IRA 2011 – Publisher Reflections

Free RocksThe International Reading Association’s annual conference has been steadily declining in attendance (and thus importance to vendors) for several years now. From a draw of 20,000 attendees the show now attracts less than 8,000. From a content standpoint it remains a top drawer event. That isn’t the focus of this piece. I’m making a more mercenary assessment of the event from a marketing perspective.

Reading Language Arts remains the single biggest segment of instructional materials spending (over 60%). Exploring why the show at the heart of the education market is getting smaller should reveal some telling lessons for vendors evaluating how they go to market these days.

This year’s exhibit traffic was considerably better than last year’s, but the show floor was still a shadow of its former glory. Vendor booths barely filled 70% of the exhibit hall and other than a couple of the major publishers (notably Scholastic) most companies were taking less space than they did even 2-3 years ago.

The vendor commitments to my eye appeared to be scaled appropriately for the opportunity. PCI and others were having substantive conversations with customers actively seeking solutions.

What follows is my own rough estimation of the key factors in the show’s decline. These themes will look familiar to regular readers.

  • Centralized Decision Making
  • Technology Substitution
  • The Internet
  • The Economic Downturn

The first three are long term trends while the last one is transitory (hopefully).

Centralized Decision Making

NCLB’s accountability measures changed the dynamic of the whole market. With jobs on the line administrators pulled decisions from teachers and principals. Simply put there are fewer people involved in making decisions about what to buy and when they are purchasing they are making bigger more comprehensive decisions.

Rationally Districts are simply sending fewer people because fewer people need to be involved in making decisions about what they are doing about reading.

This isn’t all bad from a vendor standpoint. If smaller decisions get bundled the size of the market hasn’t changed all that much. This would explain why vendors like Scholastic who offer comprehensive core programs have largely maintained their presence. Even supplemental solutions, if they are complete programs, are attractive to these buyers.

From a traditional supplemental vendor’s perspective this has been a disaster. Individual teachers no longer show up seeking targeted solutions for this year’s crop of learners. They are not coming to buy a book on spiders or space travel. The administrators are looking for complete libraries.

Vendors should show up with a smaller footprint and with their complete solutions in tow. Leave the little supplemental stuff behind for your web site. In large part this is what appears to have happened.

But there are three other factors that are driving the change.

Technology Substitution

But for all that the most striking thing about the exhibit area at IRA is the absence of technology. It is still primarily a book show. Yes, Scholastic, Pearson, and Study Island all had tech presences there (along with many others). But, wandering the aisles one saw rack after rack filled with Ghandi biographies, turtle books, and teen vampire sagas.

This raises the question of relevance. Educators are starting to demand some element of technology in every purchase they make, even if it is just PDF’s on a CD. It reminds me of when standards swept into the market and it became impossible to start a sales conversation without first demonstrating that you were standards aligned. Not many people used those alignments – but they simply would not consider products that didn’t have them. The same is true of technology today.

I wonder if part of the problem is that for many educators a show that is fixated on books simply isn’t as relevant as something like ISTE. Changing this dynamic at IRA has to become a joint project of both the association and the vendor community. Books are not going away, but books without some kind of tech hook don’t have the draw needed to keep the event vibrant.

There are small but concrete steps that could encourage this – like getting the convention center to waive their ridiculous $99 charge per internet connection. There is lots more that could be done to encourage vendors who are attending to flog their tech and to recruit tech vendors who have reading solutions to attend.

The challenge here is cultural more than it is practical. The people who belong to IRA generally love books and want to celebrate them. But we can’t afford to ignore the cold hard fact that much of our teen’s reading is moving to pixels. Failing to emphasize that reality is undercutting the long term relevance of the show.

The Internet

The economic downturn is accelerating a inevitable transition to early information gathering via the web in place of trade shows. As noted elsewhere one of the central questions marketers need to resolve today is the mix between trade shows and web presence.

Trade show conversations have always clustered at the ends of the purchase process. Districts just starting to explore their options review a lot of products in one sweep of the floor to set a baseline of what they should be evaluating. At the other end Districts realizing they need to spend budget dollars quickly are out trying to nail down what needs to go into POs that have to be cut in the next 90 days.

In normal times the skew is to the folks just starting out with a few lucky bluebirds tossed in. Conferences this year have the reverse mix as folks scramble to spend the last of their stimulus money. More significantly the folks at the front end of the process are using the web more frequently instead of going to shows.

Companies need to be acutely aware of what this means for their on-line presence. If you think of your website as a 24/7/365 trade show booth instead of brochureware you start to do some very different things with your product pages. Think carefully about all the information someone just starting out with a purchasing decision needs and make sure it is easily downloadable. More importantly think about the terms they will use at the start of the process (hint – not the same as at the end) and make sure you are optimizing for those phrases.

If your flagship products still just have a cover shot, an ISBN, and a price you are going to get your lunch eaten in this new world.

The Economy

One of the major challenges for all education trade shows is the difficulty of justifying travel and convention costs at a time when districts are laying off staff and slashing programs. Unfortunately this trend line isn’t set to improve for a couple more years, so this impact of the downturn will linger on through 2014 or 2015.

This has had an impact, but I would argue that it is far less than the other factors. It also isn’t something the show community has much control over. As a community we need to focus our efforts on addressing the first three issues.


IRA continues to struggle for a relevant identity in a world that is rapidly moving to reading on-line and on the go. The economy is accelerating a trend towards on-line fact finding early in the buying process making the exhibit area less attractive to vendors. The event also needs to move much more aggressively to a blended print/technology focus.