The moment I realized I had hit rock bottom was in Las Vegas in 1994. It was at the software industry’s giant COMDEX trade show there. I was working for a company that made computer games for kids, and the star of our games was an animated otter. To get attention at the trade show, we hired a college mascot seamstress to fabricate a heavy otter costume out of fake fur and foam. A young woman employed at our company agreed to wear the costume, but it was warm in Vegas that November, especially in the middle of the packed convention center. You can predict what happened.  Within hours, we were handing the otter cold water to try to stabilize its internal temperature. The trade show was critical for us. We were launching new products. We verbally pressured the otter to keep going, to keep waddling and hugging trade show attendees. But by the second day, we had reached the breaking point.  I found our otter, in full costume, passed out from heat exhaustion on the floor behind our trade show booth.

But it wasn’t just us. In the years that preceded ’94 and the years that followed it, COMDEX became a ridiculous scene, ballooning to become the largest trade show in the world. Exhibitors attracted customers by any means necessary, often with tactics far more provocative than otter costumes. Eventually, the situation could not sustain itself. A backlash erupted from exhibitors, the press and attendees. Everyone bailed at once. And ten years later, things totally imploded. The largest trade show in the history of the world was cancelled in 2004.

And it wasn’t just COMDEX. Tradeshow attendance worldwide has tumbled in recent years. People point to virtual online tradeshows as the reason for this, but I don’t agree. I have never participated in an online tradeshow, and I don’t know anyone who has.

What really killed tradeshows is word-of-mouth marketing. Companies have found it exponentially easier to find new customers through their existing networks of customers, partners and employees. Email and social media have fueled this explosion, making connections easy and innocuous. Marketing managers no longer have to pay otters, magicians or porn stars to make their connections for them in a crowded room. Sales people don’t have to spend days walking hard convention center floors, searching for an old contact in hopes he’ll introduce you to someone else. With word-of-mouth, fueled by social media, the connections we make are easy; they can happen any time, and they seem to last forever.

This is especially true in business-to-business relationships. A solid, ongoing word-of-mouth program, where incentives are used to motivate customers to introduce new ones, is like a trade show that never ends. At Amplifinity, our customers for our B2B word-of-mouth social media applications are finding this is exactly the case.

And I’d rather reward a customer than shove an employee into an otter costume any day of the week.