I’ve tried to stay away, but what Dave Haynes calls the “tomato fight” between the Digital Signage Federation (DSF) and the Digital Screenmedia Association (DSA) has escalated just a tad in the past week or so.  First, DSF announced a sponsorship agreement with Exponation making DSF the Association Sponsor of the Digital Signage Expo (DSE), and DSE the exclusive trade show partner of DSF.  Under the agreement, DSF will receive significant financial support, and DSF members will enjoy certain benefits via DSE. In short, it assures the financial viability of DSF and its educational and advocacy missions. The announcement surprised no one given the well-documented genesis of the DSF. DSA’s sister company, Digital Signage Today, owned by NetWorld Alliance, noted the announcement with an uncharacteristically sarcastic headline, and a predictably terse paragraph with no links. (Note: NetWorld’s head-in-the-sand policy that hyperlinks should be paid content speaks volumes.) Then yesterday, DSA Board Member and Symon CEO Charles Ansley posited the rhetorical question “Are we doing tradeshows right?” in a DSA blog post.

One must assume that Mr. Ansley’s post had four purposes. First, as a DSA response to the DSF-DSE linkup; second, as a precursor to whatever announcement DSA plans to make regarding its own trade show sponsorship; third, as a slam against any show not sanctioned by DSA; and fourth espousing his own company’s views. Let’s take a look at each. The first point requires a bit of historical background.

About a year ago, DSA realized that the best interests of the members would be served by becoming independent of NetWorld Alliance, its long term benefactor. To break away from NetWorld would require a new revenue source. As pointed out here around that time, real industry associations derive significant revenue from captive trade shows. With this in mind, Charles Ansley was one of the DSA Board members who approached Angelo Varrone, CEO of Exponation, with a proposal to make DSE the “official” DSA show. Without going into details, the terms proposed by DSA were so over the top that Exponation not only turned them down, but also launched a truly independent industry association, DSF. Apparently, in the months that have passed, Mr. Ansley has determined that digital signage industry trade shows are a terrible waste of money. If he were being open and honest with his readers, he would admit that DSE was DSA’s first choice, that he was a prime mover in that effort, and that his sudden distaste for DSE  is motivated by politics and sour grapes. To wit: DSA bigwigs Symon, Enqii, Coolsign and Scala all abstained from signing up for 2011 DSE booth space way back in March in protest of DSF’s formation. Scala, to their credit, later made a business decision to retain their space. If in fact the others generated no leads at the industry’s largest show, which seems doubtful in at least one case (skip to the 2:25 mark), here are some friendly tips on what not to do at trade shows, and some thoughts from Seth Godin on marketing. But to use a broad brush to paint the DSE as a lead-challenged vendor fest flies in the face of the empirical evidence of growth in both exhibit hall space and attendee registrations.

The post goes on to inform the reader of DSA’s effort to secure an official show to sponsor. The natural fit would be JDEvents’ CETW shows, as they have a history of serving both the self-service and digital signage spaces, which maps well to DSA’s newly diverse membership. However, if their terms of engagement are similar to those offered to Exponation, one can assume that JDEvents would provide the same “digital sign” to DSA that Exponation did. Or perhaps they learned from their first mistake, I suppose we will find out. DSA may alternatively choose to initiate their own show, a certain death march toward insolvency. Or they may strike a deal with InfoComm, GlobalShop or someone else. Regardless, it will be positioned as the new place to be. Digital Signage Today may even provide hyperlinks. But it won’t be their first choice.

Mr. Ansley is careful not to name any names, but his comments on the nature of the de facto industry shows, DSE and CETW, are debatable, especially in light of his proposed solutions. He says, “In many cases, the audience is a semi-qualified group of prospective buyers – the vast majority of whom are already generally aware of digital signage. In most cases however, we end up strutting our stuff for our competitors.” The fact is that both events spend a significant amount of time and money attracting potential buyers to their venues. Their growth speaks for itself. In the case of CETW, they are particularly vigilant in denying entry to folks who do not qualify as potential buyers. And I can only speak for myself when I say that I would prefer to pay for the chance to pitch to prospects who are “generally aware of digital signage”, as opposed to starting from scratch with curious folks who haven’t a clue. To take the absurdity further, Mr. Ansley promotes the DSA-sponsored digital signage pavilion at the SGIA conference. Without equivocation, it is a laudable outreach effort by DSA. However, it is hardly a prospective mother lode of hot leads. When asked, as we are by Mr. Ansley, if one can “…think of a better opportunity for digital signage exhibitors?”, my answer is YES, I can think of many. The SGIA is great if you want to pitch to custom t-shirt screen printers. Granted, there may be a few conventional sign folks who see the writing on the wall for their business. Maybe Mr. Ansley sees that as a near-term growth channel for digital signage vendors. The beauty of our free society is that we can all spend our precious marketing dollars the way we see fit. Companies will vote with their checkbooks.

Finally, the comments with respect to CTIA are interesting to say the least. I can understand DSA wanting to cater to the mobile side of “screenmedia”, of which Mr. Ansley’s company is a big supporter. But to characterize the CTIA retail pavilion as a great place for digital signage companies to display their wares to retailers is high comedy. CTIA is about the wireless ecosystem, and the overwhelming majority of retailers at that show are cellular retailers: check out their site. There are five or six big cellular retailers out there (most of whom already have digital signage partners), and the rest are the contract resellers and mall-based kiosk vendors you see every weekend. I would wager that Mr. Ansley and his fellow Board members aren’t terribly interested in the onesy-twosy deals. And if they are after one of the bigs, it just might be smarter to go to their headquarters and talk to power. If you want to talk to diverse retail buyers, I would recommend that you consider exhibiting at the NRF Big Show in January. Careful, though: many will be generally aware of digital signage.

The discourse closes with an urgent prescription for the industry: have DSA sponsor a trade show “where the real users and key buyers can focus their attention and resources”. DSA had identified DSE as that trade show a year ago but got greedy, thereby creating a big mess, spawning a competitor, starting a tomato fight and losing negotiating leverage with others in the process. Now they must position whatever they end up doing as what they wanted to do all along. Maybe the press release headline will read, “Mission Accomplished”.

(Disclosures: I am an interim Board member of DSF.  Our company is already signed up as an exhibitor at upcoming CETW events in NYC and SF, as well as DSE 2011 in LV. Both are integral to our marketing plan.)