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4 Veteran Marketers Weigh in: Is CES Worth The Investment?

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IgniteX specializes in positioning international technology startups for rapid growth in the USA. We have more than 20 years of experience launching products with public relations and marketing strategies. Here are some of the things we've learned along the way. 

4 Veteran Marketers Weigh in: Is CES Worth The Investment?

Vanessa Castañeda

177,393.

That’s how many people came to The Consumer Electronics Show last year. Renowned in the tech industry as the Super Bowl of all tech industry trade shows, CES roll outs the red carpet to a media army of more than 6,000 journalists. More than 4,000 vendors will pilgrimage to Las Vegas to exhibit in a gargantuan space that’s 2.7 million square feet large. From Sony to Mercedes-Benz to ZMorph 3D, companies of all sizes hope to rise above the noise and win the hearts of both consumers and press.

The inevitable cacophony creates major challenges for young companies, which inspired us to reflect on the state of the marketing industry and the ways we interact with our target audiences. We asked a handful of veteran tech marketers: “Should a company go to CES? And if they do, how do they maximize their investment?” Here’s what they had to say:

Jeremy Toeman is VP of Products for CNET. A seasoned Product Management and Marketing executive, he has over 15 years experience in the convergence of digital media, mobile entertainment, social entertainment, smart TV and consumer technology. Prior ventures and projects include Viggle, Dijit Media, Sling Media, VUDU, Clicker, DivX, Rovi, Mediabolic, Boxee, and many other consumer technology companies. You can follow him @jtoeman, via his blog, LIVEDigitally, or check out CNET.

Should a company even do CES? Is the bang worth the buck? It really depends a lot on the goals of the company. People don’t get how unbelievably noisy the event is. If you want to launch, it is ultra competitive. If you’re planning to make a huge splash, know that you’re a small fish in a big pond. Don’t think that you can rise above the noise because you’re unveiling something that promises to have more immersive sound, a better streaming media player, or a slightly better widget.

What do you bring to the table? If you can be the belle of the ball, there is no bigger place to be. If you have all the right stuff, plan and execute well, you can get a ton of coverage. Then again, that's what they all say.

What is going to make it work? People massively think that their baby is the prettiest, most-perfect baby. It’s hard to get that reality check. Startups and companies really need candid advice. To get ready, you really need to set up appointments in November and early December. The only way you’re going to bubble up through the noise is by standing out in some way. Consider pushing your announcement out early. Maybe if you announce early, before the deluge of vendor news, you might get a team of media’s attention.

Startups need to understand just how inundating PR pitches are on the media. The press get thousands and thousands of pitches on why someone’s product is so special. Most things at CES have probably been done before. A lot of companies are doing the same thing. Get a reality check on the real world and set your expectations realistically. You have to go above and beyond!

From a timing perspective, when should a company get planning activities started? Companies need to start really planning in September. There are so many things to handle. CES is called the Super Bowl of industry events for a reason. As a company considering exhibiting, why are you coming? What are you hoping to get out of it? If you haven’t really planned it out, then reconsider any sort of investment here. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard from entrepreneurs and executives, “We didn’t know what we were doing.” This show is totally plannable. One option: instead of investing in a costly booth presence, just show up; don’t bother launching anything. Come for the networking opportunities that the show provides. If you go with a team, everyone needs to remember what their job is and do it. CNET will have a team of 108 press folks. Every day is planned for every member — from start to finish. We leave some pockets of time. But it’s important to remember that every retailer and every executive from every media company is busy. You should consider attending some networking events. If you’re an outsider and expecting to do well, it would be better if instead you buddy up with someone who knows CES inside out.

For a product launch, what are some key must haves? People want to know when you are going to ship your product. There have been way too many startups hyping vaporware. The media is much less tolerant of this today. Be prepared to give a real ship date, including when people can buy it online, via x channel, in what retail stores, etc.

A good demo is key. Everyone who is showing up representing the company needs to know how to give the demo. Practice in advance. Too many founders get flustered when demos don’t work out.

Have a backup plan for everything related to the product and for every scenario. For example, your network might drop out. Do you have a local demo on your phone? Do you have a canned demo? Bring 2 of everything. Expect to run out of batteries.

