What’s Wrong with Conferences and How to Fix Them

A long-suffering conference speaker shares a few ideas

A friend once told me he hopes all his competitors go to conferences while he stays in the office and does real work because he thinks neither sponsors nor attendees are getting value out of them. Conference content is truly co-created by the show’s producers, moderators, sponsors, speakers and attendees — it’s about creating the conditions for valuable exchanges before, during and after, and helping everyone who paid to be there (sponsors or attendees) feel like they got their monies worth — not to mention making their bosses feeling likewise.

Source: EmilyStyle.com

There are too many events, and some of the event fixes have costs to implement that not everyone can afford. But, part of the trick is not going to the conferences that suck, and making sure that those that events that have taken the time and effort necessary to create great content are able to thrive! Herewith, what’s wrong with conferences:

a. Not enough time/occasion for networking. Networking often provides most of the value of going to events. This not always considered, and the focus can be too much on the sessions. Also, lunch can be one of the biggest wasted networking opportunities unless you make a real effort as an individual. Conference creators are in the content creation and facilitation business, and they need to up the volume on networking.

b. Speakers and moderators don’t prep enough (or at all). Sometimes the group has a prep call or two weeks ahead of the event, but often there’s none of this. At a show I spoke at in NYC, one of the panelists in the session after me said (on stage, during the session) that they’d been asked to prepare a couple of slides for their talk 45 minutes before the session.

c. Panels have too many people on them. Four plus a moderator seems like plenty — 6 panelists is far too many for a 45- or 60-minute session. I’ve been on panels where it took 15 minutes just to introduce the panel. Not good.

d. Moderators don’t get the best out of their panelists. See the point above — because a good moderator is NOT successful just by giving every one of the panelists an equal chance to speak. If it’s a specific sub theme that engages the audience’s interest, and two of the four panelists are most qualified to talk about it and interesting — the moderator should go with it. But this is too often the exception and the result is — vegetable lasagne.

e. Pay to play means the best content doesn’t win. There are some crazy smart people who don’t speak at shows in their area of expertise because they don’t work for a company sponsoring these shows. That doesn’t make sense. Some of the other content problems are exacerbated by this — sure, you want to give all four paying sponsors their say on stage, so why actually go with the more interesting of them or the themes the audience seems interested in?!

f. The same panelists show up again and again. In some industries, the same 30 people seem to speak at most of these shows. Let’s mix it up a bit — get some other perspectives and let the best content win, and invite the best speakers back regardless of who they work for — and importantly, get the best moderators back who create great sessions.

g. Too many sellers, and not enough buyers. The business version of a “sausagefest” — it’s tough to make money in most conference businesses so most conferences are overweighted to sellers because there’s no discipline to balance the numbers. Ever been to a nightclub where there was a line outside behind a velvet rope but it was almost empty once you got inside? Maintaining good ratios might mean slowing things down or turning business away at first, but it pays in the long run.

h. Social networking bolt-ons are depressing at best, stupid at worst. These mostly seem to take the form of some new and powerful network to sign up for ahead of time that usually sucks and is immediately forgotten. If it’s not based on LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook, forget about it.

i. Sponsorship is usually a terrible deal for sponsors. The sponsorship packages are not very compelling and still usually revolve around your name appearing somewhere with a varying degree of prominence (the old “impressions” model but without any sense of how many impressions you’re really going to get), but I think it’s more a result of the total content package for attendees not being that valuable.

j. Strategy vs. How-To content at the wrong time for the wrong audience. It’s amazing how often this happens — same room, and one session is “how do you boil an egg” followed immediately by “an economic analysis of global egg prices”.

k. Sponsor-produced content usually sucks. This is not always the case. I happened to see a great presentation at a conference I was speaking at, from Marketo. It was a presentation that didn’t do a hard sell, was packed with best practices and how-to content and was something whose quality was as good as or better than the main conference content. This is the exception, and often the sponsor content is like a weird isolated island stuck in-between other things.

l. Session quality is highly variable. It’s hard to “have a plan” and know what’s going to be good. And when it’s not good, you feel kind of stuck there. There’s no easy way to give feedback on which themes are resonating the best. Some moderators might do a show-of-hands type of mini-poll but it’s typically just a gesture not a real request for feedback.

m. It’s hard to talk to the speakers you think were good. If sessions are back to back, there’s no way to talk to the interesting speakers after the session without missing the show, or sometimes it’s just too difficult to even bother.

