Internet World — R.I.P.

This week, I visited Internet World Fall 2002. The once monolithic, must-attend, see-and-be-seen extravaganza has fizzled into a nonevent, astonishing only to the degree it’s lost any ability to astonish.

Ironically, this is a healthy sign for the industry.

As recently as two years ago, attending Internet World at New York’s cavernous Javits Center was atmospherically akin to spending New Year’s Eve a few blocks across town in Times Square (but heavier on Dockers and PDAs). The atmosphere was frantic and very, very, very crowded. Exhibitor booths studded every nook and cranny of the space, even spilling into a specially erected tent outside. A crush of people jostled to get near (much less through) the door.

Yesterday, you could all but see tumbleweeds blowing through the vast, near-empty hall. It took seconds to clock everyone I knew there. Sightlines were that good.

“The economy” is too simple an explanation of why visitors and exhibitors alike stayed away in droves. From a marketing perspective, Internet World makes no sense.

“It’s simply not targeted,” Topica CEO Anna Zornosa shrugged after surveying the sparsely populated hall, “everyone here is only talking about how empty it is.”

The show’s catalog lists 86 Internet business sectors (from Servers to Web Survey Software) into which exhibitors are categorized, some 240 of them. A scattershot palette indeed. Most categories include no more than one or two companies. Who would this appeal to? Who should attend?

“Trade shows and Web marketing are the two bastions of personalization. You don’t attend a show with a broad range of products. You find shows that meet your needs,” says Pat Friedlander, marketing consultant to the trade show industry and columnist for Tradeshow Blues.

Pat pinpoints two industry trends. “Smaller, focused shows and private customer events. Marketers take the money they would have spent on a show and bring it directly to their customers. They can spend time together without worrying about others competing for it. People always talked about ROI. Now, they’re serious about it. They don’t have the time to be away from the office. Webcasts are also phenomenally successful. It’s time you can schedule.”

Three or four years ago, when businesses were still investigating establishing an online presence, an overview of the “Internet World” made sense. What were the possibilities? What did the technology do, anyway? The Web, like most industries, is now segmented. So are the shows that succeed. Conferences pinpointing security, hosting, analytics, publishing, content management — anything specific — fill up. (To blow our own horn, both ClickZ Email Strategies conferences this year sold out.)

People Are Focused, Not Window-Shopping

The companies at Internet World seemed to have little rhyme or reason for being there. Yahoo is listed in the catalog under “Internet Business Services,” “Internet Marketing,” “Webcasting,” and, perplexingly, “Dial-Up Services.” Its tiny booth promoted only storefront solutions. Was it a lack of internal coordination, or did it have a surfeit of collateral for that business segment to unload?

Not included under “Dial-Up Services” are MSN and AOL, although that’s exactly what both companies were hawking at this primarily to-the-trade event: consumer Web access. Rather jarring to see “Your first month free!” CDs cheek-to-jowl with high-ticket, enterprisewide CRM solutions.

A lone man stands behind a table at Internet World. On it are displayed… credit cards. United Airlines Mileage Plus Visa Cards, to be specific. I asked what the connection was to the Internet. “Oh, none at all,” the vendor readily replied. “I exhibit at a lot of conferences here at the Javits Center.” Card applicants (didn’t see any) get a free radio alarm clock. The company is listed in the exhibitor’s guide under “Financial Services & Investments,” “Billing & Customer Management Outsourcing Service,” “Credit Card Processing,” “Other Services,” and “3-D Business Solutions” (that little hologram sticker?).

Trade shows are extraordinarily high-ticket marketing items. The cost sticks out like a sore thumb on a spreadsheet. Collateral. Travel. Exhibitor fees. Staff away from the office. Giveaways. That’s before you factor in a cheapo booth (the kind you keep folded up under the conference table) that runs 10 grand. Before you know it, you can lay out a cool million.

Your clients and prospects will listen to your message if it’s delivered properly. Why try to make a lot of noise in a big, empty space? If you get together in small groups or one on one, you can whisper.

And no one needs another T-shirt.

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