What is are 2-3 things that you counsel clients to avoid? Startups need to have solid reasons WHY they have to go to CES. Actually about 10 days after CES is a great time to launch a company. I’ve seen too many offering from startups when products are orthogonal to CES (i.e.; miscellaneous apps, B2B software, etc.). If you’re there promoting a SaaS offering, you’re a square peg in a round hole. CNET, for example, is there to tell people what hardware is coming. CES is largely consumer electronics and all things related to this category. Make sure your company and product offering are a good fit; attending media won’t care about your new mobile app development platform.

Be sure you plan accordingly. This means do your media pre-briefings in advance, send materials, undertake the required press follow ups. etc. By all means, don’t be passive. If there is a reporter passing your booth, walk up to them. Even if they might not notice you, tell them your story and invite them back for a demo or chat. What do you have to lose except them walking by your booth?

Keep your pitch short! Short, short, short! Everybody is busy. Don’t assume everyone has time for your 4-minute elevator pitch. If you can’t give your pitch as media is walking by, you are in trouble.

Lastly, don’t stand at your booth checking your email, expecting people to come up and talk to you. Make sure to proactively talk to the crowd.

What are 2-3 things/activities that you counsel clients to undertake? I recommend a team approach. You want your best people doing the demo. CES is a team effort. For instance, with SlingBox, the CEO did all the press briefings and demos, and I was his backup to step in in case he was busy with someone else. Have a game plan to swap out people for assigned roles.

What are your thoughts on ShowStoppers, PepCom and/or CES Unveiled? I really like these events and am a fan. They can be really really great for startups that have smaller budgets. The key to success for this media event is preparation: what’s coming? Who is going to be there? Do you understand in advance what you’re getting out of it? It’s a gathering for media, distributors and retail channels. This is really the bread & butter of CES. Smaller companies do not have the resources that big companies are planning to spend at this event. I can’t tell you how many times people have told me, “I had no idea. I didn’t realize it was quite so big.” Startups who aren’t familiar with CES before they participate are doing themselves a disservice. It is very difficult to really make a difference at this event.

How important is it to have ‘feet on the street’ as in PR on the show floor? PR people who have connections can be valuable. I would never hire PR consultants or a PR person who has never done PR before at CES. An experienced person is going to be able to make sure the messaging is right for the show. It’s like landing in New York City with no map. It takes time and planning. You can’t just show up and not know what’s going on.

As a vendor, you can’t do CES Unveiled if you’re not exhibiting on the show floor. However, considering doing one or two of these media-only events can work out well. These shows are all good and provide value. It’s a workhorse, so be ready! You'll have to talk for 3 hours straight.

Renee Blodgett is the founder of Magic Sauce Media, a global communications consultancy dedicated to influencer marketing, corporate and product PR, new and social media, and identity branding. She has launched dozens of startups in ten countries and has successfully guided global brands and individuals in the technology, lifestyle, travel and wellness industries. She is also founder of We Blog the World, an online travel site focused on Transformative Travel, which is where wellness, luxury travel and adventure meet. You can follow her on Twitter @magicsaucemedia and @weblogtheworld.

Should a company even do CES? Is the bang worth the buck? CES today is a different show than it was when it was solely consumer electronics and largely consisted of “big boy” brands. Today it is global and reaches markets you typically wouldn’t see at a show, which was previously thought of as a gadget love fest. There are pavilions now dedicated to startups and sections for different regions or countries. For example, startups from Ireland, England, Israel, France and Eastern Europe have blossomed in the last few years. 2014 really saw the explosion of wearables that changed the way we think about connectivity; this trend has moved from simple personal health monitoring to remotely managed homes, hospitals, manufacturing plants and more. Because there are opportunities for smaller companies to get a stage presence for a fraction of the price, there’s value being on the ground even if it’s not on the main floor. Companies have a unique opportunity to set up meetings with potential global partners who are all in one city at the same time. And despite the horrible traffic, it is still relatively easy to get around town.

