CES: Requiem for an electronic dream

Is it time to jump the trade show ship or time to ask for a life jacket?
Written by Ken Hess, Contributor

Without Apple and Microsoft at the Consumer Electronics Show, is it really worth having anymore? Jason Perlow predicts that by 2015, it will be another one of tech history's great milestones. I have to agree. The whole reason for such a show is to attract buyers, high-end consumers, tech journalists and techies so that they can check out what's headed to market in the coming year. It's cool but isn't it time that we do away with trade shows like CES or trade shows in general? I think the time has come to say, "So long" and to give our ears a thoughtful and sentimental tug before the lights go out and the credits roll for the last time.

Trade shows are expensive to produce. They're always in places like Las Vegas and they always seem to disappoint. I've never liked trade shows of any kind. I don't particularly like going to them and I certainly always hated setting up for one. A fancy Press Junket would be just as effective where journalists, bloggers and reporters bring you the "best of" and highlights plus a listing of new products. Enough people exist in those realms to get the word out on new products without a huge blowout in Las Vegas. To further increase the secrecy and hype of the event, it should be 'by invitation only.'

A BIO event ensures that a select few (a hundred or so) people fill the proper channels with what's going on in the TV, gadget and other overpriced electronic gizmo market.

On a personal note, I would probably never go, even if invited, because I just don't really care about such things. I like gadgetry but I can't afford much of it. Springing for the iPad and an iPhone (with its very high recurring expenses) was quite enough for me. I'll wait like everyone else does or vendors can send me their shiny new toys by mail for review. It's funny though, how many of my PR homies assumed that I'm going to CES. Several sent me invites to private parties and requests to come by their booths.

Jason said it well on his post, "Many of us in the media are simply content to be on vendor email press release lists and will arrange calls by remote if something crosses our path that legitimately piques our interest."

I can't remember the number of times that I had to write back and say, "Sorry, I'm not going." Without Apple, why would I really want to go? They have the goodies that I'd like to see. I don't care about the latest and greatest in television technology. Sorry, but flatter, skinnier TVs with lots of options, Internet access and games just don't float my boat. I buy based on (and I know this is crazy talk) what I can afford and not how many knobs and frills the thing has.

But, unlike Jason, I don't feel that the economy has a lot to do with the failure of such venues as CES. I think it's actually a function of, "I already have one." I have an original iPad and I got it for Christmas 2011, just a few months before the iPad 2 came out. Will I buy an iPad 3? I don't know. Is it different enough? Does it have some unpassupable feature that I simply must have? Will its price entice me to buy it? Doubtful on all fronts. I think it's too soon to have people invest in another $600 device. I already have one.

But, I do agree with Jason on the premise that there are too many vendors with the same exact thing. And, it's easy to see who the innovators are and who the imitators are too. Again, I buy what I need or want based on affordability.

Just like when I go to the grocery store and shop for soft drinks. I buy what's on sale. My wife prefers Pepsi products and I prefer the least expensive products. If a two liter Diet Coke is $1.00 and a two liter Diet Pepsi is $1.25, guess which one comes home with me?

And, the same goes for just about every product I purchase. Don't get me wrong, I don't buy the 'cheapest' thing just because it's cheap. I buy the best that I can afford but if there's an equivalent product available for less money, that's the one I take to the cashier.

I think it's funny that these companies that blow millions of dollars on useless advertising end up apologizing at the end of the quarter for not meeting Wall Street expectations. Really? Could ya have saved a few hundred thousand by not going to the Consumer Electronics Show? Could you not run that $3 million spot on the Super Bowl? Could you be just a bit more frugal in running your company overall? Which brings up the question of, "Does advertising work?" On me, probably not.

I don't buy Budweiser beer but I think the frogs are cute. I don't eat Jimmy Dean sausage, although the sun and planets commercials are fun. I'll never own an Audi. I only eat McDonald's on road trips--and only if there's nothing else available. I don't drink Heineken but I'd love to have one of those walk-in refrigerators to store some good beer in. So, the takeaway is that I'm generally unaffected by commercials, except to laugh at or criticize them. Cute animals and clever scenarios don't sell products to me.

The CES, or any trade show, is really for those who want a mini vacation or an escape from work with the possibility of running upon something cool in the process. Rarely have I walked off the floor of a trade show and said to myself, "Wow, that was totally worth the thousand dollars I spent coming here." So rare, in fact, that I can't think of one instance of it. It's probably just me, though.

So, you're saying, "OK, Ken the Oracle of all Knowledge of Good and Evil, tell us how to get the word out about our awesome product or service, if we don't advertise or attend trade shows." I will. Thanks for the respectful and elegant prompt.

If you have an innovative product or service, tell people about it who can showcase it for you. You have a PR firm engaged don't you? It's their job to help you in that respect. They have all of the media contacts. They have degrees and experience in helping you get your awesome product or service in front of the right folks. What you're looking for is an audience, right?

First, define to whom you're trying to sell your widget to and then target the people who can put you in front of that audience. Simple enough. Second, find out where your audience spends its time staring for hours on end and target them there. Finally, if there's really nothing to differentiate your product or service from any other in the market, you're going to have to turn to price or some other added value to make that difference to your intended audience.

And, don't rely on cute animals or funny scenarios to sell your product. Rely on the actual benefits of having your product. Does the product save me money? Does the product do something positive for me? You have to put yourself in your audience's seat.

Trade shows overwhelm people. Besides the fact that most people will gravitate toward the stuff they already know about. If I go to a trade show, I seek out the companies that I know are innovative and whose products I'm excited about. If you're a newcomer, you might have to go back to the days of 'Snake Oil' and sandwich card advertising to get noticed. People are so inundated by shiny new things that they tend to blend together. Only those that truly differentiate themselves will be successful. And, a trade show, I'm afraid, just doesn't do it.

Show up somewhere where you have fewer competitors in the space you're in. If you've got something special, tell people about it one-on-one. You've got to learn to 'politic.' Get out and shake hands, slap backs and demo your product for people in a personal way. Sorry, but the best advertisement is still word of mouth. "Hey, Bob, have you seen the new TV I got for Christmas?" Come over and check it out. Bob will buy one, once he sees it and experiences it on a personal level.

If you don't believe in the power of the personal touch, watch the movie, "The Joneses." I won't spoil it for you but there's something for everyone in this movie starring Demi Moore, David Duchovny, Amber Heard and Ben Hollingsworth. It's brilliant.

Like Jason, I think CES is on its last legs. He predicts 2015 as its last tango in Vegas but I think with no Apple and no Microsoft, you're going to see a lot of rats jump ship before then.

What do you think of CES and trade shows? Do you think it's time to sing the swan song or is there still life left in the old trade show floor? Talk back and let me know.

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