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One of my BFFs, Chris Semon with Snowsports Industries America, recently sent me a link to a December 12, 2012 article in Inc. magazine asking for my response. The article is titled, How to Commandeer a Trade Show: 4 Tips and written by Don Rainey, a General Partner with Grotech Ventures, which invests in early stage technology companies.

The idea that Mr. Rainey and Inc. think this article should be written, let alone published, is pretty amazing. At the very least it shows a clear disregard for all the true stakeholders of a trade show – the owners, exhibitors and attendees. But, in reality, it promotes blatant unethical behavior. Pretty surprising for a national magazine, if you ask me.

Basically, Mr. Rainey gives four tips on how to take full advantage of the benefits a trade show provides its exhibitors without paying for the right. He justifies this "guerrilla marketing strategy" by telling his readers, "You know that participating in the tradeshow is the most effective option, but you can afford neither the high cost of booth space nor the booth needed to fill it.  Nonetheless, it is critical for your young company to join the fray and get in front of potential customers, partners and investors." His solution? "All it takes is creativity and the ability to pull a stunt or two."

…the ability to pull off a stunt or two. Really? Let's think about this a moment.

A trade show is owned by an organization…maybe a trade association…maybe a show management company…maybe a publisher (ironic, no?). That organization invests a huge amount of time, effort, money, and staffers to plan and produce this event. They've reserved the exhibit hall far in advance, contracted with a decorator to handle set up and tear down, committed to large room blocks at local hotels, reserved local bus transportation, maybe hired super expensive spekaers, promoted the event to both potential exhibitors and attendees, prepaid for meals, and whatever else goes into putting on such an event.

Corporations that sign up as exhibitors also invest significant resources in the show. They paid for exhibit space, maybe designed and built a booth, set up travel, prepared products and shipped them to display, pay for staffers to be at the show…in other words, they've contracted for the right to exhibit at the show and invested additional monies, people, and resources to make the most of that investment.

Attendees register to go to the show. They set up travel, hotel, ground transportation. They block time for appointments with current and potential vendors, maybe set appointments, and maybe schedule to attend educational sessions. 

All three of these groups have invested in participating at the event.

But apparently, according to Mr. Rainey AND Inc. magazine, it's okay to "pull a stunt or two," and surreptitiously invade this owned-and-paid-for-by-somebody-else sanctum because you can't afford to be a legitimate player.

Shame on Mr. Rainey for thinking and promoting such unethical behavior. Shame on Inc. magazine for publishing and promoting such unethical behavior. 

If you read the article now, you'll notice a small update at the bottom:

"This article was updated on Dec. 17, to remind readers not to encroach on display that the trade show has rights to."

Really? It reminds us of that? It STILL has the four tips on how to do just that. And Mr. Rainey offered a very weak mea culpa to the infuriated Comments readers sent in:

"In no way do I want to encourage any behavior in the pursuit of raising company awareness that detracts from the official event and companies need to be mindful of what they are doing. I have tremendous respect for industry events and the organizations that produce them and companies should always look into ways to be involved in the main event as a first course of action. I revised the article to better reflect some of the things a young company can do when they just can’t afford to be at the official event in any formal capacity."

Wait. What? He doesn't want to encourage bad behavior, but still suggests there are "…things a young company can do when they just can’t afford to be at the official event in any formal capacity." I'm confused. Which is it?

I don't think it's a stretch to assume Mr. Rainey's early stage technology investments have been given this advice before. I also have no doubt he's still giving them the advice. He just made a mistake publishing it and letting everybody know he condones unethical behavior.

Inc. magazine, on the other hand, should know better than publish such advice. They are in the PUBLISHING business and run many of their own such events. You can take it to the bank they would absolutely do everything they can to block any such "guerrilla tactics" attempted during one of them. But apparently, it's okay for them to suggest small businesses do so at other events.

So, in the same spirit, I have a "guerrilla marketing" tactic for all of you who wish you could afford to advertise in Inc. magazine, but can't afford their rates. Design a flyer for your business on your desktop computer. Go to your local Fedex Office and have a few hundred copies made. Now go around your city and look for all the magazine stands you can find – maybe there's still a Barnes & Noble nearby…or all the big hotels…of course, the airport newstands…wherever Inc. might be sold. 

When nobody's watching, stick one of your flyers in every copy of Inc. magazine. Voila! Free advertising! 

And if anybody asks what you're doing, just show them Rainey's article and say:

"I know that advertising in Inc. is an most effective option for my company, but I can't afford their high cost for ad space nor the fee to needed to design it.  Nonetheless, it is critical for our young company to join the fray and get in front of potential customers, partners and investors."

I'm sure it'll be okay.