Last time, I addressed the current state of flux in digital marketing conferences. My take included one expert perspective from an executive leader of one of our major conference series, Mike Grehan.
Several others have since weighed in.
Matt McGowan, Mike’s past colleague at Incisive Media (and now a strategist with Google), notes that so-called “sponsor-led” conferences lend themselves more to networking, whereas “attendee-led” conferences focus more on education. Events companies are trying to decide which type of event can best survive, especially in saturated fields where survival is a real issue.
The trendy angle du jour seems to be to say that attendee-funded events are getting harder to run. If paying customers can’t be found for high-quality conference programs, will event companies take it upon themselves to remake more events in a sponsor-centric format?
I have fond memories of “education-heavy” conference events like Nielsen Norman User Experience. While not for everyone, those conferences were made possible by sizeable attendee budgets. Companies and government organizations invested heavily in their people’s deep dives into usability know-how. Those events did so well from attendee dollars that the few sponsors were really just an afterthought. I remember regularly chit-chatting with John Marshall (then of ClickTracks, an analytics pioneer; later, co-founder of Market Motive, a provider of online marketing training) as I passed his small booth located in the hallway between session rooms. In my memory, ClickTracks was pretty much the only sponsor at some of the stops.
Worst-case scenario: what if those kinds of events dried up? Thinking of this edge case as “the worst possible” is in fact incredibly good news for the conference circuit. It’s important to remember just how in-demand live conferences are. Laura Ramos, an analyst with Forrester Research, points out that events and conferences continue to attract massive budgets globally (all told, hundreds of millions of dollars per year). Live events typically make up 20% of a CMO’s annual budget. Boondoggles? Hardly. “B2B business relationships are built on trust and personal interaction,” writes Ramos. “For this reason, marketers will never be able to banish trade shows from the marketing budget.” (Hat tip Stewart Quealy for this reference.)
Even if conferences are floating more on marketing and sponsorship money than on attendee dollars of late, these are robust platforms for communications and networking. If you’re a speaker, it may be particularly good news. Someone’s still paying to put on an event.
But one major conference organizer in our vertical appears to be struggling mightily. Or so rumors would have it.
The Life and Times of Incisive Media
This isn’t a tale of bad people, but of a failed corporate strategy.
Incisive Media’s SES and ClickZ Live events suffered a number of setbacks unrelated to actual attendance or quality. A hierarchical and aloof corporate culture, combined with increasing signs of precarious financials, precipitated a final wave of departures in May 2014 that may prove to be the death blow. And that was after several rounds of layoffs that were initiated over six years ago that seemed to set the tone for what anyone in an executive position at the company was expected to do (survive, and lay people off, often before being fired oneself).
I don’t trade in gossip, so the sequence of events looks roughly as follows. In 2006, a private equity firm called Apax Partners bought Incisive Media. The group later overpaid for American Lawyer Media, necessitating cumbersome administrative reorganization. This buy proved ill-advised and the group was forced to divest ALM.
Private equity firms often try to unlock shareholder value by running lean operations out of promising companies that need management discipline. In this case, the owners expected to execute a cost-cutting strategy, achieving a profitable flip in the process. Despite all the cost savings, the opposite happened. Profit declined to nearly zero in 2011, and the company began to lose money after that. As of this writing, all of Incisive’s founders have departed, and the rumors are that as a whole or in parts, the debt-laden company is up for sale.
It’s a shame, because there was very little wrong with the SES conference series when Incisive took it over in 2005. Indeed, it was rumored to be the jewel of the group, flourishing as other conferences struggled during the 2008-2010 recession. It’s fair to say that beyond day-to-day hurt feelings, I had a fairly sustained view of how the cost-cutting led to a downward spiral. As various speakers, advisers, and executives pulled back on their year-round commitment to the event, attendance and sponsorship dollars gradually dwindled. The “critical mass feeling” of the conference was essential to its functioning. At a certain point, the party was literally over.
Of late – although it may simply have happened because it was “too late” – two final errors mucked up the SES / ClickZ Live franchise.
