Slightly more than a year ago, tech events in India used to be a relatively straightforward affair. The media were called, a few presentations were made, questions were asked and answers were given, and generally after a demonstration of the product or service that had been launched, everyone headed back to respective destinations – some to corporate offices, some to media houses. The components of a tech event were generally the company behind the event, its public relations and communications team or agency, media persons (including bloggers and ‘influencers’), some stakeholders (investors, dealers) and well, members of the organisation at whose venue the event was being hosted (generally a hotel).
In 2015, however, a new element was added to tech events in India: the fan.
Yes, we had seen the odd consumer and supporter at events, but these were generally small in number. The only media events where the media were outnumbered by users were gaming tournaments or contests. But from around mid-2015, suddenly events with hundreds of fans became the rule rather than the exception with some brands.
Was it Mi?
No one is certain about who started the trend, but most people feel that Xiaomi’s event to launch the Mi4i at the Siri Fort auditorium rather than a hotel or a cafe, with over a thousand “Mi Fans” in attendance played a major role in changing mindsets. “He (Hugo Barra) changed the product launch from a presentation to a show,” an executive from a phone company conceded. “Until that launch, we at the most used to get some song and dance performances by invited artistes. The launch itself used to be a PowerPoint presentation. He changed all that with the Mi 4i.” Indeed, Barra gave the launch an almost gladiatorial air, seemingly orchestrating the cheers of a massive crowd. Applause, generally restricted to the PR team and company executives at events, was a constant, accompanied by seemingly ecstatic screaming and chanting. “It was a bit like a rock concert,” one of my colleagues said at the end of it all.
The event was extensively covered – it was streamed live on the Web, where the sight of Barra on stage smiling and waving at wildly cheering fans was noticed. What, however, was NOT noticed – because it did not come on live streaming – was the problems that came with getting a big audience. After the event, media persons struggled to get into the demo zone, which was packed by fans. Getting a word with Hugo Barra himself was a tough task as he was swamped by fans. Thanks to an on-stage announcement that every person attending would be getting a Mi Band, there was a battle for gift bags and press kits. But what the competition saw was a triumphant CEO showing a product to a mass of seemingly adoring fans. Something that had not really been tried in India on this scale before by a tech company.
And well, the competition paid Xiaomi the best compliment possible – they tried to imitate what it had done with the Mi 4i. In the months that have followed, we have seen a number of companies trying to add “fans” to their events, and shift from conventional conference halls to stadia and theatres. Unfortunately, because they had not seen it at all, they missed out on the dark side of the fan strategy: potential chaos.
The Us Too effect – not effective
The results, therefore, have been mixed. For, while there is no doubt whatsoever that the presence of fans does increase the noise levels at an event, it also comes with its own headaches, especially as far the media (at whom the event is actually targeted) is concerned. For one, the presence of a large number of fans often results in a severe strain on the infrastructure of the venue, be it in terms of comfort of seating or Wi-Fi connectivity. For another, managing so many fans and their transport and seating can be a logistical nightmare. But most importantly, the quality of the fans can make or mar an event. Fans who largely behave themselves can add an element of theatre to an event but if they do not, then problems do arise.
And unfortunately, problems do crop up far too frequently due to fan behavior. We are not targeting any brand in particular, so we will not mention names, but by and large fan behavior at most events has not exactly been immaculate. We have attended events where comments were passed at our female colleagues, and fights erupted over freebie bags and food. And unfortunately, these incidents are not stray ones – indeed matters are coming to such a pass that many of our colleagues simply refuse to go to a media event which features fans. “Spend three hours in a room full of people who scream and shout at every prompt, fight for food and water and not even get a press release at the end of it all? I will pass,” one of our colleagues said wryly.
Small wonder that some companies have started trying to keep separate zones for fans and media at events. But this is often easier said than done due to the sheer number of people involved. “We dedicated fifty people to task. But when a thousand fans turned up, even they could not control matters,” an executive of a PR firm told us. The fact that many of them are not aware of protocols and behavior at events can also caused problems – we have seen CEOs being grabbed for a selfie by a fan even while they were talking to us. And the presence of so many fans can have an inhibiting effect on senior executives too – not too many media Q&A sessions are held in front of fans for the simple reasons that CEOs do not want awkward questions asked at what they see as a celebration.
Quality vs Quantity – the fan effect!
Speaking for ourselves, we have no issues with fans or supporters of a product or a brand attending an event. In fact, quite often, these are people who have used the brand’s products extensively and talking to them has given us a fresh – if slightly passionate – perspective of a product (the word ‘fan’ itself is derived from the word ‘fanatic’ and refers to a passionated and devoted follower of something). Now, we have no idea how brands choose which fans to invite to their events. And if they were people who were in communication with them or who participated in their online communities, well, there would be no issues whatsoever.
It is when the definition of a fan is “anyone who wears our t-shirt and whistles and claps and shouts loudly during the event,” that trouble starts to rear its ugly head. Their familiarity with technology in general and the very brand whose fans they profess to be seems to be minimal. What they do possess, in stacks, is the ability to be loud and to cause chaos, albeit unintentionally, which more often ends up making as much news as the product or service which was launched.
No, we are not going to get into the debate of whether fans should be part of an event which is primarily targeted at the media – that is purely the call of the company hosting the event. But speaking purely as mediapersons, we do wish there was a way to ensure that only “real” fans get into an event. It is not an edifying sight to see executives resorting to desperate measures like getting people off the road (yes, we have seen that happening), calling personal friends (“and yes, get the wife and kids along too“), or sending buses to colleges to just get students in large numbers (that has happened a few times too). The fans have been allowed into the tech event house, but as long as their hosts’ emphasis is on quantity rather than quality, their impact on an event is more likely to be negative than positive.