This probably deserves two posts, but I think the matters are related, so I’m lumping them together. I found myself writing this after being asked by one of our team members at CustomScoop whether I thought a professional development conference was worth more than $2000 to attend. Half of that was the conference fee and the other half travel-related expenses. It, of course, did not include the value of that person’s time since that would need to be factored in as well to make an accurate value judgment.
But two posts I read in the last couple of days entered into the mix as well. The first was from my new friend John Wall (how long is a friend new, by the way? in social media circles it seems like the timeline for everything is shortened!). He wrote:
My membership to the Boston chapter of the Business Marketing Association is coming up for renewal. As I look back over the year, the only thing I got out of my membership is the certificate that’s under a pile of stuff somewhere in the pile of stuff that builds up with the trade mags in a random corner. Of course that still puts them one step ahead of my membership to the New England Direct Marketing Association (NEDMA), I don’t recall getting a certificate from them.
Another point of reference came from a Microsoft employee named Kintan Brahmbhatt. He asked, “Why do you go to a conference?” and offered up a good post on the subject. I find fewer and fewer people seem to attend conferences for the content, but more for the networking. Kintan says something similar: “the common and the highest order bit for me to attend any conference has always been and will always be ‘to meet new people’, with similar or different interests.”
With the rise of “unconferences” like the wildly successful Podcamp (over 1000 attendees in New York recently) and parties like the TechCrunch/August Capital one coming up or the mixers that Rafat Ali puts on for PaidContent, how necessary are conferences and associations?
I still pay substantial dollars to go to some conferences. I pay over $2000 a pop to attend each of the two annual DEMO events put on by Chris Shipley. It’s a mix of the technology demos and the people that brings me there. It is a real time to recharge my batteries by seeing great innovation and talking with fellow entrepreneurs and investors that I don’t see often (as well as meeting new ones). But I’m still undecided on whether to spring a similar amount for Michael Arrington and Jason Calacanis’ TechCrunch 20. I’m inclined to for many of the same reasons as DEMO, but how often can I shell out that sort of cash and feel justified in doing so? Why not just read TechCrunch and Scoble to get my scoops and Twitter for networking?
Similarly, I will generally pay to attend major communications industry events like the PRSA or IABC annual conferences. They’re not quite as expensive as DEMO or TechCrunch 20, but they’re still not cheap. And with so much live blogging and official video now available, is the networking really worth it? If so, how often?
What I’d really like to see is someone to take the best of these expensive, established conferences and blend in some of the elements of an unconference to make it a more affordable event to attend with more potent content. I think it can be done. Unconferences scare more mainstream attendees because most people fear the unknown. So have an agenda, but offer up a track with some flexibility for those who are open to the concept. Choose venues that may not be quite as grand, but that perhaps offer more affordable conference fees. Find a way to integrate vendors in a transparent way that allows benefits to be shared by attendee and sponsors alike.
This is one that’s a much tougher nut to crack. I belong to a number of associations, including PRSA and IABC. I have been active with the PRSA New York board for a number of years now and have seen first-hand the challenges that associations face today. It’s much harder to entice younger people to shell out membership fees and employers are less inclined to foot the bill themselves.
When you’re paying hundreds of dollars a year in membership dues, you expect something in return. But what is the biggest value that most of these groups offer? Newsletters and events. The newsletters are free, though they offer far less value today in an age of blogs and other instant (and free) communication. Often the events are good (PRSA chapters put on some great events, and not just the ones that I participate in!). But the discounts provided to members are often fairly paltry (it seems like $10 to $25 less is fairly typical of the ones I see that aren’t $1000 events). It takes a lot of those discounts in a year to make up for the dues investment.
The bottom line is professional associations must do more to innovate and adapt to the changing environment we all operate in. Newsletters and magazines that once served as a lifeline to professionals no longer fill the same need as they did in the pre-Internet era when niche news, information, and commentary was harder to find. Local events that once offered a glimpse into the mind of an expert now need more to distinguish themselves. The content isn’t what drives me to go listen to Katie Paine. I can get that from her newsletter, blog, and live blogging accounts of her conference appearances (and there’s probably video, too, that I’m overlooking). It’s the conversation and networking. So tailor events to maximize those benefits.
The landscape is changing for
conferences and professio
nal associations. The old ways of doing things are dead. The venerable COMDEX conference lost its place at the top of the computer industry heap because it no longer served a burning need in the community. Others will face the same fate if they fail to innovate and adapt