Angels at the Gate: Tech Conferences and the Booth Babe Strategy

[Disclaimer: This is not my SPC11 recap. That is forthcoming, but in the meantime, please check out our video recaps]

There are three types of people you’ll meet at a software conference: attendees, vendors and booth babes.  The attendees are there to pick up new skills, network and score swag. The vendors are there to convince decision-makers to make the right decision. The booth babes are there to reel in the decision makers. You could make the argument that the booth babes are also vendors, but as temporary hires with little-to-no knowledge of the product, the only things they are vending are themselves.

I have two main cases against the booth babe strategy. The first, understandably, is from a feminist standpoint. The use of women as bait is objectifying and creates, to many attendees, a gender-based binary: you are a man or you are a booth babe. (It also, by the way, paints the attendees as slobbering cretins who can be manipulated through their basest instincts.) However, the feminist case against booth babes is, unfortunately, too general to be compelling. Sorry lady, you say, sex sells. Which brings me to my second, fiduciary case:  does it? And, more to the point: does it sell software?

Sure, a hot girl in a skimpy costume is going to draw some eyes, but a) how many of those eyes are qualified and b) of these, how many will stay open for a follow-up sales pitch from a company whose primary sales pitch is sex? It would be one thing if the company’s product was sex, or had sexual applications. When your local car dealership sends out its bikini-filled calendar, it is selling a lifestyle, one that can be attained through a chain reaction that begins with the purchase of a Ferrari.  But the products on display at SPC are not lifestyle products; they are add-ons and enhancements to an enterprise collaboration platform (though there may have been a back room I missed). They are also not impulse buys; most have a fairly lengthy and multi-stepped sales cycle that is unlikely to be triggered by some come-hither cleavage.

When I tweeted about my mystification regarding the booth babe strategy, I got a flutter of rebuttals back, the gist being: booth babes = more foot traffic = more leads = a few more qualified leads. This may be true, but are those additional leads worth the negative brand awareness? And is there a chance that those additional leads aren’t actually additional, that they might in fact be replacing other potential leads who decided to go with a company whose product didn’t come wrapped in silicon? At least in a community like SharePoint’s, I’d say, no, it isn’t worth it, and yes, companies who use booth babes might be losing leads. Why?  Because a substantial percentage of SharePoint users are female. At least one third of the roughly 300 demos we gave were to women, and there was no difference in qualification between them and their male counterparts. And women, be they in Birkenstocks, Crocs or Louboutins, do not tend to respond warmly to sex-based advertising (there is evidence that romance-based advertising can work, if the product is relevant).

The use of booth babes at tech conferences is degrading, offensive and ineffective. If you’ve employed this strategy in the past, you may scoff at or shrug off the first two adjectives, but hopefully you’ll listen to the third.

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