It was back in the summer of 2010 that it struck me how digital media conferences were taking over the world. The number of invites I was getting to different events was verging on the ridiculous, from round-table discussions on the future of mobile to all-day events on social media. And everybody was trying to get in on the action. Vendors were organizing them. Tech blogs. Random organizations I’d never heard of. Everybody wanted a piece of the conference pie. But amid the flood of voicemail and email invites, two things particularly stood out. Firstly, why do organizers insist on naming these events as if they’re herbal sex drugs (Pulsate 2010, Pingback, Ignition, Delve)? And secondly, are they helpful to anyone other than the organizers? And that’s the subject of this post.
The conference bandwagon is one that many organizations have been quick to jump on simply because the margins are so great. Pick a venue, recruit some speakers and then charge attendees $500+ per ticket to listen to a roster of
your self-promoter friends industry thought leaders speculate about the future of digital. Throw a couple of high-profile sponsors into the mix, along with the fact that most attendees will be expensing the cost of the ticket, and you’ve got yourself the makings of a sweet little business.
But what’s in it for the attendees? Well firstly, let me point out that I know a bunch of people who are conference junkies. They won’t accept a job unless there’s a guarantee that they’ll have the time and money to attend conferences across the country. The ability to listen, learn and network serves as an invigorating cocktail and gives them creative fodder to look at their own business with a new perspective. Which sounds great if it were true. Because as you can probably already tell, I’m not a huge fan of the majority of conferences. And here’s why.
Let’s start with the speakers, who generally (but I accept, not always) fall into two categories. The first category consists of speakers who work in the digital group of a company and will likely speak about what they do, what they’ve done and how they’ve been successful. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, and many of these speakers bring interesting insight to the table, but the level of personal usefulness is limited because there are so many unique variables at play (brand, audience, business model, corporate culture, personnel etc etc) that it’s hard to make direct comparisons between a speaker’s experience and your own. If I worked for Pepsi and a guy from Coke talked about how by simply adding a new flavor – Sunset Orange EJ-338383 – he was able to increase people’s addiction to the drink, I might be interested. But if I work for AARP and somebody from HBO talks about how they got 100,000 iPad app downloads in one month, the usefulness for me is limited. And yes, yes…..I understand that getting a fresh perspective on things can be useful. But only to a point.
The second category of speakers generally fall into the analyst/thought leader/guru/visionary realm. These range from researchers who’ll answer questions such as “Why does everyone hate all magazine iPad apps?” (if you really need a researcher to answer that question then you’re in the wrong job in the first place), to people that will title a talk “The Future of….” and you can insert any word after the three dots…”journalism”, “e-commerce”, “social media” etc etc.
I have a particular problem with the second category because – as I’ve outlined before – people are horrendous at predictions to the point where they simply end up being guesses. While “experts” can make a very convincing case for what they believe will happen in an industry, their accuracy and reliability is horrendous. Economic experts didn’t predict the financial meltdown, just in the same way digital experts didn’t predict the rise and success of Twitter or Groupon. The future is and will continue to be broadly unknown, and while speculating about what **could** happen is definitely interesting, it’s important to understand that it is just that – speculation.
Then there’s the networking opportunity. This **can** be interesting, assuming you can dodge the hordes of sales people who are looking to flog you their new product which will revolutionize how you think about customer engagement with video advertising in a platform agnostic world – or whatever other frilly expression will roll off their tongue. Occasionally this can be useful, but generally speaking not so much. Dodge past the journalists and tech writers who are live-blogging every time somebody farts or scratches an eyelid , and you may eventually get to network with some people who add value to your day.
So why am I being so hard on conferences? Well the main reason is because **some** people look to them as keepers of an undiscovered truth that’s going to help fix all their business problems. If you go to enough conferences and sit through enough panel discussions you’ll eventually get the elusive answer to how to transform your business.
It’s actually much easier to do this and to cling to this belief than it is to take a long, sober look at your own product and come to some uncomfortable conclusions. If your product is poor and your customers low value, going to two conferences a day won’t fix that. If your unable to execute successfully on Web projects internally, unlocking “The Future of the iPad” at a round-table is pointless.
So while I’m not anti-conference in general, I am anti the fact that they can be used as emotional crutches for people to duck real internal issues that exist in favor of some escapist fantasy land where everybody has an answer for everything. The last conference I went to featured a newspaper executive discussing the future of journalism. If he really knew the future of journalism, he wouldn’t be sitting on a stage in a New York City auditorium but would be back at HQ counting all the cash he was making for his company.
A day out at a conference can be a welcome change from the hum-drum of the office and a way to listen to some interesting perspective on digital. But as with most things in life, the answers to your problems usually lay much closer to home than you’d like to think. And the best way to fix them is to spend more time there than by eating strawberries and granola in a cramped hotel lobby while trying to read peeling name-tags from across the room.