Apple and the Importance of Macworld Expo

This week, Macworld Expo opens in San Francisco. And, as everyone likely knows, it's a particularly significant episode of Expo because Apple will not be counted among the participants. You know what this means: No Apple announcements or booth, no Steve-led keynote, fewer vendors, and little front-page coverage.

Yet when I put my selfish desires aside, I care very little about Apple's absence. Because, for me, what Apple does and doesn't do at Expo makes up a small portion of the value I derive from it.

At last year's keynote presentation, Phil Schiller repeated Apple's line regarding trade shows--"Every week, 3.4 million customers visit an Apple store around the world.... That's 100 Macworlds each and every week."

And, from Apple's perspective, he's right. For Apple, Macworld Expo was a marketing event. It was a way to create buzz about new products and the company and give attendees a chance for some hands-on time (even though the extent of that hands-on time might be staring at an iPhone suspended in a glass case). While the Apple Stores certainly serve to sell products, they also provide some of the same experience as meandering through the Apple booth--you have a chance to gawk at Apple's product line and ask questions.

Yet the "Apple store = Macworld Expo" message cuts two ways. If the main experience attendees get from having Apple at Expo is touching Apple products, then yes, they might as well go to an Apple store. But if it really is about making physical contact with Apple products, why do we care if Apple attends (other than the fact that other vendors have followed Apple's lead)? People who want to grope Apple's stuff this week can simply walk a couple of blocks to the Apple store at Fifth and Market.

There's an additional important similarity. Whether you see Apple at Expo or at one of its stores, the communication flows in one direction. In neither case do you have a conversation. Apple has a message to deliver and you listen to it. This isn't a criticism. I can't recall the last time I had an honest exchange of ideas with my gas company or the people who built my television. I clearly understand the dynamics of the store/customer relationship.

So yes, from a marketer's viewpoint, "Apple store = Macworld Expo."

What Schiller understandably didn't talk about are all the things Expo provides that have nothing to do with Apple--opportunities to have real conversations and exchange ideas, chances to experience elements of the Apple ecosystem that the company won't talk about, the ability to learn from people who don't have to parrot a company line, the option to look at products that the Apple store doesn't carry, and the pure joy of hanging out with people who are excited about the same things you are.

I understand that there are some people who go to Expo for the adventure of lining up in the wee hours to see a Steve Jobs keynote or simply to spend time in Apple's booth breathing the company's air. And I'm not denigrating the experience. It was an adventure and a way to let your Apple freak flag fly. But it's over. If you seek these one-way experiences of the past--where nothing short of dazzling gewgaw after dazzling gewgaw will do--you're likely to be disappointed.

But make the effort to see beyond Apple, Apple, Apple, booth, booth, booth and you'll discover what a lot of us have known for years--it's about the interaction. The real merit of Expo is the people there--the ideas they bring, the skills they bear, and the enthusiasm they harbor.

As Apple's made clear, you can see stuff in stores and on the Web. Talking to the guy or gal who made your favorite iPhone app, wrote your design bible, watched your back in a contentious forum exchange, changed your life with a single blog post, or complimented the Apple logo inked into your thigh is something you'll find in no store on earth--even those with glass staircases and shiny Apple logos. You just can't buy these kinds of experiences.

So, corny as it is to write, you get out of Expo exactly what you put into it. I look forward to seeing those of you willing and able to make the effort.

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