The European Union Versus Marketers

EU e-Privacy Initiative attacks ad tracking via cookiesI wonder how many marketers are focused on what’s happening in Europe on the digital marketing front? While companies here are busily engaged in making sure ad tracking is being done to the nth degree, in the UK and Continental Europe, new legal restrictions on advertising tracking threaten to upend a lot of these efforts, particularly for multinational brands.

In short, the EU’s e-Privacy Directive restricts the use of “cookies” and virtually all other digital ad tracking methods. And the legal frameworks set up around this directive would require any marketer with users in any EU country to be subject to EU-wide and country-specific privacy legislation.

The new privacy initiatives are far more restrictive than the present US-EU “safe harbor” agreement, which merely requires American companies to notify users when cookies are used on a website. The new regs covering web pages, web apps and mobile apps would require giving notice each time a cookie is used, thereby setting up a flurry of endless notifications that promises to seriously degrade the online browsing experience.

The seemingly reasonable compromise of adding information to a “terms of use” agreement isn’t acceptable to the EU either, unless all users are issued the new agreement and they certify their acceptance.

And just to make sure everyone knows how serious all of this is, the new regs call for the imposition of financial and/or criminal penalties for the non-compliant use of cookies. But for the moment at least, only two relatively small countries besides the UK – Estonia and Denmark – have implemented controls to enforce the EU directives.

Here in the United States, privacy legislation slowly wends its way around Congress, with many legislators understanding that the key to successful commerce online is the ability for marketers to match marketing messages to interested consumers. It’s in Europe where governments appear more than willing to cripple the ability of marketers to do the job they’ve sought to do for decades: Target their audiences with as much precision as possible.

As a result, some European businesses are making noises about abandoning Europe for the United States. The problem is, in the digital age with so much of the branding and commerce blurred between countries, it’s impossible for restrictive moves in one region not to cause negative repercussions somewhere else.

McCormick Place Loses its Luster

Has all the grumbling about Chicago’s vaunted McCormick Place as America’s premier tradeshow venue finally reached critical mass?

For years, corporate exhibitors have groused about government-controlled, money-losing McCormick Place. Stories abound of exhibitors being forced to spend hundreds of dollars for services as mundane as plugging in a piece of machinery, or being charged $1,000 to hang a sign from the ceiling, because of onerous union rules governing “who does this” and “who can’t do that.” It’s been a constant refrain of complaining I’ve heard at every tradeshow I’ve attended at McCormick Place, dating back some 20 years.

Despite all of the criticism about McCormick Place’s high costs and lack of user-friendly service, it remains the largest convention complex in America, with over 2.5 million square feet of exhibit space. But attendance has been declining pretty dramatically, from ~3.0 million in 2001 to ~2.3 million in 2008. While the figures haven’t been released yet for 2009, it’s widely expected that show traffic will be reported as down another 20%.

As the current economic recession has put the most severe strains yet on the tradeshow business, it seems that a rebellion against McCormick Place is in now full swing. According to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, “a gradual drop-off in business … has turned into a rout as a string of high-profile shows have pulled out.” The deserters include a triennial plastics show (~75.000 attendees), as well as the Healthcare Information & Management Systems Society’s annual conference (~27,500 attendees).

But isn’t tradeshow attendance off in other convention centers as well? Well … yes. But clearly not as much. In truth, tradeshow attendance has been under pressure at a “macro” level ever since 9/11, and an important reason beyond the issue of terrorism is technological innovation and the ability for people to interact through video-conferencing and for companies to demo their equipment and services via the Internet and other forms of digital communication.

Tradeshows were once the only way to gather a community together, but now there are other options. One school of thought holds that large tradeshows are now less effective than small, targeted conferences that provide heightened ability for attendees to interact with one another on a more intimate basis. Some events no longer charge attendees … but they make sure to “vet” them carefully to ensure that the show sponsors who are underwriting the costs are reaching prospects with important degrees of influence or buying authority.

On top of these “macro” trends, the current economic downturn just makes McCormick Place look more and more like a loser when it comes to the tradeshow game. Compared to Chicago’s three most significant competing tradeshow locales – Atlanta, Las Vegas and Orlando – the cost of many items from electricians (union labor) to foodservice (greasy spoon-quality coffee at Starbucks® prices) to hotel accommodations (room fees and surtaxes that won’t quit) ranges two times to eight times higher in Chicago. And in today’s business climate when every cost is scrutinized closely, none of this looks very cost-effective to the corporate bean-counters.

True, Chicago is more centrally located for travel from both coasts: Who wants to take a five hour flight from New York to Las Vegas or from California to Orlando to attend a meeting?

[On the other hand, no one can honestly say that the weather in Chicago is preferable to sunny Florida or Nevada!]

So it would seem that Chicago’s worthy tradeshow competitors have achieved the upper hand now. I just returned from two national shows this past week – the International Air Conditioning, Heating & Refrigeration Expo and the International Poultry Expo. Where were they held? Orlando and Atlanta – the same cities which are attracting McCormick Place’s erstwhile customers.