The real reason why virtual trade shows are more than a temporary phenomenon has nothing to do with the pandemic. I’ve given presentations, been on podcast interviews, and written blog posts about all the benefits including cost savings, no geographic restrictions or traveling, greater potential reach, remaining open for extended periods of time, tracking visitors, etc.

And I’ve discussed how virtual trade shows will not replace physical shows because people like to mingle, shake hands with new acquaintances and hug their colleagues. “There’s no such thing as a virtual exhibition”, said Jochen Witt during a Web Summit 2020 panel discussion in December. “It’s nonsense. It does not exist. An exhibition is feel, taste, smell, touch. It’s not possible virtually, it’s not possible digitally. Did you ever take a digital swim or a virtual meal?”

No, virtual shows won’t replace physical shows but the reason they are here to stay is not all the usually cost saving advantages I pointed out. The real reason is that this is one of the best ways to digitally market products and services without getting slapped. Let me explain.

Marketing and advertising have never been easy, but today it is even more of a challenge. People don’t like being marketed to. And they certainly don’t like their privacy being taken advantage of.

Marketers can acquire data by themselves, (aka, “first party data”).  This includes data from behaviors, actions or interests demonstrated across website(s) or app(s), as well as data stored in a business’ customer relationship management system (“CRM”).  By contrast, “second party data” or “third party data” is data acquired from another source.  It could be someone else’s first party data, or it could be data collected by outside sources that are not the original collectors of the data.

The most common method for obtaining consumer data (first, second or third party) over the internet has been through cookies stored on our digital devices.  Cookies are used to track the activities of devices as users visit particular web pages, allowing advertisers to build profiles of a device’s online activities; these profiles can then be used to create targeted advertising tailored to the user of that device.

Marketers are also able to obtain data through social media platforms.  Most of us using social media are aware of the personal information we submit before we create our accounts.  This information may include some personally “identifiable” information, such as our name, address, date of birth etc., but there is other personal information which is not considered “identifiable”, such as our gender, age, postal code, etc.  Marketers can then partner with social media platforms to create marketing campaigns based on consumer segments created through each individual’s personal information.  Data can also be harvested from social medial platforms through scraping of posts.

The problem is, in many cases it is illegal to market to those people by targeting them. What was for a brief period in history a marketer’s dream is now a marketer’s nightmare if you want to remain compliant.

It would be great to get a targeted list of email addresses and send them promotional materials, hoping they would opt-in to your own list. But it is illegal send emails to purchased or rented email lists (yes, people do it, but that doesn’t make it legal). Even if it is not illegal, it may be against the terms of service you agreed to, such as your LinkedIn contacts. And if you do purchase a list, the receivers are not happy about it, often reporting you as spam. The only way around this is to get the owner of the list to send emails on your behalf.

Telemarketing? We all hate that and usually hang up on the callers. Per the FTC, placing telemarketing calls to wireless phones is – and always has been – illegal. (Yes, people obviously do it).

Targeting potential buyers on social media has become much tougher. A few years ago, you could run a Facebook ad that would find your ideal customers because Facebook has all that data. Because Facebook got in trouble, that is no longer possible. The best you can do is by age, geographic area, and general interests.

For example, I recently tried to run an ad for a client who wanted to hire some college students as interns for the summer. That is illegal, because even though the job is for a summer internship, it is age discrimination and the ads were rejected.

The same is true for banner ads and retargeting ad services like AdRoll. This is the reason why you see 100,000 ad impressions and only a few hundred clicks.

Text message marketing is easy, but you can’t market to anyone unless they’ve opted into your list. Businesses are required to obtain explicit written consent (not verbal) to add subscribers to their subscription list.

TV and radio ads, besides being expensive, are not any better – they are not targeting your ideal client.

Influencer marketing sounds like a great idea – getting people to buy from you because someone else suggest it. But, influencers must disclose any financial, employment, personal, or financial relationship with a brand. In other words, a social media post must disclose the fact that a link is a paid endorsement.

This actually goes even further. The FTC’s official position is that if you’re being compensated to talk about someone’s product, then you need to disclose it. So, if you are an agency creating social media posts for a client, you have to disclose it.

Buying links? Link building is of course a preferred way to increase your search engine rankings, but paid listings must be identified as a “sponsored link.” Google’s guidelines don’t request this human-visible disclosure, but instead want those links to use rel=”nofollow” so they can remove the value those citations pass from their link graph.

Reviews are great for building trust, but you cannot incentivize someone to leave you a review. You also cannot impose a penalty for someone that does leave a review.

Trying to get your posts to go viral on social media is likely to get you marked as spam and your URL blacklisted (we should know from our experience with SSCExpo.com being blacklisted by Facebook).

The National Law Review states, “With the spike in US state regulations relating to consumers’ online privacy, such as, CPRA, the Nevada Senate Bill 220 Online Privacy Law (2019), and the Maine Act to Protect the Privacy of Online Consumer Information (2019), the future of digital advertising remains fluid.  There has also been changes in cybersecurity, data security and data breach notification laws.  The bottom line is that marketers now not only have to pay extra attention to each state’s regulation before obtaining and/or processing consumer information, they also have to pay extra attention to the consent obtained.  The free reigns of using unlimited consumer data to create complex algorithms for the optimal marketing campaign is coming to a halt.

Chrome and Chromium-based browsers will stop supporting third-party cookies in 2023, which will affect everyone in the advertising industry. Traditional digital advertising and monetisation methods will become less effective or even stop working altogether. “Users are demanding greater privacy—including transparency, choice, and control over how their data is used — and it’s clear the web ecosystem needs to evolve to meet these increasing demands,” Google announced in a blog post on March 3, 2021. When all major browsers stop supporting third-party cookies, it will become impossible to set up audience targeting and frequency capping for 99% of users.

A recent IAB report revealed that publishers could lose up to $10 billion in ad revenue when third-party cookies are disabled because their ad personalisation options will shrink. According to Google’s research, most publishers could lose 50-70% of their revenue if they don’t reconfigure their approach to ad and data management by 2022.

But, even if it wasn’t illegal and the web ecosystems wasn’t changing, these marketing methods no longer work. Think about it: When is the last time you purchased something from a spam message, whether it was a robo call, a text message, or an email?

The simple fact is, due to privacy concerns, new laws, and advertising blindness (consciously ignoring advertisements) such as skipping commercials on your DVR, marketing today is harder than ever. And it is getting harder. How do you get someone’s attention if you can’t market to them until they have opted in to your list?

Virtual trade shows are a digital platform that overcomes many of those concerns. The people attending virtual shows are there because they want to be there and learn about an exhibitor’s offerings.

Your best choice for marketing is to go viral organically such as being a guest on a major podcast or interviewed by an influencer on YouTube, or exhibit at a virtual show. Until there is a better alternative, virtual trade shows will remain one of the best ways to market digitally. And that is the real reason why virtual trade shows will not only outlast the pandemic, but will continue to thrive for the foreseeable future.