First, the conference has attempted to straddle two potentially incompatible worlds: high-cost education and sponsor-driven networking. Let’s make no mistake: many conferences, including SES, stumbled blithely into that muddled dual model in 1999 or thereabouts, in part through sheer inexperience, but mostly via luck in a hot market. In hot industries, you can make money from everything! When things cool off, though, marketplaces may force more conventional segmentation onto event marketers.
In conflating the two types of events, organizers were, of late, finding some success in discovering that you can fairly easily pack an expo hall and some keynote and networking events with people more than willing to accept free or $25 networking passes. That certainly has helped with the social media image of the conferences; they don’t look empty!
The problem is, the conference continued to ask very high rates of attendees wanting to attend the full show. Eventually, high-paying attendees are going to catch onto the fact that the show is turning into more of an expo, and that too many non-paying customers are getting too much benefit from the event (to say nothing of the odd mental patient dropping by to spice up the proceedings and enjoy a free lunch). As paid numbers dwindle, you have to admit to yourself the content isn’t as meaty or as unbiased as it once was. More importantly, your sponsor sales have to kick into high gear.
Incredibly – error #2 – the sponsorship sales effort for recent conferences was led by fill-ins with almost no sales background. There had been over a decade of relationships built up with all manner of large and small sponsors. With a few phone calls and some friendly back-and-forth, the expo halls would have been bursting with sponsors. Instead, a few cursory emails went out. Few sponsors felt the love. More harm to the bottom line.
With all of this transpiring, it’s tough to imagine that Incisive Media is doing well financially. Grave-dancers: there’s your cue.
What do attendees want? How about sponsors?
Back to “how things may be changing” more generally.
Aaron Kahlow believes that marketers today are interested in special topics. We’ve all experienced this at events: the minute something isn’t laser-relevant to an immediate informational need for a given individual in the room, they begin working on their laptop, or they simply walk out. If people are prone to cherry-picking only what they need from the conference world, at best this is likely to lead to more specialized events.
Jeff Quipp of Search Engine People notes, similarly, that today’s attendees are often paying quite a bit to attend events that adopt a “many-to-one” mass media model with insufficient specialized attention. A much cheaper way of doing the same would be to enroll in online courses, in his view.
That’s an important point, but is it fair to the efforts of conference organizers? Conferences seem to innovate regularly with expert roundtables, clinics, special networking sessions, smaller events, etc., that lead to satisfying “in the flesh” opportunities. Regular sessions often come with 15 minutes of Q&A, or more.
Marc Poirier, CMO of Acquisio leans in the direction of more specialized events as well. “I feel that specialized shows like HeroConf attract more and better speakers, and a better audience for sponsors like us,” said Marc. He concedes that the speakers aren’t necessarily the best public speakers, but they’re motivated to “bring their A game” because they’re speaking to an audience of peers. Given that his company basically seeks leads for a PPC management platform, events laser-targeted to PPC are like fishing in a well-stocked pond (not that Marc would ever fish like that).
Information is still scarce and does not want or need to be free
Bored attendees who posture about how short their attention spans are, etc., aren’t doing their bosses any favors. The long term trend still favors in-depth events.
Something I don’t get? The people who complain about the “lame” content at events when they don’t even have to worry about the cost, because their large employer is picking it up. I’ve decided that many such people are really complaining that they don’t get invited to speak, even though they know more than the speakers. (Really!?)
What about the cost issue? All at once, it seems, many voices are saying: comprehensive events are an expensive taste. Not everyone can afford the total cost of traveling – even once or twice a year – to an event that might offer them a few new takeaways on time-honored SEO and PPC tracks, an amazing review of social media tools, a little-known pitfall in local marketing, a jaw-dropping session on Big Data, a personal visit with a high-ranking exec from a major social media site, explaining how best to work with their sales team, a sponsored dinner or party where they might meet a Microsoft or Google exec, and… what, wait a minute? All that sounds amazing. It sounds like the kind of “moat” that companies who can afford it would want to build – a gap in information, awareness, contacts, context, methodology, and know-how. If might be expensive, but it might well be worth it.
