The digital era is here

Someday history will probably reflect the late 20th and early 21st centuries as the era of the Digital Revolution. And, certainly the life-changing consequences of the Digital Revolution will be viewed as equally impactful to society and as world changing an event as was the era of the Industrial Revolution that occurred in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

An interesting dichotomy between these two galactic events is that the Industrial Revolution changed the work social order from one that was dispersed in cottage industries to one that was concentrated in factories in cities. The Digital Revolution had the reverse effect. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2008, 33.7 million Americans telecommuted for work at least one day per month and that 13.5 million workers telecommuted virtually every day. Welcome to the return of the cottage industry.

Clearly, the digital era has impacted the broadcast industry. It has changed the way we create and produce TV content, and has changed the way that content is distributed and viewed. In Hollywood digital capture, digital special effects and digital distribution have turned the film industry upside down. Other industries have been affected to their core:

  • the adoption of digital point-and-shoot cameras and digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras has all but eliminated the film market for still pictures;
  • not having developed an effective way to monetize its content online, the newspaper industry is in the throes of basic survival; and
  • some magazines have begun to eliminate the print media versions of their publications in favor of electronic subscriptions. And, on it goes.

Virtual trade shows

At the recent IBC gathering in Amsterdam, ostensibly the second largest broadcast convention in the world, several major companies did not exhibit. Other companies did not exhibit at recent NAB Shows. And, it's not necessarily small companies that have bypassed major trade show exhibits. The likes of Apple, Avid, Panasonic, Snell and Sony are included.

With the cost of floor space, equipment exhibits, staffing, venue advertising and customer entertainment, one of the top companies can easily spend upwards of a staggering $10 million on a single trade show event. A smaller company can spend an entire year's advertising budget at one of these extravaganzas. In the past, some companies justified these huge expenditures because of the volume of orders written at the show as everyone winked at the shell game of sales staff either holding orders or having their customers with orders in hand wait until the show to actually place them. That was a different era, but that was the way the game was played.

Fast-forward to 2009 where the fiscal pressure is on cost reductions, efficiencies and drop-to-the-bottom-line ROIs. For manufacturers, trade shows are no longer primarily viewed as selling events but rather an opportunity to get in front of a customer to demonstrate the latest in products and technology. But, even that activity — given the press of other attendees, technical presentations, group meetings and the like — suffers with inefficiency. On the customer side, expense-driven decisions dictate, as attendance at trade shows has been severely curtailed. A few years ago, one senior broadcast network executive shared with me that he allowed his engineering staff one boondoggle trip a year — his idea of attending a trade show. Well, the boondoggles are gone. In testament are the record drops in attendance at major shows such as NAB and CES. Even the show planners are affected; attendance at this year's Meeting Professionals International Education Congress was down by almost 50 percent.

The tsunami that is the Digital Revolution may be about to affect another major industry: Welcome to the virtual trade show. Are you ready for your avatar to stroll down a virtual aisle as you mouse click on a booth you would like to visit? Upon entering a manufacturer's virtual booth, you can visit various product areas, read booth signage and click on product demos. The more sophisticated virtual trade shows allow you to have interactive conversations with the booth staff and product demonstrators. I visited one virtual trade show wherein the reality experience even included a blend of typical trade show background sounds, such as the chatter of conversations and the music you hear emanating from various booths as you walk the aisles.

From the company perspective, a virtual trade show reduces exhibit costs by half or more, thus driving an extremely favorable cost per visitor reached (a key trade show metric), and materials created for a virtual trade show can be readily repurposed for use on the company Web site. From the attendee perspective, a virtual trade show can be incredibly efficient. But the real bottom line is: How effective is it as part of the process of driving sales? Time will tell. For now, though, going to Las Vegas as an avatar? I think I want my boondoggle.

Anthony R. Gargano is a consultant and former industry executive.

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