I have a love-hate relationships with trade shows. I love working a booth. I hate being an attendee. In fact, what I miss most about not working inside a company is not being able to spend 8 hours a day for 3 days working a booth. Really.
I probably shouldn't be writing this now. A day pounding the carpet at the Los Angeles InternetWorld has expanded my feet to the size of watermelons and has compacted my spine to the size of a child's Slinky. Or maybe this is exactly the time to write this.
The negative first. Even forgetting the physical damage they inflict, I hate walking around show floors. But that's because I go to these shows as a journalist or speaker, not as someone actually looking for help. To me the booths are split between the boring or offensive -- yet another instance of the 80:20 rule. I'd cite examples of the boring ones, but I can't remember 'em. At InternetWorld, the offensive included two that had a glass cage where you could grab at dollar bills whipped into a mini cash tornado and stuff them into the hole where your dignity used to be. Another one featured bigger than life photos of mainly naked (way past the 80:20 rule), silicon-powered babes. (At least I hope they were bigger than life. G-d help us all.) I wandered up and down each aisle so that I will have "covered" the show, looking for tchochkes suitable for my variously aged children, watching the occasional magician (the best part: watching them trying to explain how having the four of diamonds show up in your pocket is exactly like the benefits of: DSL, powerful co-location facilities, or JPG compression), and now and then asking someone, "So, tell me what you do."
But enough whining. (As if there could ever be enough whining. Hah!) How about the positives?
Working a booth is as close as business gets to the marketplaces of yore. People come to your booth because they're interested in what you're doing. The interest ranges from tire-kickers, to people with budgets and deadlines, to current customers. The rest of the year, your marketing department is carpet-bombing people who don't want to hear from them (which is why a 2% return on a mailing is considered good -- gosh, only 98% of recipients looked at your stuff and thought it was total junk.). At last you have a chance to talk with people who want to hear from you.
And the challenge! You may -- heaven forgive you -- start out armed with the Corporate Spiel and the Canned Demo from On High, but the single best measure of a successful encounter with a customer is how long it takes her to move you off your patter. She's got special interests and special needs. You've got to think on your aching feet. You have to be honest with her about what your products can and cannot do. You have to enjoy talking with her. And why wouldn't you? She's got a passion for the very thing that you're devoting your working life to. She really cares about what you're doing. She's got problems she feels like corns and you're trying to address those very same problems. You've got more in common with her than you do with lots of the people you work with.
So, you may leave the booth hobbling, broken-backed, rasping through a windpipe scraped raw by conversation, but if you're not leaving so energized about your work that you can't wait to get back to it, well, at the next trade show, bring your résumé and head straight for one of the booths where people actually seem to care about what they do.
David Weinberger is editor of The Journal of Hyperlinked Organizations.