The coming war for data

A battle royal is brewing in the events industry. It doesn’t involve free wi-fi (well a bit actually). It doesn’t involve drayage for our friends in the US (more’s the pity). It doesn’t even involve security and travel bans (serious as those issues are).

No, it involves data. Almost every industry conference you attend these days will include some kind of earnest discussion about digital transformation. Most of the participants still seem to be thrashing around in the dark on this but they are all sure of one thing: that they are producing massively valuable data and that the route to their future fortune lies in monetising that data.

And, therein lies the rub. Whose data is it anyway? Every tech start-up coming to the industry, keen as mustard, is building rich fantasies of dotcom valuations based on re-selling whatever bits and bytes of an event’s data are flowing through their systems. Organisers are doing the same and one can assume that the event services businesses who are busy acquiring a mini-constellation of event tech companies have their eyes on bigger prizes than simple value-added services to exhibitors. Presumably, the companies paying to exhibit and those who give up their time and money to visit also have some claim on the data being generated.

An opinion on who owns and is entitled to monetise this data depends a little on where in the world you sit. The two extremes would appear to be the US and Germany, coincidentally two of the three largest international exhibition markets. The American view, driven by the national passions for free speech and freedom of information, is largely illustrated by the approach we’ve seen from Facebook: exploit everything as hard as you possibly can, squeezing ever ounce of commercial juice out of the user data until they start to complain loudly and then pull back a bit. Germany, driven by some of the darker episodes in its 20th century history, is heavily focused on privacy and the assumption that you can’t use data for any purpose other than exactly the purpose for which it was collected. These two views are likely to colour the ways in which exhibition companies from those countries pursue the monetisation of their data. Most of the world sits somewhere between these two extremes.

There is no doubt that exhibitions, particularly B2B trade fairs, generate enormously valuable data about who is coming, who they are engaging with and what they are interested in. There are very few alternative ways in which B2B marketers could generate or access many of those insights. There is clearly money to be made in this. But, watch out for some fierce arm wrestling in the coming months over where that money will be going.


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