n. Hard to give feedback at or after the event. Audiences are not engaged by the producers in meaningful ways to give feedback. There’s either overly long forms or nothing at all at many (not all) shows.

o. Not enough senior people in attendance. Except for some invitation-only “CEO” conferences, not only is it mostly sellers selling to each other, but the folks from the buyers are fairly junior or in-between. Not someone who can pull the trigger on a deal for you as a result of that amazing serendipitous meeting you had drinking coffee…

p. The coffee is bad. This is unforgivable. How many Starbucks cups do you see at your event? People should not have to leave the event to get caffeinated, ever, and you now know they’d pay extra for it (decide if your play is to include it, or make it easily available — either way it’s better than what they’re getting now!). Not only can food and coffee be a selling point, it can also be a profit center. Venue hassling you, making it difficult for you to execute on bringing in outside food or coffee? Charge people, and cut the venue in on the profits, or take your business elsewhere.

q. Unclear how to “continue the conversation” after the show. I think it really important to make sure attendees have IMMEDIATE context for who spoke and how to tweet/continue the discussion. In fact, before, during and after. And how to ask more questions of these people, buy their product even!

Let’s come up with ideas to make this stuff work better and evolve. Events should live, breathe and evolve while they are happening. Certain themes should resonate, and feed back into the next session and the next day’s content. Many of us have been to shows where topical events worked their way into the discussions but this is often haphazard. Twitter is a great free tool to power this, all you need is the odd moderator with an iPad, or better yet a big screen facing the audience with the #conference or #session tag streaming live to let people weigh in — the type of event may determine which of these approaches works better. But here are a few of my ideas:

1. Get more people there and keep them there by having great content. Create some incentives for people to stick around by having great speakers later in the program — use Freemium and almost-free models (sometimes you don’t want to make it totally free since then people don’t bother to show up) to get the right mix of paid and free attendees. This is a tough one, and a lot of shows “fake it” by saying things like “past attendees include etc.” but there are plenty of people I’d pay to get in front of as a sponsor if I knew for sure they were going to be there.

2. Moderators need to be willing to over-prepare, and set the tone. We all need to take this stuff a lot more seriously, and see it as something that will determine whether we get asked back not just to this show but others as well.

3. Create reputational and other incentives for speakers to be the best. Most shows can’t and don’t pay people for moderating, but help speakers prepare and focus by giving them ego-driven and (when appropriate) cash incentives — I want to be the best at the things I do, but whether I’m speaking or moderating, it’s not solely in my control. Give everyone an incentive to create great content — maybe post ratings of sessions online, perhaps it’s giving the moderator and speakers in the best-reviewed session a guarantee to be involved in the next conference, or gifts, but experiment with ways to get everyone on the same page.

4. Make meals into a great networking opportunity. There’s lots of ways to break the ice and help people get comfortable and engage, but also give people who want to opt-out easy non-social options otherwise it feel odd. A great idea I saw recently was setting up discussion themes on cards in the center of a bunch of tables with themes relevant to the conference (and also to the lunch sponsor). The lunch sponsor had a person at each table to egg on conversation — and if you weren’t up for this and just wanted to check email on your smartphone, it was only a few of the tables and you could easily avoid it.

5. Don’t reinvent the social networking wheel. Leverage LinkedIn, Twitter and other existing networks instead of trying to recreate a new short-lived one for the conference. I’d rather a lightweight app or mobile-friendly website that uses #hashtags to reference conversations on Twitter, or try new things like tweeting that an area is available in real-time for a breakout conversation on a topic getting buzz on the #hashtag feed if people are interested (e.g. “#confname people, Meet at area A right now to talk about the XYZ problem!”

6. Plan for short attention spans. This is a problem that’s only getting worse — embrace it, mix up the content, make sessions shorter. Anticipate half the group is reading email or twitter during the session, so use that to your advantage. Get more interactive, and real-time by showing a stream of conference tweets up on a screen in front of everyone while the session is going on. Create more opportunities to drink more (high quality) coffee or tea. Get in the hallways more often.

7. Show why each panelist is on the panel. Mark sponsors with a (S) or some other demarkation on the program so people know that going in, and can choose their schedule accordingly. Some speakers I know are sponsoring are great and I’d want to see them anyway, but call it out so everyone knows and can discount their appearance being evidence of expertise necessarily. We all know you have to pay the freight, but at least show us it’s possible some of these people are the best at what they do!