From a timing perspective, when should a company get planning activities started? It largely depends on the company, the nature of the business and how well known they are in the market. For example, if it’s a startup that no one has heard of before, I’d suggest a 3-4 month lead time, at a minimum, to ensure all of the branding and communications pieces are sewn up before diving into such a massive show. Remember that building a brand and giving it a “purple cow” image doesn’t happen overnight; it takes time to hone the messaging, educate influencers, media, partners and potential customers and execute everything in a way that is seamless and stands out from the crowd. I’m always astonished when I get calls from companies wanting help at CES 2 or 3 weeks in advance. Band-aid approaches and fixes come across as band-aid execution, almost always. Why would you want your brand to be in that bucket when proper preparation and investment can make all the difference?

For a product launch, what are some key must haves? Products aren’t interesting on their own. If you think about all the products and services that really take off virally, there’s a Je ne sais quoi sexiness about them, whether it’s the elegant simplicity that Apple delivers, the unmatched convenience that Uber delivers, or the “gotta have it” quality that TiVo had when it first launched. You win if: you’re first to market with something that the world has been waiting for, second to market but a whole lot cheaper or better than number one, or have a product that is “good enough” with stellar marketing.

There are a ton of successful products that aren’t the best on the market, but they speak to their audience through their marketing in a way that just works. With that mindset, the first “must have” is clear messaging and an understanding of your market and second is flexibility. There will be a lot of ideas pouring out from your team and it’s important to be flexible and open during this process. Whether or not it’s a formal creative brainstorm, it’s important that all voices are heard. Planning is also critical as noted above. Lack of preparation is frequent and often, because everyone is micro-focused on having all the features right rather than how they’re going to deliver them. All of it needs to come together in a beautiful package that is believable, authentic, useful and if not high quality, perceived to be high quality.

Lastly, there are two factors that you can’t always change, depending on the circumstances: pricing and timing. A lot of products fail because they’re either priced out of the market or there are similar products that cost less. If your product doesn’t knock people’s socks off and costs a little more than a known competitor, you face a tough battle. Timing is critical.

What are are 2-3 things that you counsel clients to avoid? As mentioned earlier, lack of preparedness. Having launched companies for more than 20 years, I’ve seen companies fail at execution on the ground at CES year after year, or spend a fortune and don’t get the ROI they thought they would. You don’t need a huge budget for CES to get value, but you do need to invest enough budget to stand out; this can be done creatively and reasonably by using purple cow ideas that are a little out-of-the-box. In other words, don’t think like a technologist; think like a consumer, who in a 2017 landscape is faced with more noise than ever. What is it that consumers truly need in their lives to simplify them, make them better or transform them? If you can’t articulate that, then you’re not ready.

If you’re a small player, don’t over spend in the big hall and expect to get the same visibility as your neighbor just because you spent more money on a booth. So much of the planning happens in advance; and knowing “how” to get the right influencers to show up makes a difference. Getting them excited on the ground means that buzz can happen automatically just as it did when Twitter launched at SXSW.

Avoid cutting corners at the expense of your brand. And, on a logistical note, avoid last-minute booking. The cost of hotels and everything else goes through the roof. Those who have waited until the 11th hour know the pain I’m referring to here.

What are 2-3 things/activities that you counsel clients to undertake? There are cost effective activities and events you can do off-site to garner attention; and it’s well worth exploring collaborative options with partners that have much fatter budgets than your own. Secondly, I’d commit time to educating influencers and reaching out to potential partners and customers in advance, so you don’t entrust CES to be the savior of your product launch for the year. It’s a large show, and it’s noisy from an attention perspective, so it is easy to get lost in the commotion. Come up with a creative idea that sets you apart from anything else your competitors are doing at the show or in general. Bring that creativity to a physical level as well as an online one. Digital needs to match your execution on the ground and be consistent across all platforms.

What are your thoughts on ShowStoppers, Pepcom and/or CES Unveiled? I’ve launched clients at these events for many years and have always found them to be valuable. They provide a smaller, more committed time to be in front of just the media. Key to making these events successful, however, is preparing well in advance. So, you need to plan time to secure meetings, know who you’re going to see and when. Simply showing up and hoping that you’ll run into the right reporter is a mistake, hence my advice to ramp up a few months in advance. If you have a hardware product aimed at the consumer market or a compelling mainstream service, be sure to have a really savvy, well-trained media spokesperson who can do TV interviews on the spot – live and taped.

