My thoughts on marketing and product placement at ISTE 2012:
Opinions ahead, you were warned.
It is striking to walk the exhibit hall at ISTE and see the millions spent and earned there by companies providing services to the education sector. By all accounts schools and districts all across the country are slashing budgets due to state funding cuts, laying off teachers, closing schools and cutting programs. At the same time there is a thriving industry providing, or trying to provide, tools to schools and districts. ISTE is definitely the place to see educational technology marketing machines at work.
I noticed a lot of product promotion at ISTE. Perhaps you did too. It was in several of the keynotes, as you may have heard. The interesting thing is the product promotion and product placement, I think, really backfired. Each mention of the company or item only made the promoter seem desperate. Everyone in the room was already well aware that these products existed, and many had already chosen not to use them. If the featured products had been more popular I think the perception that there was too much product placement might have been different.
Several companies deemed themselves too big or too important to have a presence in the exhibit hall. Instead they had rooms, some quite large, up in the areas where sessions were being held. I walked by one of them several times, but the doors were always closed. On Wednesday morning, when I did make it in I found out why. This corporate giant was holding sessions about it's products in one quarter of the room and they closed the doors when they did that. The rest of the room was mostly empty and the closed doors meant no one else would make it in for thirty minutes. This doesn't strike me as as marketing genius. I tried sitting through that session, but the display was an awkward assembly of four monitors pushed together, making a large black cross in the middle. The black lines cutting across the information was frustrating and I decided to go.
I did go to a one hour session by the same corporate giant about a new product that I wanted to learn more about because my district is going to use it. The presenter spent the first 15 minutes, yes I timed him, showing pretty pictures of students in classrooms and telling us that the future would be about collaboration. It seems to me like an ISTE audience probably already knows that. Yeah, I left that one too. I may have attention span issues, and I definitely don't mind voting with my feet, but I have zero patience for people and corporations who waste my time with fluff.
I did love the exhibit hall. I spent several hours there on different days. I talked to vendors whose products I use and like. I appreciated the ones who honestly asked me what they could do to improve their product and listened to my answers. I was amused by those who were more interested in scanning my badge than talking to me, just booth flunkies racking up numbers. I took their shwag and left. It will be a long time before I need to buy pens for my classroom.
I think there were lots of companies that did very well at ISTE, spread their message, grew their customer base and increased their visibility. Disruptions are happening in education, but they are happening even faster in marketing. It's not about who knows about your product. It's about who is using it. What's funny is the company that had the most users did not have a booth or any corporate sessions. Why spend the money on a booth when everyone is already holding your device? Even the official conference app was only available from one app store. Product placement is probably more effective when the product is in the hands of nearly all the people sitting around you and not just on a slide in the keynote.