The Case for Trade Show Audits

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An article in the Nov. 10 issue of BtoB magazine disclosed some timely and interesting information on the subject of trade show audits. It said trade show operator MediaLive International, "answering the call for third-party verification of its trade show numbers and demographics," had announced that it would obtain an attendance audit of its Comdex Las Vegas show.

The article continued, "MediaLive also announced the formation of the IT Event Management and Audit Council (IT EMAC), an independent group that will create and promote audit standards for the IT event industry." Among the members on this council were representatives of the BPA and major exhibitor companies such as business and trade publisher IDG, Microsoft, Quantum Corp and Tech Target.

This development is a welcome and long overdue step toward the honest reporting of attendance figures at industry conferences and trade shows. We hope that the operators of shows in direct marketing and related fields will follow suit immediately. Why? Because the exhibitors and sponsors - who account for the lion's share of the revenue at these events - are clearly entitled to quantitative and qualitative verification of the attendance at shows that they support.

The exhibitor and sponsor companies who are the financial backbone of our industry trade shows also happen to be the backbone of our industry trade journals. So let's compare the respective auditing standards between trade shows and trade magazines. When we started DM News in 1979, one of the first things we did was apply for a BPA circulation audit. We did that in part because we wanted to establish legitimacy and to show that we had a quality circulation to the supplier companies we hoped to attract as advertisers. We also did it because we had to.

Even then, a quarter of a century ago, it was the industry standard for publishers of business and trade journals to demonstrate the legitimacy of their audiences by submitting their circulation statistics to an independent auditor such as BPA. If you didn't have a proper audit of your circulation, you could basically forget about selling advertising - particularly to a company that was represented by an advertising agency.

Suffice it to say that a publication's circulation audit contains a wealth of useful information about the subscriber base - starting with the overall number of subscribers, then moving on to their job titles and types of business, geographic distribution, information on whether the subscriptions are paid or free, and if they are free, whether the subscribers requested the publication or were simply added from a directory or compiled list.

In stark contrast, to the best of our knowledge, there isn't a single conference or trade show in direct marketing or related fields that can produce a quantitative or qualitative audit of its attendance. While the operators of some shows occasionally do release figures, we've been amused, on several occasions, to make an unofficial count of several hundred or so people that we could see in attendance at a given event and then later go to the organizer's Web site and read about the thousands who had supposedly attended (obviously at a different time from when we were there).

The potential for embarrassment at this type of discrepancy may account for why the Direct Marketing Association, which is full or part owner of most of the shows in the DM field, has adopted a policy of not releasing attendance figures at all - a policy that is faithfully repeated to trade publication reporters and, presumably, exhibitors and sponsors every time they ask about attendance figures for a given show. Forget about job titles, demographics and buying influence. Forget about whether they paid to get in. The DMA won't even tell you how many people attended the show!

Can you imagine what would happen to a business magazine or newspaper that said to its prospective advertisers, "It's our policy not to release our circulation figures?" You would not see too many more issues of that publication.

We think it's high time for the DMA and other trade show operators in this field to start showing a little more respect for the supplier companies who have faithfully supported their shows for years based on the "honor system" - or the DMA variation, which bluntly informs exhibitors and sponsors, "Just because you pay the bills, don't think this gives you a right to know what you're paying for."

In light of Enron, Global Crossing, Worldcom, Arthur Andersen, HealthSouth, Tyco, Wall Street's star analysts, the mutual fund industry and countless other examples of contemporary corporate ethics, does anyone still believe in the "honor system"? We vote for the formation of a new council of exhibitors and sponsors, working in collaboration with the BPA auditing organization (who would readily cooperate): "The Direct Marketing Event Management and Auditing Council (DM EMAC)."


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