by Hank Mishkoff (email@example.com)
Note: This article originally appeared in The Met on August 3, 1995.
What if they gave an Internet trade show and nobody came?
That's not a hypothetical question any more, not after last week's Web Seminars and WEBxpo at the Infomart. Mecklermedia, the show's sponsor (and publisher of Internet World magazine), expected more than two thousand people to attend the two-day event, which was billed as a small-scale version of the huge Internet World shows that they hold in various places around the world every few months. Mecklermedia was right about the "small- scale" part. But instead of attracting the anticipated couple of thousand attendees, the actual number of people who walked through the door was closer to a paltry three hundred.
"We're trying to attract quality, not quantity," was the spin put on the low turnout by Tanya Mazarowski, Mecklermedia's Director of Public Relations. "We told the exhibitors not to expect the tens of thousands of people who come to our Internet World shows. We didn't want a lot of teenagers ducking into the Infomart to get out of the heat, trying to see what's cool at the Web show. The exhibitors are happy because nearly everyone who stops by their booth is a qualified prospect."
Well, that's not exactly the way the exhibitors saw it. But first, let me explain the way the concept was supposed to work.
Like many other trade shows, this one featured a series of short tutorial sessions ("Web Seminars") covering various issues related to the theme of the show (in this case, the World Wide Web) and an exposition ("WEBxpo") where exhibitors could show off their wares to the people attending the seminars. Generally, you can get into the exposition for free if you attend the seminars, which can get pretty pricey. (At this event, for example, you could pay anywhere from $195 to $1,400, depending on how many of the seminars you wanted to attend.) At most trade shows, you can also get into the exposition if you walk in off the street and pay a small fee, typically around $10. This certainly helps to build the size of the crowd; but, as Mecklermedia's Mazarowski points out, it sacrifices quality in the name of quantity.
And so Mecklermedia came up with the bright idea of not letting anyone into WEBxpo unless they had paid for at least one of the Web Seminars.
Unfortunately, they massively overestimated the number of people who would be eager to shell out an average of $800 (not including expenses) and travel to Dallas for the chance to, in the words of Mecklermedia's sales literature, "interact with the world's top Web analysts" and "strengthen ties with other companies who are working on Web development, as well as gather information on the state of the industry."
Mecklermedia's mistake was not unfortunate to the attendees, who had a rare opportunity to stroll through an amazingly uncrowded exhibit hall and to share leisurely conversations with other show-goers in a remarkably relaxed atmosphere. But it was spectacularly unfortunate for the exhibitors, who had paid anywhere from $2500 to $10,000 for the chance to hawk their products to an expected 2,000 prospects.
As you might have guessed, the exhibitors were not pleased. (In fact, the word "livid" comes to mind.) "It's not just that so few people showed up," one exhibitor explained to me. "It's always a gamble. But they didn't do any local advertising, as far as I can tell. And they could have told us that sales were flat. I brought five people with me to man the booth," he said, his voice rising and his face getting redder. "If they had had the courtesy of telling me about this even a few days ago, I could have pretty much handled this crowd by myself, maybe with one assistant."
But even through his anger, the exhibitor (who asked to remain anonymous) admitted that Mecklermedia, while wildly optimistic on their attendance estimate, was right about one thing: "I'm very impressed with the quality of the people who stop by the booth," he conceded. "I've made a lot of good contacts. I just wish that there were a lot more of them. And I feel real sorry for Quarterdeck and PSI," he added, gesturing toward the center of the exhibit floor, where exhibitors from those two companies forlornly wandered around the two largest exhibits at the show (the $10,000 variety), vainly searching for the "higher level attendees" that Mecklermedia had promised them.
Personally, I think that Mecklermedia may have performed a valuable service for those of us who are in Internet-related businesses. I think we are falling into the trap of believing our own hype: There are 30 million people on the Internet. It's growing exponentially. There's never been anything like it in the history of the universe. It's impossible for any business venture that's even vaguely related to the Net to fail.
I've grown increasingly suspicious of some of those "facts." And now Mecklermedia has conclusively proved, in a big way, that all you need to fail in Cyberbiz is a massive dose of overconfidence.
Cyberbiz August 17, 1995: Net Gains.
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