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Success at CES: How to Build Buzz and Stand Out From the Crowd

James Gerber

James Gerber

There aren’t many tradeshows we start planning our PR campaigns around more than six months in advance. CES is one of them, and it’s about as far from an ordinary tradeshow as you can get. With thousands of companies exhibiting, it’s easy to get lost in the noise if you don’t carefully plan your attendance and associated PR activities.

CES is often the culmination of years of work. Engineering, product development, marketing and events teams stress over it. In the days leading up to it, the fight or flight reflex kicks in and adrenaline rushes through your veins, and when you make it through to the other side, bold thinking is rewarded with buzz and new customers.

When it comes to PR at CES, the rewards are big, but so are the pitfalls. In the eyes of the media, you will either be a massive success or a complete nobody. That may be a bitter pill to swallow, but it’s the truth.

The media are on the lookout for the “next big thing” – which isn’t something they find every year. Dealers are at the show looking at the trends and products that are going to shape their inventory. Companies are both sizing up the competition and identifying potential partners.

Put your best story forward – not just your best January one

Having a story is table stakes. Are you making a new product announcement? You should. If not, is there an update to the product you showcased last year or a new use case? It needs to be a big one. Without a news hook and ideally something eye-catching, you’re going to struggle.

What you’re announcing should be your single biggest story of the year. It can sometimes be challenging to resist the temptation of a quick win to hold a story for several months. Your sales team might be itching to sell a product (and they can before a formal announcement in many cases) or you might have pressure from your CMO. But resist that temptation.

One client I worked with really got it. Every year, all of its teams were aligned to introduce new products at CES. It introduced proof-of-concept devices that gave visitors to its booth a peek into the future, which showed the possibilities of its technologies. That led to hundreds of articles, a full slate of customer meetings, tier 1 wins and more. It had four Wall Street Journal articles in the span of less than a week and that was just the tip of the iceberg.

It wasn’t always so successful, however. A handful of people within its marketing and comms teams pushed hard internally to transform the company from a conservative organization to a bolder-thinking, marketing-led one. It previously made minor announcements at CES to minimal success. All of that changed in just one year and it never looked back. A few years later, it was acquired for several billion dollars and in my mind, it was that change in mindset that drove it there.

Bulletproof your messaging

Assuming that you have your story, the next step is completely buttoning up how you’re going to tell it. You want to be able to answer the following questions by Thanksgiving:

  1. What is your news?
  2. Why should anyone care?
  3. What are we inviting people to experience or learn about at your CES booth?
  4. What is the most important messaging?
  5. Who are the core spokespeople who will speak to the media?

This also means having your press release, press kit and any other assets finalized by the time you’re off enjoying Thanksgiving dinner. When your PR team gets back, they’re going to receive the first iteration of the CES media list, and that means it’s go time. They’ll be trimming that list down from 5,000+ attendees to a highly targeted 5 to 10 percent of that number.

Your team will want to begin pre-pitching your news and inviting media to briefings and product demos as soon as possible. They will want to tease certain announcements, offer previews in to key journalists, and bring relevant products to pre-event showcases like CES Unveiled Paris, Amsterdam or New York.

The sooner the messaging elements are complete, the better – and more likely – the media efforts and results will be.