Imagine a bunch of marketing executives going to a conference to hear other marketing executives advise them on how to market better. You might imagine that this is like the kings of bullsh*tters telling bullsh*tters how to bullsh*t better.
When I think about conferences, I also think about the trade show / expo bits. I work in the wind industry, where you’d expect conferences and trade shows to be conducted with some modicum of environmentally-minded restraint. I vividly remember suggesting our company get a PR boost out of having our booth consist of a few tatami mats and links to our literature online. “If our booth isn’t tall enough, we won’t be seen,” was the rejoinder. And at wind industry conferences, like most others, the halls are a cluster of sensory confusion that rivals Times Square.
At the last wind industry conference I attended, my tree-hugging, earth-friendly inner child got sent to the basement somewhere while I became a total “SWAG ho,” loading my conference-branded tote bag with visors and baseball caps and flashlights and Post-IT notes and pens that don’t work and a gorgeous solar-powered calculator from a Canadian land management consulting company (I figure to owe them some link love because I adore the calculator). Trade shows and conferences are where marketers really show off their creativity and try to get into people’s long-term memories through tangible “goods” (in quotations, because is another branded water bottle really “good”?), through memorable experiences (thank you, Enxco, now EDF Renewable Energy, for the espresso), or through amazing booth architecture.
So you’d expect last week’s Inbound 2012, the rapidly growing annual conference for inbound marketers, to rank very high in the volume of, well, bullsh*t. After all, the sponsors at this show are marketing to marketers, so we can’t be ordinary! At the risk of sounding like Willy Wonka, forget the 8GB thumb drives and come up with 96 ZB fist drives!
The crowd of inbound marketers who entered the sponsor lounge at the Hynes Convention Center were greeted by tasteful arrangements of white, mushroom-shaped furniture, a few lightweight architectural elements, and sponsored kiosks with useful services such as Internet-connected computers or Keurig machines. The minimalist nature of the booth elements allowed the sponsors’ names to stand out much more prominently than they do at most convention centers. Appropriately, the first thing you saw was HootSuite, a company in the forefront of social media metrics. Sponsor staff gave out very little swag. No one was even giving out pens. (A good thing, since trade show pens usually don’t work and you have to resort to writing very hard and then doing gravestone rubbing with a pencil later to see what you wanted to remember). The sponsor lounge became a place to relax, get things you really needed, and chat with the sponsors. Isn’t this what sponsors want folks to do?
HubSpot itself gave out very little swag. While I had secretly been hoping for a baseball shirt like the one I got at the same show in 2010, I was thrilled to receive just a few items – a collection of excerpts from five of the leading inbound marketing books, a wiro-bound conference program chock-full of inspirational quotes and only a handful of ads, a fortune cookie that actually tasted good, and a temporary tattoo. I got more swag from RCN on the subway on the way home (and threw it out almost immediately. Do I really need another plastic cup?)
I “spoke to” (okay, tweeted at) Rachel Sprung, HubSpot’s [cool job title alert] brand and buzz coordinator, to compliment her on the conference’s restraint. Greater sustainability is one of the value propositions of inbound marketing, although it doesn’t play as well as ROI for those who make the spending decisions. In a longer email exchange, Rachel replied that they enforced strict guidelines about the amount of stuff sponsors could bring in, either as freebies or as overbuilt booths.
Trade show participants are already beginning to value lower-impact booths, and there is a movement toward lighter-weight booths, recycled materials, and so on. Wouldn’t it be great if more conference and trade show organizers followed the lead of HubSpot and imposed stricter guidelines on their participants? Without these guidelines, participating in a trade show is like nuclear escalation — your neighbor’s booth is taller this year, yours will be taller next year.
Amidst all the hype and genuine excitement of the show — the way the art, science, and practice of inbound marketing is revolutionizing marketing practice — HubSpot and its sponsors quietly achieved another milestone. They used a marketing conference to demonstrate marketing with a lot less bullsh*t. If other conference organizers follow their lead, our planet will become greener. To borrow their phrase, this is marketing people love.