Over the past twenty years the internet has increased the amount of content available online while decreasing its cost. Covid blew the doors off the event industry showing us that most content could be effectively delivered online. Going forward conferences can no longer be simply a series of talks, but instead must provide additional value justifying the time and money attendees spend. When done right, it can lead to better experiences and more loyal attendees.
My first real conference was JavaOne. This was, at the time, one of the biggest tech conferences, with over 20,000 people attending. It took over the Moscone Center San Francisco. In addition to the talks, there were booths, swag (including dozens of free shirts), lunches, corporate parties, a concert . . . wow. For a young kid it was glitzy.
Most first-time conference goers are excited. Swag. Staying at a nice hotel. Sometimes nice lunches or dinners (ok, often mundane boxed lunches; but shoutout to the Aria hotel in Vegas for hands down the best conference food I’ve had). An expense account for non-conference meals. Maybe see a friend while in town. What’s not to like?
Fast forward a decade or two and the shine has worn off. For mid-career professionals you certainly don’t need more swag. Unless it’s a city you like or a place with friends you’ve probably been there or don’t really care to go. The time away from work and family is a big cost. So, you have to ask, is the benefit of the conference really worth it?
In the backdrop of all this, we’ve had over the last few decades, an explosion in free information online. Back in the 90’s you learned by reading trade magazines, or maybe going to some local industry group. The conference is where you could pack in a lot of new information. But today, websites, blogs, podcasts, videos, and community forums are all at your fingertips. What are the latest social media marketing techniques? You can find the same advice online as you would by going to a conference. You can see examples of how to use the latest technology in a blog post. Those CE classes can be done virtually.
By no means is the conference dead, but conferences need to clearly understand the value proposition. The answer today is different from the answer twenty years ago. It’s no longer just about the content. Successful conferences must focus on the experience.
Yes, there will still be talks. But their contribution to the overall value is less important. Even pre-covid the value of content was mixed at best. To someone new to the field, there was plenty to learn. To those who actively followed their industry, often most of what you heard was what you already heard six or twelve months before on some podcast or blog post. The ah-ha insights have been few and far between for a while. Personally, my goal was to get one key insight in a 2-3 day conference (although I didn’t always hit that). That’s a low bar, one which should be higher.
Where conferences can still stand out on content is with deeper sessions. This might be some multi hour training sessions (maybe for CE credits). Yes, they can be done online, but often it’s easier when you have the instructor and other help right there. Sometimes it may involve having equipment, physical or virtual, set up to use during the class.
Likewise, “talks” which are deeper dives and more hands on are things often better done in person. It’s easier to commit to two hours straight when you’re already at the conference than it is at home. Besides, those one hour talks you do in only thirty to forty minutes anyway on faster playback. If you’re hands on, you’re not going to speed through it because your hands can only move so fast.
We’ve all heard the refrain, “It’s not what you know it’s who you know” since we were kids. We all know we should network; some of us do, but how often do we actually do it? This is where in-person conferences shine. Online networking just isn’t the same.
But that doesn’t mean you simply run a cocktail hour and hope everyone networks. At most conferences, I actively try not to sit with co-workers, but instead will sit at a random table and try to start talking to fellow attendees. Most just wind up talking to their co-workers or looking at their phones.
As an organizer you need to help facilitate networking and conversations. There are many ways to do this.
One option is to have networking activities. Many conferences already have “passports” where you need to visit so many vendor booths to get some reward. You can do the same where you have to scan fellow attendees' badges (stick a QR code on the back of everyone’s name tag) as you need to talk to other people. You can go further by having everyone put one or two fun facts about themselves when they register. After you scan the badge, the fun fact pops up, or you need to ask for the fun fact and enter a keyword to show you met the person. Either way it starts a conversation.
That may be too hokey for some. You can follow an unconference model. Create certain standing rooms for specific topics. Let people self-organize, or maybe have a moderator dedicated to each room. (Tip: you can get a company to sponsor the room and provide a moderator.) Another option is to let people sign up for speed ideas. Anyone can sign up and do a talk. Have the moderator actively restrict the time (typically 2, 3, or 5 minutes). These are talks, they’re ideas; and then people go off and chat with whomever is interesting. Even just stick signs on certain tables at lunch and say this table is for discussing this topic to help stimulate conversations.
It could even be as simple as saying during the keynote, “We’ve all been cooped up during covid and missing human interaction. While you’re here try to meet at least one new person a day.” Simply giving people permission to network is huge. Walking up to a stranger is tough. What will they think of me? Will they think I’m weird? Trying to sell them something? But if this act was “commanded” in the keynote, on signs, in the daily email, then the thinking is, “Hi, they said we should all meet someone new each day. I’m Mark.” Now I’m not being weird, I’m doing what we’re all supposed to be doing while here and you know that.