How important is it to have ‘feet on the street’ as in PR on the show floor? If the internal team doesn’t have a savvy, well-trained media spokesperson on the ground, then it’s critical that a PR rep is on the show floor doing interviews on your behalf. If your product targets women, then make sure a woman is at the helm, as target customers are more likely to relate. If your product targets millennials, then make sure you have a millennial as one of your spokespeople alongside your head of Marketing or head of product. Getting aligned with your target audience is powerful and very real – it brings you that much closer to them. Ideation comes back to you in ways you’d least expect.

If you hire the right PR team, then they will bring significant value on the ground. After all, communications and networking is what they live and breathe more than anything else if they’re worth their salt. They also have the relationships; and if you hire wisely, they’ll weave you into their magical circle of influence. It’s also a team effort, so if you value what they do and make that investment, you’ll approach a PR hire as an investment in your brand, rather than a CES line item expense. For those who think of PR as the latter, they’re likely not to get any value anyway. Attitude is such an important part of success and that attitude needs to be unified with your partners.

Jennifer Deitsch is a skilled communications strategist with deep experience in journalism, public relations, marketing and corporate communications. She specializes in helping fast-growing companies effectively position and market themselves to critical influencers, including potential customers, investors, media, analysts and bloggers. You can follow her @JDeitsch or reach her at IgniteX, an integrated digital marketing and communications agency.

Should a company even do CES? Is the bang worth the buck? CES is really challenging. Unless you have a unique story to tell, don’t bother launching at CES. It’s a ginormous trade show with an incredibly large amount of reporters. You don’t want to be a me-too vendor. If as a company you decide to go, you must have something really special and unique to offer. If you’re the 250th wearable company, you will not rise above the noise.

From a timing perspective, when should a company get planning activities started? The more you can do to plan before the show, the better outcome you’ll have. From a straight out media perspective, make sure to narrow your focus and don’t try to cast such a broad net, chasing after a bunch of reporters. The company needs to set the entire team up for success and that means advance planning with a long lead time. On the PR front, the more you can have your team research reporters the better. Who went last year? What are they covering? Don’t get lost in that giant press list (6,000+), but rather focus on who’s important to your client’s space and offering. Map out a game plan in advance on how to reach out to each target reporter individually. Invest time in getting to know about them, what they write and how your company's product is relevant. You’ll need the lead time to try to line up as many meetings in advance as you can. Depending on your company’s purpose, do as many embargoed meetings before landing at CES.

For a product launch, what are some key must haves? Your company’s demos are going to be key. During CES, plan to give media an inside look of something that hasn’t been seen previously. Make sure that whatever you are showing off, you are showcasing new functionality that is really relevant to the market.

What are 2-3 things/activities that you counsel clients to undertake? Once you have set your schedule in advance of CES kicking off, stick to it or be sure you have appropriate backups for your meetings. Be mindful of reporters’ schedules, because they’ve made time to meet you and walked a great distance to your booth. If you’re meeting is taking place elsewhere away from the exhibitor floor, be sure to make appointments in a convenient location. Unless you have something really unusual or highly desirable to share with reporters, trying to get them to meet at an offsite location (off of the show floor) is not a recipe for success. As part of your demos, try to offer something useful - perhaps a physical beta of your product.

It’s important to build time in advance to make sure your company’s messaging is order. Make sure everyone at your company is singing from the same song sheet. Your messaging should relay how your product solves real world problems and what kind of impact it is having or will have on the market.

What are 2-3 things that you counsel clients to avoid? Avoid a last-minute launch at CES. This absolutely won’t work here. Executives need to be realistic with their expectations about what is achievable given all of the variables of their particular situation. Companies need to allow time to plan, not “just hit go.”

A few things that will help ensure a good presence include appropriate technology, product samples, and videos. A strong product demo is critical. If a company decides they are going to exhibit at CES at the last minute, the best they can hope for is to try and engage media via a disruptive social media channel like Twitter.

How important is it to have ‘feet on the street’ as in PR on the show floor? It’s really important to have your PR partner on site and leverage them to engage and interest more reporters. They’ll also be able to scout attending media via Twitter or text and line up additional meetings. Too often executives and media are running behind schedule and the PR person is going to be the one to iron out those wrinkles and sync up schedules on-the-fly. PR reps are most adept at how to pitch the story to which reporter. Reporters attending CES pretty much tune out the deluge of email pitches, because of the volume. Company exhibitors are given the press list in November, so that is an indication of timing and when all of this outbound effort has to begin. Once the PR and companies obtain the pre-registered press list, the floodgates open on the media.

