Bruce Cole: Marketing open source in the real world

The penguin featured in the Real World Linux 2004 logo is sitting comfortably, his webbed feet crossed, but that doesn’t mean Bruce Cole is resting on his laurels.

As the president of the Canadian open source trade show, Cole is

busy getting ready for the event’s second year, which will run April 13 to 15 at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. This year the show has attracted Novell Canada as a platinum sponsor, and the conference will be complemented by a Real World Linux Biz Portal with IT resources and educational opportunities.

“”We’re trying to close that loop between the people that have Linux solutions and the people that are looking for Linux solutions, or are trying to find out about Linux to see if that’s a road that they should be going down,”” he said.

Cole recently spoke with Pipeline about why event marketing still matters, and how he’s building on the Real World Linux brand.

ITB: How did this show get started, and what did you learn from the first year?

Bruce Cole: It had all the challenges that a launch event has. It started with a business plan that took four months to develop, because part of a business plan is to make sure that there was a broad enough universe to actually hold an event of the scale I was anticipating it to be. After doing research it could have turned out that it would have made a great hotel show, as opposed to a convention centre-level activity. Or it might have been a one-day conference. That was one of my own personal questions I had to answer: the breadth and depth of the marketplace I was tackling in the Canadian space.

ITB: There are a lot of open source events in the United States, like the LinuxWorld Expo. What did you borrow from those, and to what extent did you differentiate yourself from them?

BC: Well, I would have to say that our event is targeting the senior decison-makers first, and as I kindly call them, the nerds second. That certainly is a different approach than the U.S. Linux events that you’re referring to, and that came from my research as well.

ITB: Linux has gotten endorsements from a number of major vendors, but how did you make sure that the market was ready to support a show like this? This is a challenging market for trade shows in general.

BC: And a challenging market for trade shows in the technology sector. It’s a double-whammy. I’ve been producing conferences and trade shows for 21 years now. Because I own my own company, the events I do I produce myself. Therefore, with that experience behind me, I know how to do it. As challenging as it is — and it is challenging — I know the questions to ask and how to evaluate the responses I get.

ITB: How do you reassure marketers that they’ll get the kind of qualified audience they’re looking for?

BC: That’s my job as the show producer. I have to understand the market and what their expectations are. If I can meet those expectations, I can create a win-win situation for the visitors who are looking for information or are in the top end of the buying cycle, or for my exhibitors that are trying to target a particular group of individuals. It’s my job to understand who they want to see.

ITB: A lot of people, though, have complained about trade shows filled with people who aren’t really there to buy, or kids. How do you manage that?

BC: We have very strict policies. We publish that you have to be 19 or over. We do not permit children. We do not permit infants. We do not permit strollers. We don’t make an exception for anyone, even the exhibitors. We let them know in advance, and we don’t permit students, at any age. If they register as a student, we politely tell them that it’s not a student event. Students that appear in our show are actually from our volunteers that help us out on the conference. But it’s a business-to-business event. We only operate during business hours, and there the audience gets qualified because of our focused marketing to a particular sector. The message we send out in this case is about Linux, and therefore anyone going to the show isn’t going to wonder what they’re going to see. Our brand says what we do, and in our case that’s very important.

ITB: Some trade shows have moved away from a focus on the exhibit hall to the educational tracks. How are you managing that issue?

BC: I’m a firm believer in what I call adult education. From the very first event that I produced, it had a very heavy conference orientation. Part of my purpose in creating these events is to provide a very strong educational component. If you look at our event, it’s a very qualified educational experience as much as it is a show.

ITB: Now that you have the first show under your belt, is it getting easier to find sponsors? This year you’ve added Novell, for example.

BC: How do you define “”easier?”” I can’t say that life specifically gets easier. I think that the more that I’m in the market space, the more I understand it, so therefore I’m getting into the rhythm of the industry. Today there’s so much competition for marketing dollars that I don’t believe anyone spends them without being sold. I don’t care whether it’s print, television, radio, trade shows. People just do not automatically say, “”We did it last year, we’ll do it this year”” in any marketing medium.

ITB: Has the postponement of Comdex Canada helped you at all?

BC: Well, this is the third postponement. It’s not good and it’s not bad. It depends on the potential exhibitor that you’re speaking with. I think it’s a matter of building an event that has a need in the marketplace. The one thing about events is that there are no secrets, and what I mean by that is when the doors open, everyone can see the success of the event. The exhibitors are there, the visitors are there. You can’t make things up in our industry, which is one of the things I like about it, because I know if I’m delivering to my exhibitors. And of course you can’t deliver 100 per cent to every exhibitor. It’s a matter of working with your constituency and making it the best that you can.

ITB: Do you have any advice for how marketers could maximize their investment with Real World Linux, either as an exhibitor of a sponsor?

BC: You’ve got to set the expectations. And at the same time, if an expectation is set incorrectly, then I work with them to bring that into line, which in effect will affect whether they’re a sponsor or just an exhibitor, or whether they’re going to buy show guide advertising or whatever else they’re considering doing. If a company goes overboard in their investment, they’re going to expect an even greater turn. I produce shows for the long term as opposed to producing shows for one year. I look at working with my exhibitors as a two, three, four, five-year process as opposed to seeing what I can get today.

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