Having the right events, set up the right way, can make this the highlight of the conference drawing people back for years to come.
Like networking, business development can be done better in person. One of the biggest reasons everyone goes to CES is because, well, everyone goes to CES. It’s a crappy time to be in Vegas since every hotel and restaurant is overcrowded. But with everyone there you can meet with dozens of companies in just a few days.
What can you do to promote business development? Can you let people post needs? (Maybe anonymously, so they can select which respondents they want to meet?) Can you offer a speed networking event between companies? Have a one-hour block broken into six- or ten-minute sessions around a topic, for example: media agencies. Anyone needing a media agency can sign up, they get matched with a few media agencies and in an hour get a quick sense of a bunch of different agencies who might help them with a need.
These events, speed dating or others, shouldn’t be seen as sales, they should be seen as a way to have a bunch of quick, no obligation introductory conversations. One party can then choose to follow up on any that are appropriate.
Location & Fun
If you had a choice between a conference in Miami or a conference in Cleveland, which would you pick? Obviously, your location may be tied to budgets, timing, sponsors, and even industry ties. But every location has something interesting.
Cleveland may not be as hip as Miami but it has the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (and the lesser known Polka hall of Fame). What would it cost to have someone from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame come do a talk at the conference? How many of your attendees would take an hour to go to that talk? Get someone from local places to do a talk. Every city has some interesting history; have a historian or city guide to talk about the city or do a slideshow. It breaks up eight hours of whatever topic your conference is on and gives people something fun. Every city has something.
Consider working with the local tourist bureau or some local group and offer some package deals the day before or after the conference or one afternoon or evening when there’s nothing else planned. Is there some historical building and can you get a private tour? It has nothing to do with your conference (or maybe you can tie it in some way) but on that private tour is where people will network.
Virtual Follow Ups
You think about your conference 4-6 months of the year. Your attendees think about it for 2-4 days and then forget it for another 360. How do you build your brand and stay top of mind? Make your conference bigger than those few days.
What happened during the conference? Was anything a standout? Was there anything interactive, say the Q&A of the keynote, or maybe the side channel during a hybrid in-person / online talk. Can you mine any of that for what attendees found interesting?
Great, now use that as the basis of follow-ons. It might be a blog / post / page the next two quarters that summarized what people were interested in. Many high end speakers like myself will have speaking packages where we don’t just do a keynote, but have smaller virtual follow-up talks, webinars, Q&A sessions, or a mini mastermind or two with attendees.
Now you’ve stayed top of mind with your audience and continued to deliver relevant value to them. Talk to your headline speakers about how they can work with you to do this.
Finally, what can you offer that helps people individually. Hint: I don’t need another water bottle with your conference logo on it. One of the best things I got at a conference was a free professional headshot. Everyone needs one, for Linkedin if nothing else. Hire a photographer for the day and it’s something everyone can use.
What about books, e-books, or other types of training. If you’re buying a lot, publishers can give you specially branded books that include a special cover with your branding or maybe a forward from your CEO. If you pick a broad topic, such as your industry, or general business book, it will appeal to most of your audience. They’ll at least glance at the book on the flight home (unlike the water bottle that goes right into the back of the cabinet).
For individuals you can also consider having a service do a ten-minute LinkedIn profile or resume review (at least for those whose co-workers and managers aren’t at the conference). At the corporate level, consider a service that does a ten-minute review of your website, or a landing page, or your job posts, or a quick website security check. You can find a service provider who will offer these quick review services for free because the lead generation from it is huge. A recruiting firm that reviews six job posts an hour for eight hours just met nearly fifty companies who are actively recruiting. (If you have premium conference attendees, vendors might even pay to be there to offer that service.) It doesn’t make or break your conference, but like the one house that hands out the full-size candy bars on Halloween, just a little extra value can make you really stand out.
If your conference is just selling content, you’re facing extinction. Every year content becomes more readily available and at lower cost. To stay competitive, you need to offer more. And as with any product an emotional connection is far more valuable than the same product that’s just bigger, cheaper, faster. Keep offering content, but if you can also offer networking, interpersonal activities, or other types of engagement, that’s going to help you stand out. Most people don’t remember that 3pm Thursday talk from seven years ago. They do remember when they met a friend or business contact, or the fun time at that social event. Build those into your event and you’re not selling content, you’re selling an experience.
Have people told you networking is important? What about communication, teamwork, and leadership? For all the lip service given them, how much formal education did you have on such essential skills? Probably little, if any. What are these skills and why haven't they been taught to students?