A User’s Guide to Conferences

DALLAS – Summer is conference season – a critical time for building brands, making connections, and shaping industries. Indeed, though people increasingly learn and interact online, we retain a fundamental need to engage in person. At conferences, such engagement is guided by a few basic principles. Understanding them – being “conference literate” – is critical to making the most of a conference, whether as an organizer, speaker, or attendee.

Perhaps the most important aspect of a conference is its purposes, which all participants should identify for themselves. An individual or organization may attend a conference to understand the future of bottled water, to find procurement managers who buy bottled water, or even to disrupt the bottled-water market with water-filtration systems. A speaker may want to promote his or her employer, or find a new one.

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Even the organizers can have purposes beyond direct profit. For example, the conference could be held to give legitimacy to a corresponding trade show, where the main sources of revenue are sponsorships and rental of floor space. Or it could be intended to impress the organizer’s clients, thereby generating longer-term revenue. Or it could be a service to an organization’s members or to a venture capitalist’s portfolio companies.

A broadcast media company recently held a conference largely for its reporters and television anchors, in order to generate a large amount of video content at once, in front of a live audience. While the audience comprised mostly college students, the speakers were industry luminaries, each of whom would have taken a week or two to schedule.

The distinction between the organizer’s purpose and business model is critical. There are two primary business models for conferences: charge attendees to pay the speakers (with a margin for the organizers), or charge sponsors for the right to select the speakers and, to some extent, control the content. The concept of “native advertising” (paid advertising masquerading as editorial content) is distressingly applicable at sponsored events.

Of course, many conferences combine the two models. But the balance must be handled delicately to ensure that attendees who have paid are not put off by aggressive marketing. Given that the content is being created in real time, this can be challenging; a speaker may unexpectedly use the stage to promote a product, in which case he or she would probably not be invited back. (Just as columnists may promote themselves or some other party’s offering.)

The third model – the most effective and rewarding in my view – resembles large workshops, with both speakers and audience members contributing to the conversation. At such events, the promise that participants will learn something that they could not learn elsewhere and meet people they want to know is sufficiently credible to make the audience willing to pay and to motivate the speakers to join for free. These events bring together market leaders, who in real-time discussion among themselves and with the audience generate a new understating of their industry’s evolution, guided by a moderator who provokes the silent and silences the needlessly provocative.

Even within the traditional conference structure, diversity of perspectives is critical. For example, ten years ago I took over a moribund event about anti-spyware tools. “So where are the spyware speakers?” I asked.

Oh, they're evil, was the reply. So I went about getting four spyware speakers, with careful coaxing and a few promises about the limits of what I would ask in public. In the end, the event was amazing. We assembled a diverse set of speakers, including four spyware makers, though we politely called their products “adware” on stage; an official from the US Federal Trade Commission; several anti-spyware vendors; and a well-known spyware researcher.

Moreover, we did not simply put the adware execs on a single panel to explain themselves; we integrated them into different panels. The audience – including many security companies and also a lawyer from the NY State Attorney General's office – took active part.

The conference changed a lot of people’s perceptions of themselves and their enemies. Moreover, by highlighting that a spyware company, just like any other, is based on a business model, it implied that the best way to attack it may be to target the advertisers who turn a blind eye to where their ads are running. To some extent, that has occurred, though the problem of rogue software – and inattentive advertisers – persists.

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At another remarkable conference a quarter-century ago, the leaders of revenue management in the airline industry explained their field to people involved with hotels, sports clubs, and other time-based businesses. Much of today’s time-based pricing can be traced back to the topics that were explained and explored at that event.

Simply put, the best conferences help a community to define and understand itself. The market segments are defined and clarified. Customers’ needs and threats to vendors are made visible. And participants, speakers and organizers alike are eager for the next gathering.