Alicia Nieva-Woodgate is a corporate communications veteran, with more than 15 years experience in creating and driving strategic in-house and agency led, PR programs. She has consulted for various US and international agencies, VCs, and corporations. She has also advised financial institutions, REITs, retail, biotechnology, and high-technology companies. She is Managing Director of ANW Networks, an integrated communications firm. Follow her @anwoodgate via Twitter.

Should a company even do CES? Is the bang worth the buck? It depends. If you’re an established consumer company, CES is a central place to network with your partners, distributors, etc. It is a one time event for getting meetings going. You don’t necessarily need a booth unless you're an HP, Texas Instruments, etc. If you’re a startup, you do need to consider what kind of relationships you have in place. CES is good for companies that represent target buyers, as well as sellers, target manufacturers, or large retailers. For startups, it can be overwhelming. Just go and walk the floor and meet folks. It can also be a waste of time and money. For instance, if you have a booth, you’re not necessarily going to talk to the key people, because they already have their meetings set up in advance.

What are your thoughts on ShowStoppers, PepCom and/or CES Unveiled? Attending any of these really depends on the company’s budget. If their budget provides an opportunity to do both a booth and one of these media-focused events then great. If a company decides to go for it, ultimately the outcome for participating in one of these CES-media focused events depends on the relationships you’ve established. Pavilions are a good strategy to consider. A company could just skip the booth entirely and network on the show floor. Or they could consider participating in one of these and also get a suite if needed such as at the Sands, Wynn or Venetian, where a cluster of people can visit relatively easy.

From a timing perspective, when should a company get planning activities started? Six months in advance. We typically start working with clients for their CES activities in July. Remember this: no matter how early you start, it’s never early enough.

For a product launch, what are some key must haves? Make sure your messages are down pat and have really good materials ready. Put all materials on a USB that you can hand out. The USB shoud contain all of the product information, video, demos, anything that can help sell the offering. Make sure to have a working demo that you can show in 2 seconds flat. Be prepared to maximize any opportunity. If you can’t have a working demo, then plan to have a canned one. Don’t bother going to CES if your product is not ready for manufacturing and shipping within 6 months. There is an expectation from media and attendees that any product at CES is generally available within 6 months. People want to plan for their Xmas buying cycle with a realistic budget and plan. If you can’t deliver, you’ll see a drop in interest and orders. Ultimately if you have vaporware, you’re just wasting everyone’s time.

What are 2-3 things that you counsel clients to avoid? Don’t harass the press. If they are not interested, respect that and don’t take it personally. If they say no, leave it alone. Follow up in a different manner or with someone else.

Also, avoid getting trapped into investing in a CES booth because you were pressured by a CES salesperson, your VCs, partners or customers.

What are 2-3 things/activities that you counsel clients to undertake? If you have partnerships with a large company that plans to exhibit, find out if they can showcase your product, so you can save money on the cost of a booth. You could just go to CES for the day and work the floor.

Take half a day out of your schedule to scout out the competition. Go walk the show floor. Go check things out and leave your bubble. If you have the money, go listen to some key sessions or visit some of the shows within the show (i.e.: Last Gadget Standing, Digital Money Forum, Digital Hollywood).

Another option is to consider participating in CE Week, which happens in the summertime. The cost is way less expensive and can have an equal impact if not more for your product.

How important is it to have ‘feet on the street’ as in PR on the show floor? Depending on who the PR people are, it’s absolutely important and invaluable to have your PR folks there. PR people can make the introductions on the fly and spin the story the right way. PR people are the ones who also get invited to all the parties and they can bring clients.


That concludes our blog post about CES. Thank you for reading.

And stay tuned to IgniteX for more stories about the strategies and tactics that make companies grow or flounder.

P.S. Coming up on IgniteX’s blog:

The story of a startup that unveiled their product at CES and learned how to leverage the event to get their company acquired within two years.

Plus an inside look at another up and coming big tech industry event, and the creative marketing strategies startups are using in lieu of traditional trade show circuit tactics.