Don’t tell anyone in San Francisco this week that the economy could be careening towards a recession. It seemed like business as usual at one of the premier cybersecurity trade shows, RSA. It was a bit surreal to be in SFO attending an event given that the last time I was here was in 2019 at Dreamforce. Much has changed in our world since then, but at RSA, people are eager to discuss business, and get business done.
One of my goals in attending RSA was to provide a perspective on what events look like at one of the critical trade shows in a vertical, and what that implies for the future of events. I felt an incredible amount of pride at seeing the dominance of Insight Partners at the event with over 40 portfolio companies participating - it seemed like I couldn’t go 10 feet without running into another booth of one of Insight’s cybersecurity ScaleUp investments. And, wow… the FOMO concert party featuring Incubus, arranged by SentinelOne in which Insight was a platform sponsor, was the RSA party to be at.
I should also mention that I have been to more trade shows around the world than the average former CMO. At one point in my career, I owned a trade show house and counted enterprises like Merck, Dell, and KIA as customers. So, my observations are from a very trained eye of the good, the bad, and the ugly of events.
What has changed?
Attendance was down
According to RSA, 26,000 attended, which is down from the typical 42,000 level prior to COVID. But, on the conference floor it was crowded, especially on Tuesday and Wednesday. It all seemed to be back: the swag, the giveaways, the booth folks doing all they could to draw in attendees, the parties, and people from all around the world. It felt good to see that companies were finally getting back to driving business at events.
Quality of attendees was mixed
I am not sure whether this is a change from pre-COVID, but there were multiple points of view on the quality of booth traffic. There was a strong focus on meetings that both accelerated pipeline and got opportunities flowing; however, some executives mentioned that there were not as many international attendees as in the past, while others noted that they met the right people and made some strong connections. As with all events, attending is half the battle. It is the work that sales and marketing teams do before, during, and after large-scale conferences that can really transform the ROI.
CISOs were there
I spoke to several different CISOs and security leaders. I learned that this year, perhaps inspired after two years locked away because of COVID, they attended RSA, whereas in the past they might have skipped the event and let their technical leads be their representative. As one CISO mentioned, he felt he had lost touch with innovation and wanted to see what was new. He said that his strategy was to go to the “low rent [booth] district” and find those smaller companies that were delivering the new and innovative. He also said he would find a badge with someone else’s name and company to get the “real story,” and not the sugar-coated one he would get if they knew who he was.
Masks were worn… but not often
The prevailing attendee approach was that either COVID was over or that getting COVID was possible, but not deadly. Regardless, my un-scientific finger to the wind thought that less than 20% of attendees were wearing masks. Almost no one working booths was wearing a mask, and as one of my colleagues pointed out, it is still uncertain whether attendees would be less likely to stop at a booth when the booth worker is or is not wearing a mask. Bottom line: You should probably not attend an event as an exhibitor or participant if you are uncomfortable being exposed to an environment where people aren’t being particularly careful about COVID.
Prices are up
Needless to say, we are in an inflationary environment that most of us have not experienced in quite some time, if ever. Everything cost more at RSA this year. The booths were more expensive, as were the food and catering, venue space, and trade show services. What this means is that as marketers begin to plan for the next year, expect to spend more in the coming months and match this against your likely budget constraints due to the more difficult environment. I am not suggesting that companies skip events altogether, but rather that they be more choiceful of their ROI on each event, aligned with the goal of efficient growth.
What are the key lessons from RSA to inform your future events strategy?
Your entire target audience may not return to events
Almost 20K folks were missing from RSA that might have been there in the past. How are you going to reach these very important potential customers who were not at the event physically? You have undoubtedly heard about hybrid events, but understanding that we live in a hybrid world and creating an event experience for not just your physical attendees but those who choose to attend virtually is a very deliberate strategy.
Relying on the show organizer to connect you is not a strategy. You should create your own programming to engage with these folks. There are many ways to create a compelling experience for them: roundtables with known influencers at the show, virtual cocktail parties, and content that connects with the themes of the show. Creativity is the key – step out of the expected.
Booth scans still don’t matter
Nothing makes me cringe more than when I ask a company how the show is going and the response I get is how many scans they got at the booth. WOW… how 20 years ago! Most marketers know that MQLs are a vanity metric. Well, booth scans are even less important.
The focus should not be on the number of scans, but the quality of the connections. Over the years, I have come up with an on-the-spot qualification process: A score of “1” means that there is an identified opportunity and immediate follow-up should be scheduled; a “2” means it is the right person or org, but the opportunity will need further qualification; and a “3” means they were probably there for the squeezy or yummy thing in your booth… drop them! Your goals should be maximize to the quantity of “1’s” you are able to connect with at the show.
Set quantitative goals across all of your objectives
On the topic of goals, we can all agree that there are many more reasons to be at a trade show than simply demand generation. Why did you make the choice to attend a show and spend all of the money?
In my experience, event expense is for a variety of reasons including building your brand, pipeline acceleration, business development, PR opportunities, and customer (re)connection. Decide what the goals of the show are going to be for this year and then set specific quantitative goals against each one of them – for all company attendees from the marketers to the sales people. This strategy will enable you to accurately gauge the value of the show and what you want to spend in the coming year on the event, or, depending on the data, if it might make sense to skip next year.
Trade shows are a microcosm of the noise in your space
My head hurt trying to figure out what some booths were selling. Everywhere I looked, a little “zero trust,” some “resilience” thrown in, a pinch of “agility,” and more acronyms like SASE or SOAR filled it out. I always tell people to think of a trade show booth as more like a billboard than a bulletin board. When someone is careening down the aisle, why would they choose to stop at your booth? Does your booth clearly communicate the pain point you solve or the approach they are looking to adopt? If it can’t be grasped in one quick glance, you haven’t nailed it yet!
For Insight’s portfolio companies, it is rare that they operate in an environment that can’t be described as noisy. Trade shows are a great place to test the clarity of your messaging. Did the audience get it? Were attendees drawn to your booth and message? Do you need to take a different tack? Trade shows are invaluable for this type of research, for learning how to stand out from the noise and the jargon.
As you digest these thoughts about RSA, I encourage you to think about what learnings you can apply to your upcoming events and how you might change your company’s approach to the next trade show. Trade shows definitely seem to be “back,” and people genuinely want to get out there. Since you’ve already committed budget to events this year, the uncertain economic environment may throw a few wrenches in your plans. To maximize value, be ready, stay agile, and focus on measuring key metrics to ensure success. If you know what your goals are, and communicate them to your team, the rest will fall into place.