SLA: Why Special Libraries Aren’t So Special Anymore

SLA LogoI attended the SLA (Special Libraries Association) meeting two weeks ago in Philadelphia.  I had skipped the meetings for a half decade but returned last year when it was in Boston (where I live) and again this year in Philly (cheap, one hour flight).  The show is much smaller that it was ten or fifteen years ago when it would be packed at the Jacob Javits center in New York City.  There are fewer attendees, fewer exhibitors, smaller booths, and less energy.  This is probably the case for most trade shows which are not industry events (e.g. Dreamforce).  Fifteen years ago, when I was at OneSource (now Avention), vendors timed product releases for the SLA show.  That is no longer the case.  Sales Intelligence vendors now ignore the SLA and time their release calendar around Dreamforce.

SLA Attendee Statistics from the 2016 Exhibitor Prospectus
SLA Attendee Statistics from the 2016 Exhibitor Prospectus

The show itself has always been a bit of a hodgepodge with STEM, Legal, Financial, Business, News, and other vendors providing databases and research tools for corporate, academic, and research libraries.  But two decades ago, corporate libraries were either closed or their budgets were slashed.  Centralized repositories made less sense as information delivery shifted to Internet browser and API-based workflow tools.  Nowadays, few corporate libraries are involved in buying business research tools and, when they are, it may be more as an influencer than a buyer.  According to the 2016 Exhibitor Prospectus, only 7% of the attendees were corporate.  Even if you add in financial services, insurance, and consulting, only one in six attendees was a likely buyer of business information databases.

Half the attendees were librarians or library directors, but two decades ago, budgets and decision making authority shifted away from corporate libraries due to the Internet.  This was a precursor to the current shift of purchasing authority away from IT to functional departments caused by the cloud.

I didn’t write about the SLA at the time because I was on the exhibitor floor when one of the vendors mentioned that Microsoft acquired LinkedIn.  This was one of the biggest transactions impacting the sales intelligence space (LinkedIn Sales Navigator is the largest revenue sales intelligence vendor and Microsoft Dynamics is the second fastest growing CRM) and neither vendor was at the show.

Nor were LinkedIn’s competitors in the recruiting, marketing, social media, and professional subscription services spaces.  Not many sales intelligence vendors attend the show anymore.  You used to see Dun & Bradstreet / Hoover’s / First Research, Zoominfo, OneSource (now Avention), and Sales Genie along with many of OneSource’s aggregation partners.  LexisNexis and Factiva both flew the flag at the show, but their primary offerings are not business information but legal (Lexis) and news (Nexis and Factiva).  Except for PrivCo, none of the PE/VC focused vendors were onsite.

Interestingly, many internationally-focused vendors such as BvD, EMIS, BMI, MarketLine, Euromonitor, and Financial Times still attend.  The industry research segment seems to have held up better than business information.  BMI, MarketLine, IBISWorld, and Euromonitor were there along with various industry specific vendors.  However, Plunkett Research and First Research (owned by Dun & Bradstreet) were not present.

The decline of tradeshows is tied to Buyer 2.0.  It used to be that tradeshows were one of the few ways you could semi-anonymously gather information about vendors.  But now, information services no longer require a face-to-face meeting for demos.  You will find them on YouTube and Vimeo as either training tools, feature specific release demos, or recorded webinars.  And once buyer and seller are speaking, web sharing tools have long replaced onsite demos.  We have become accustomed to signing up for services without meeting a sales rep face-to-face.  At the lower end of the market, users simply enter a credit card and may never speak to a representative of the company.

Nowadays, there is so much information available online that the attendees are on site either for professional development (and much of SLA still serves that purpose) or because the show is local.  One exhibitor commented that the shows do better in the Northeast, likely due to higher population density and Amtrak.  I agreed — I have no plans to attend SLA 2017 in Phoenix.

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