8. Get more light feedback from more people. Few people want to spend 10 minutes filing out a comment card unless there is something to win, and you don’t always want those comments back since they’ll probably be more positive than I would have been. Try a couple of things — real-time feedback while the session is going on can be seen by the moderator and responded to. Also, set up a simple iPad or similar device so when people leave the room that lets them choose one of 5 big buttons on how they liked the session. It would be nice to know if it was the content or the speakers or whatever- but you might not get to know that anyway. Rather aim for getting “light” feedback from 60%+ of the people attending, and do your normal surveys to get more detailed input realizing that the people who take the time to provide the input might not be the highest value participants. And get feedback during the event using Twitter feeds that the moderator can see, to help guide the discussion while it’s not yet too late.

Dunno if this app is any good, but this is the idea… quick feedback

9. Stir up some controversy. Direct competitors on the same panel being nice to each other? That’s fine because often it’s new companies disturbing an established order and competing more with the old way of doing things than each other — but there’s nothing wrong with throwing a few elbows up there. The moderator should encourage this in a constructive way.

10. Know your audience. Offer one or the other, or the right mix of how-to versus strategy. Often tracks are set up based on vertical or area of interest when instead by level of knowledge of a subject might be more fruitful.

11. Have an interaction and audience involvement plan from the beginning. Make it easy to get questions and help attendees change the flow of the session in real-time, using Twitter for example. Plan for lots of engagement, but also have a backup plan in case it doesn’t materialize or the tech fails.

12. Talk up the best shows so that others in the industry know. It’s on the attendees to make sure the best show producers get recognized and do more of the same. The producers should also actively encourage them to do this — getting someone to say nice things about you on LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook isn’t easy but there are ways to make it easy with a click of a few buttons.

13. Put sponsors in the right context. For shows that are not full-exhibit floor tradeshow types, I personally don’t like “booths” or “tables” — they’re kind of like banner ads, easy to avoid because you’re used to avoiding them. Mix the sponsorship opportunities into the content but make them relevant and programmed, not non-sequitur and totally disconnected.

14. Make sponsors produce really great content. If the conference is going to go to the trouble of creating more in-context opportunities for sponsors, they need to product good content. Rate sponsor presentations like any of the others, and increase prices for ones that suck, or perhaps more realistically, lower prices for well-reviewed sponsors. (This is how advertising works, if you have a low click through rate on Google you’re going to have to bid a higher cost per click for your ad to be seen). Better, more-engaging sponsor content helps everyone: sponsors should add value.

15. Make speakers stick around. Make them stay through the next break, and/or have a place for followups in another room or somewhere they can speak to interested people. It will be a better experience for everyone.

16. Give your sponsors and speakers easy tools to promote their presence at the show. I’ve been encouraged to tweet discounts and announce i’m speaking by some (not all, strangely) events, but they could easily give me advice on how to add these as “events” on our corporate Facebook page, or other efficient partner marketing tips.

17. Start your session with questions from the audience. This will only work with a sufficiently-engaged audience, but I’m convinced this will work, especially if you do it via Twitter where the shyer folk don’t feel as exposed. You could even have someone let people vote on questions by tweeting/retweeting questions and keeping a quick count.

18. Give speakers a built-in way to promote themselves easily. I’ve often had some cool content that I thought was relevant and could be the start of a journey for people to find out more about my company. So why not give me a simple way to share those links with everyone. Kill several birds with one stone by having a mobile-friendly session URL, formatting for phones that has my hashtag, my company’s (if different), and three links with a short annotation of each. It could be a free trial signup, my blog, a link of data that I prepared specially for the show, and can also be easily shared by people if they think these things are worthwhile. That way there need not be any on-stage gimmickry to share that, and I can just reference “one of my three links” for example.

19. Before, and after. Build buzz ahead of time, and involve your participants, and continue the conversation afterwards.

20. Make it easy for people to switch sessions. Once a session has been going for say, 5 minutes, take a 60 second break and tell everyone it’s okay if they want to leave if it’s not interesting. If every session is like this, it will encourage all the speakers to get things going out of the gate quickly. Kind of like changing or dropping classes in college.

Wouldn’t it be great if an event had to “tip” in order to be held at all — meaning that you needed at least a certain amount of certain types of participants who agreed to go before it would be held? Unfortunately with booking hotel locations and all the logistics that go into shows, this is far more difficult. But I hold out hope that there can be a good deal of innovation in live events — even as attention spans are shorter, more and more online content is available and ubiquitous, because this only ups the ante to in-person interactions, which are still the best way to get business done.

(I originally wrote this on my personal blog 3 yrs ago, lightly edited and recreated here)