quickly spotted three typographical errors on their big screens. Their exhibit booth staff was also the least friendly and willing to explain what they offer direct marketers.
  3. Vendors that effectively blended offline and online. Only a few exhibitors, it seemed, truly attempted to be a one-stop shop where offline could be linked with online media. Those exhibitors were the ones doing business at the conference. They were the ones who were the most positive about returning next year. In one case, a long-time DMA conference exhibitor who has reinvented his service offerings, said last week’s conference was the best ever for them. This traditional direct mail services provider had teamed up with a technology firm so their booth felt like two spaces, but they seamlessly referred clients to each other. More importantly, they linked online technology with the ability to use direct mail for specialized messaging.

It appears there is work to be done by many vendors to update their services to keep up with what direct marketers must do to survive. And technology companies have a lot of work to do to understand the nuances of direct marketing. For vendors who want to grow and prosper in this field, if they haven’t already, they need to reinvent just like the direct marketing customers who they want to serve.

Blog: Direct Marketing School Still in Session

The virtual show. Anyone been to one yet? I have to admit, my first real attendance to any such show was to our very own, Direct Marketing Day @ Your Desk, which I helped organize. And I was sold, especially after seeing the numbers.

The virtual show. Anyone been to one yet? I have to admit, my first real attendance to any such show was to our very own, Direct Marketing Day @ Your Desk, which I helped organize (check out the agenda and, if interested, attend the on-demand version). And I was sold, especially after seeing the numbers (sponsorship dollars, yes, but mostly noticing how many people registered … nearly 3,000).

The reason is simple: A virtual show is just so convenient. You can pick and choose your sessions, attend only the ones that are truly relevant for you (or view on-demand later on), chat with select others in the networking lounge (or break off into a private chat), browse the exhibit hall … all with great ease, without leaving your office. No travel, no hotel (okay, that part I kind of miss), no great local restaurants (wait, not sure if I like this suddenly), no business cards from people I’ll never see again (that’s the spirit) and, biggest thing of all, no giant wrench getting thrown into your work schedule.

In other words, it can be a highly productive day, or half-day, or even hour if you only go to one session. Meanwhile, you’re still in your own office, so you can still get your own work done.

While the need for in-person events remains (I just spoke at the DMA’s Circulation Day in New York City and made a connection with people that transcends the vitual connect, significantly), the level of learning and networking is only going to increase in future virtual conferences.