The Verge published an interesting piece the other week about the lack of major product announcements at this year’s Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona. The article points out that many of the major players announced their products elsewhere: “Samsung decided that every hero Galaxy device deserves its own event, HTC followed suit with its One unveiling a week ago, and Google’s Chromebook Pixel got its launch completely separately from MWC.” The annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas shows a similar trend with Microsoft pulling out last year and many of the most significant tech products announced at separate media events throughout the year. Apple pretty much set a trend for this when it dropped out of Macworld in 2009, a trade show entirely dedicated to the company’s products: “Apple is reaching more people in more ways than ever before, so like many companies, trade shows have become a very minor part of how Apple reaches its customers,” explained the company’s press release back then.
There are clear benefits to hosting a dedicated media event for a product unveiling as opposed to announcing it at a trade show: Why share the media attention with others when you can have it for yourself? Big tech companies, like Google or Microsoft, don’t need a trade show to attract the media. Facebook, for example, unveiled their new Search Graph feature the week after CES, which typically is a very slow week for tech news. This helped Facebook to get the media’s undivided attention and dominate tech news that day. It surely is easier to cut through the noise when there aren’t hundreds of other companies pitching new products. This is even more relevant for products that aren’t strong enough to stand out at a trade show. These type of products run the risk of getting lost and definitely have a better chance of getting recognition during a slow news week when journalists are actively looking to find something interesting to write about. Not being forced to have a product ready at a time dictated by a trade show also provides companies greater flexibility to develop a product on their own terms when it comes to timing. But the evolvement of technology itself also plays its part in this trend. “There are now far better ways to tell the story of technology than physical gatherings that have their roots in the great World’s Fairs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries,“ wrote Matt Buchanan at Buzzfeed in a piece explaining the publication’s decision not to participate in CES. Social media has made it very easy for news to be shared and video streaming allows journalists and consumers across the globe to follow an event. Most of the major tech blogs also “live blog” bigger events.
Still, floods of new products are being announced at tech trade shows. Engadget alone published 645 blog posts during CES 2013, which was also the biggest event in its history with over 150,000 attendees. Trade shows still provide an excellent PR platform for many companies, allowing them to meet with the press and foster relationships. Even in an age of increasingly virtual interactions, there is little that can replace face-to-face interactions to build relationships with influencers. And there are also not many other opportunities that allow companies to network with influencers from all over the world in one location. Additionally, trade shows allow companies to capitalize on the overall narrative of the event. CES, for example, is known for setting trends in the tech space and shaping the industry, so not only the tech press but many mainstream news outlets are present, providing tech companies an unmatched level of attention. Unless a product is absolutely groundbreaking, it is generally very unlikely to become evening news. This is a different story at big trade show. Just think of all the 4K TVs at this year’s CES, which really were more evolutionary than revolutionary, but due to the lack of other big trends still were part of many mainstream media reports. The Pebble watch is another product that benefitted from the fact that it was included in many articles and newscasts summarizing highlights of the show. Sure, Pebble, which started as a Kickstarter project, already got a lot of media attention before their announcement at CES, but the show gave this company a much larger platform to reach not only major domestic but also international outlets.
It will be interesting to see how the big tech shows develop in the future and if more of the larger companies pull out or not. There also is potential for smaller but innovative companies to fill the gap. No matter what direction the big tech trade shows are headed, only innovative products will be able to keep the media interested in these events and maintain their value from a PR perspective.