As with other unfair advantages, including the software and services companies often pay handsomely for, conferences might be too expensive for a lot of people, but offer an incredible advantage for the right people. The same people who complain about the price of information are often the same people seen zipping around on $2,500 racing bikes. If you were in an actual bicycle race, you wouldn’t walk into the store and ask for a vintage one-speed CCM bike with a wicker basket out front.
If your organization has the need for speed (in the right direction), the right conference is your $2,500 racing bike.
At SES in 2003, you could have sat in on a timely panel on “link building” with the world’s greatest inbound linking authority at the time (Eric Ward) and needs-no-introduction-(now) Marissa Mayer. I’d argue that there’s something fundamentally special and inspiring about that. No matter how hard some able and eager speaker might have worked to put together their slides, no panel would be quite the same as that panel.
In 2010, in London, I debated Rand Fishkin, Ralph Tegtmeier, Dave Naylor, and others, on the ill-advised topic of whether PPC was better than SEO. (Oh, and some guy named ‘Avinash’ keynoted the show. Waste of time, right?) Anyone attending could likely have tracked any of us down after the session, or at the pub or at dinner, for some in-depth conversation. As things tend to go, some of these people who seem so accessible one day, may be a bit busier five years later. The point being, you never know which unassuming speakers you meet this year will be your version of Marissa Mayer 2003 or Rand Fishkin 2010. These opportunities are out there if you look.
Over the years, complex issues have been brought into deeper focus for attendees spending two or three full days in the conference environment. It’s not simply about transmitting easy-to-assimilate information. In the days when a particular algorithm update was causing a certain kind of pain to webmasters, or when no one understood Google’s deep commitment to weeding out click fraud, you’d come away from a conference with an experience you simply couldn’t duplicate anywhere else; getting fresh and surprising information from leading players, and discussing the ins and outs of strategy with peers in the hallways and bars, perhaps late into the night.
It’s precisely the fact that specialized information is mission-critical to corporate performance that kept Incisive Media and its predecessors in business for not decades, but centuries, garnering high rates for in-depth events in highly specialized, lucrative fields (particularly, finance). What are the speakers’ credentials? Do they only speak, or do they have a proven professional track record?
If the conferences stop inviting the caliber of speakers you’d actually pay to be taught by, of course stop attending them.
Beware of the bullhorn
What is a “networking” focused event, anyway? Networking (as opposed to in-depth education combined with networking) is often a euphemism for a gold-rush promise, it seems to me. “Yes, all these other speakers and sponsors are also providers of ad-serving solutions, but if I pay to attend or pay for a booth, I’ll find valuable contacts in the industry or at least be seen as keeping up with the Joneses.” Cartoonist Hugh MacLeod says it aptly: “I feel sorry for courtiers, spending more than they can afford on powdered wigs.”
#Metaphor: I feel sorry for courtiers, spending more than they can afford on powdered wigs. #allisvanity.
— Hugh MacLeod (@gapingvoid) October 1, 2012
Events that have a tone of “push” – of industry honchos telling each other what they want to hear, and haranguing the few real attendees with that agenda – don’t do it for me. I can’t imagine that they’ll garner the lion’s share of true “education seeking” dollars. Last time, I gave an example of a conference where an agency exec is scheduled to rant about everything that’s wrong with digital. You’re supposed to come away wanting to pay higher CPM rates for advertising, even if that’s not in your best interest. No thanks.
Whether the Davids will win or whether the (supposed) Goliaths are truly as vulnerable as billed remains to be seen. On reflection, there isn’t as much wrong with the event space as some are suggesting. Perhaps it’s just a matter of naturally-occurring evolution.
(It looks like my 21 conference tips & takeaways will have to wait until next time. Back soon!)
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John marshall says
I have noticed the decline in conference quality, but never teased apart the various factors causing it. Thank you.