Go to a marketing conference today and what do you see? On stage you’ll witness many ego-laced presentations and thinly veiled sales pitches from so-called experts. You’ll hear session leaders reiterating content from their blogs and, often, other people’s case studies. In the audience, you’ll see attendees tweeting notable one-liners from the presentation while making plans for that night’s after-party festivities. Days later, attendees are back at their desks running through their daily routines with fond memories of the personal connections they made over cocktails, but few lessons learned that are actually being applied to improve their business’ success or personal productivity.
I recognize that I’m making a general statement here that does not necessarily apply to every conference and all attendees. Certainly, there are exceptions. However, from the experience of someone who has presented at over 200 events, attended three times as many, and produced three conference series, I can assure you this is the case for most.
Margie Clayman wrote a post earlier this year here on Sensei Blogs that questioned the tie between social media conferences and customer acquisition. She argued that businesses do a lot of socializing at these conferences yet few acquire any new customers to justify the expense. So why do we continue to attend conferences? Why are there so many conferences being produced? In major cities like New York, Toronto, San Francisco, and Chicago you can attend one every day if you desire.
What does the CUSTOMER expect?
Conferences are a risky business. Having produced a few, I can tell you that financial pressures play a critical role in the decisions organizers make. A rule of thumb I’ve often heard: Revenue from conference sponsorship covers all the operating expenses; revenue from ticket sales is profit. The focus is always on covering costs and making a profit. Yes, conferences are a business.
I’m a big advocate of profit; however, there are many paths to achieving it. Too few producers set the customer experience as their guiding principle when planning and executing these events. Identifying what customers expect from their service, instead of what it takes to make money, is a missing ingredient. Are attendees coming to learn something or network and sell their services? If they’re there for the education, what’s their current knowledge level? Is the event marketed to the right audience?
Understanding customers’ needs, setting their expectations, and then delivering beyond those expectations is critical for the future of the conference industry. The reason people like me spend most of our time in the hallways and after-parties to network with colleagues instead of in the sessions is that the presentation content fails to meet our needs and expectations. We get more from personal networking at these events than we do from the content produced.
This is not a slight on the presenters at these conferences, but a clear indicator that the conference producers failed to adequately set expectations when marketing the event, choosing the speakers, and selling us tickets.
Why is the presenter there?
One question that both presenters and the audience must ask themselves: Why are the presenters there? Are they there to promote their business? Sell their services? Increase their personal brand? Or is it because they’re being paid to be there and speaking at conferences is their business? These are all common motivations. How often is the presenter’s motivation to educate the audience?
Conference producers require that the presenter’s outline and presentation decks be submitted weeks in advance of the event date. Yet, I can tell you that most don’t provide them early. Most are completing their decks the night before or the morning of. You must seriously question the motivation of presenters like this. If the goal is to educate their audience, presenters will have developed their case studies and presentations when they did their research or performed the work represented in the presentation.
The reality is that the selection of presenters is often based on their social popularity, which is supposed to translate to their ability to sell tickets. Again, this is a business. Do these speakers actually deliver real value? Are they speaking from personal and professional experience or reiterating best practices learned from years of writing and reading blogs? Conference speakers should be looked upon (and hired) as professors; their goal should be to educate students, not build their personal brand.
There’s value in professional speakers who are entertaining and motivational. It goes back to the audience and their expectations. A focus on customer experience dictates which speakers should be selected. Start with who your audience is first, and then determine if you need social celebrities and bloggers to present general information or business professionals to demonstrate more technical case studies and forward-thinking strategies based on personal experience.
How do we change the current situation?
Conferences, especially marketing/social media conferences, can learn something from traditional corporate conferences. Here are my four recommendations based on those experiences:
1) Even for general audiences, focus on advancing knowledge, instead of reiterating the importance of known best practices. Have a clear understanding of your audience’s knowledge level and ensure the material presented will move that needle forward.
2) Hire an entertaining and popular celebrity for the keynote if you wish, but make sure all other sessions are delivered by those who have ACTUALLY done the work and share THEIR case studies if your goal is to offer an educational experience instead of an annual party.
3) Bigger is not always better. If the conference is large, offer smaller workshops that facilitate engagement and brainstorm among attendees in similar businesses and industries. There’s often greater value in the brainstorming that happens between a few colleagues than pithy one-liners delivered by a popular keynote presenter.
4) Design and deliver a curriculum-based agenda. Ensure there’s a logical progression from the first speaker and topic to the last. If the audience is to retain any of the knowledge shared, and use those strategies when they return to their business, a curriculum-focused event is required. Provide a notebook which outlines the strategies that will be delivered by the presenters, complete with an “action notes” section for attendees to create their own plan. At the end of the day, attendees should walk away with a detailed plan they can execute.
Sensei Debates: Marketing Conferences Need an Education. Have conference attendees been trained to expect less from presenters? Should we demand more? Are modern conferences nothing more than an excuse to party with colleagues? What else can be done to improve the value businesses and attendees receive from attending conferences?
Feed Your Community, Not Your Ego
Image Credit: Kai Mörk via Creative Commons