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Solar Fred's Event Marketing Insights from SPI: Is Less More?

Heading to SPI 2012 in Orlando, I was expecting a somewhat compact show. Though it wasn't as large as Dallas, I was surprised to find that while there were fewer booths, companies that did show up had booths that were as big as 2011’s SPI, or at least it appeared that way.

Sharp seemed to have the most real estate at 4800 sq ft, but Power-One (2400 sq ft) and Schletter (3400 sq ft) also made impressions, and seemed as big as ever. Hanwah Solar One replaced last year’s narrow two-story video cyclops booth with a roomy 3000 sq ft booth two-level and without the massive cyclops video monitor—a good choice.

Other brands, while not as expansive, still made their mark, making themselves seem larger through building a second floor on a smaller footprint. It seemed like 900 to 1200 sq ft seemed to be a large enough size for brand leaders to say, “Hey! We’re here, and we’re proud!” Eye-catching designs, colors, and height filled in the rest.

I also saw some shared booths, where companies with partner relationships, such as Panasonic and Martifer, shared their exhibit space. 

And then there were major brands that decided not to exhibit at all in 2012. They were certainly in attendance, meeting in the hallways and adjacent hotels and restaurants. The most notable I saw missing were SunPower, Kyocera, First Solar, and SatCon. Other previous exhibitors who didn’t show in 2012 were Chinese manufacturers that probably saw no point in having a presence in a U.S. market with imminent tariff assessments.

So, beyond the Chinese lower tier solar companies, SPI event marketers seemed to have three strategies for their booths. It was either:

1) Size matters. We’re as big as ever! See me!

2) Size matters somewhat. We’re as big as ever, but let's stand out with a smaller footprint or use our partner relationships to share space.

3) Everyone knows we’re big, so let’s save marketing dollars and be there in brand spirit and bodies on the ground.

Of the three strategies, I like #1 if you can afford it, but given today’s budget constraints, I still see great value in strategy #2. As for strategy #3, despite limited budgets, I think that choice is a bit shortsighted. Here’s why:

First, SPI remains the largest solar trade show in the North America with the most attendance, (though numbers for both exhibitors and attendees were smaller this year.) So, if you’re going to reach the street in one event a year, SPI is the event to do it. (Personally, I would also include Intersolar as a must-attend for brand leaders.)

Second, because of SPI’s prominence as the leading U.S. solar trade show, a booth absence allows people to speculate about things that may not be true. Are they in financial trouble? Are they getting out of the U.S. market? Are they not introducing anything new this year? Without a presence, people start to assume. So, in my mind, it's better to have a booth presence in some limited way to prevent speculation.

Third, a brand’s absence allows both new and loyal customers to wander and explore other brands without being able to compare products on the same trade show floor. While a company’s sales rep may actually be there and meetings can still happen, it’s not the same as having the convenience of walking up to a booth and having an off-the-cuff conversation with a knowledgeable sales rep.

Fourth, from an industry solar leadership perspective, SPI is the equivalent of a military parade. Once a year, we put on our finest booth uniforms and strut down 5th Avenue in front of fans and customers on the show floor. So, if you’re a major brand missing the parade, it’s as if the SPI parade is missing the Calvary or a show of tanks. It’s troubling not to see those soldiers showing up.

Now, I know that times are tough in solar, and that companies expect an ROI for investing thousands of dollars (or really, hundreds of thousands) in a trade show.

And yet, you can’t measure any of the above points with metrics and tie the cost of the show to generating future deals or instilling brand confidence. One never knows what floor handshake leads to a huge referral or saving a customer. Perhaps an insight you learn from an educational session or someone you meet at a party will increase your business, but you can’t put that down on a spreadsheet. For trade show metrics, all we really have are the leads generated through zapping the visitor’s badge, but it’s not a complete picture.

So, is it worth it? Could those marketing dollars be better spent elsewhere? I can’t answer that, and really, no one can. There are so many factors that can make a show a success or failure. But I will say that showing up does matter to customers, the solar media, and of course to the organizers that are trying to build a strong industry community that works together and exchanges ideas.

This video from the SPI block party also reflects the above. Of course, it’s not an official poll, but it does reflect how people value coming to SPI once a year.



In the coming weeks, I'll be publishing more insights and CEO interviews related to SPI. In the meantime… UnThink Solar.

Tor Valenza a.k.a. “Solar Fred” advises solar companies on marketing, communications, and branding. Contact him through UnThink Solar or follow him on Twitter @SolarFred. 




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