Monday, November 12, 2007

Conferences on my mind

As an organiser and consumer of conferences, they are often on my mind. I am aware that there is a degree of dissatisfaction with the "PowerPoint and talking heads" model and that most of the interesting interactions at most events take place outside the conference room itself (by the pool, at coffee breaks, on the bus to the dinner, etc.). This presents organisers with some interesting challenges.

I have been aware of a few interesting threads on this topic in the past week or so. Jupiter Research's Michael Gartenberg posted on "Why Most Conferences Suck", quoting another post from Dave Gilmor on the subject. Gilmor worries that attendees are not really involved enough while Gartenberg suggests that he also has concerns about the value of spending time at trade shows.

Then we get onto the alternatives:

  • Gilmor points to Paolo Valdermarin's post about "pod" conferences. This seems to be an extreme version of the trend which has been evolving in IT events over several years to get ever-more focused; just a small group of attendees with very narrowly-shared interests. It can be great for the attendees. It's very hard for organisers to make money with.
  • Then, I notice 852Signal talking about the launch of the BarCamp 'unconference' in Hong Kong. I realise this is not a new concept but the fact that it is evolving strongly in Asia as elsewhere makes it clear that the organisers are onto something.
  • Then, I notice that the lively Danwei China media blog is organising a "Plenary Session", "a lively, PowerPoint-free panel discussion" on careers in the media, technology and communications. The point here is presumably that once PowerPoint is introduced, it's hard to have a lively discussion.
  • Finally, there's a thoughtful post from Rebecca MacKinnon on the series of Web 2.0 conferences she has been attending in Beijing.
There's lots going on and a lot of experiments. Nobody though, as far as I can see, has really come up with quite the right solution to making these events marketable, truly valuable and profitable for the organisers.


Anonymous said...

Paul, this, IMHO, is also a good topic:

I fully agree with you. So far, so many good topics have yet to be brought into the arena.

- Eddie

Paul Woodward said...


Thanks for this. I actually posted on the City Connect project back in July ( Sam Chambers has, as you say, picked a good topic and an innovative approach.

There are plenty of subjects. The key is finding a way to get the audience to interact in a way they find valuable and which can get enough people together that it makes financial sense for sponsors and organisers.

Anonymous said...

Well, "the key is finding a way to get the audience to interact in a way they find valuable." It seems that this is a question which goes back to the event organizers and ask if they have valuable content that moves the audiences.

May be a revisit for the format that we have been practiced for many many times will help.

I was in a SEO conference 4 years ago, the organizer simply hosted a cocktail registration one night before the opening day. That warmed everyone up, and the next day, everyone was talking and raising hands for questions. I guess this is about people are more reluctant speaking with strangers. When we get them to know each other before the show, that shorten the distance between people.

That's also good for the sponsors to network with the audiences (hey, they are the leads) before the show. The organizers just help to light up the mood a little bit before the audiences get bored by the PPTs and the on stage pitches.

I guess if everyone is happy, financial consequence comes afterward.

-- just my humble opinion, Eddie.

Paul Woodward said...

I still suspect there are opportunities for more 'root and branch' re-engineering of the conference/business meeting concept.

The pre-event social can work if you can get enough people to show-up. That tends to be better with junior crowds who still find the idea of free food and drink exciting. It isn't very appealing to the more senior executives who've been there, done that a 1,000 times.

There is also the issue of keeping events fresh. You very often find that the first or (if you're lucky) 2nd time you do an event, everybody is very excited and fired up by it. By the 3rd time, there's a lot of grumbling about it being "not as good". Most conferences really start to die at about that point.

Moving them around can help but the format and content need to be constantly refreshed. Not easy!

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