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An All-Virtual CES Isn’t Really CES

I love CES. I know it’s not cool to say that. But what’s better than a sprawling conference full of half-baked tech gadgets and sensory overload? In Las Vegas? With all your tech-media friends?

It’s the tech conferencest of the tech conferences. And like every other tech conference, it just isn’t the same this year.

We have clients participating, though not as many as usual. There’s still news, and cool product announcements. Journalists writing, bloggers blogging, thought-leaders thought-leading.

But CES 2021 is in the same foggy, liminal state as the rest of us. It exists purely on-screen, just like everyone and everything else right now. The most valuable parts of the show are gone, whether you’re a tech blogger looking for a scoop, a sales rep looking to close deals, a PR flack trying to “nurture media relationships” with free alcohol, or a CEO hoping to address a standing-room-only crowd with a flashy keynote.

David Ruddock is right in this tweet thread. People went into The Year Without Conferences thinking this would finally be the death of big industry events. Instead, this past year has proven the opposite. There just isn’t a good replacement for the big trade shows. Not for the sales people, or the journalists, or the PR folks, or the C-suite. The big conferences will come roaring back next year.

In the meantime, #CES2021 is beset. The fuzzy virtual experience isn’t the only thing working against it. The show usually exists in a post-holiday news vacuum, in which the tech news travels farther, and gets picked up in publications and on TV shows where it normally wouldn’t.

Remember last year, when Charmin got onto the late night shows with a toilet-paper-delivering robot? This year, the news cycle is so chaotic, even the biggest tech announcements will be lucky to break through at all.

The typically slow January news cycles also lets the journalists at CES focus completely on CES. Outside news rarely penetrates the Las Vegas bubble, and I can remember the few specific stories that were big enough to break through. The 2008 primaries in New Hampshire (HRC and McCain were the big winners). The assassination attempt on Rep. Gabby Giffords in 2011.

This year, it’s going to be nearly impossible to keep an audience engaged. Even for folks who obsess over tech news, it’s too easy to click away from a virtual keynote to check Twitter, or leave CNN running in the background during a presser that would normally have your full attention.

We’ll be tracking the news out of the show, as always. We’ll keep an eye on the hashtags, use our conversation monitoring tools to look for spikes, and try to suss out the broader themes that will drive tech narratives for the next year.

And we’ll be doing it in sweatpants — which, hey, that’s nice. The upside to this CES is that the news exists outside of the very inconvenient physical spaces of the conference. The crowded convention center, long-ass taxi lines, hotel suites scattered around town. The Sands.

Ugh, I miss it already. Let’s start getting ready for CES 2022. It’s gonna be big.