As I watched Scott Gould, Drew Ellis, Trey Pennington, Daren Forsyth and Maz Nadjm address a capacity crowd at Exeter’s #LikeMinds conference two weeks ago, it occurred to me that not all conferences are created equal. In fact, I realized that conferences tend to fall into two very distinct categories: Conferences that provide real value, and conferences that provide very little value. Before I go on, let it be said that #LikeMinds falls squarely into the first category.
Since I was one of the speakers at #LikeMinds, it’s natural for some of you to assume that I might be… biased, right? Fair enough. I can understand how you might think that. But the truth is that I have spoken at a number of conferences now, and I have no problem telling you that not all of them have fallen into the “valuable” category. In other words, if #LikeMinds were just another conference with little value, I might not necessarily come out and say so, but I also wouldn’t tell you it is something when it really isn’t.
Moving forward, you can feel pretty confident that I am speaking my mind here, and not giving credit where none or little is due.
So back to the topic at hand: The sold-out Like Minds Conference in Exeter, Devon (UK) on October 16th. The line of attendees outside before the doors officially opened, pretty much wrapping around the block. The impressive roster of speakers and panelists spanning two continents. The spectacular venue. The stunning live video stream. The twitter wall. The specific focus of the event. The global vibe. And perhaps most importantly, the £25 admission fee.
Yes, that’s right. Only £25. And £10 for students, as I recall.
Meanwhile, all across the US, social media-themed conferences typically charge what… $200? $500? $650? And for what? Wait… don’t answer that. We’ll get back to that in a sec.
Don’t get me wrong: I have no problem with conferences, social media or otherwise, charging $200 or even $650 to attendees. All I ask is that in return for those types of fees, these events offer at least $200 or $650 in value (respectively). It’s only fair. Heck, if a conference wants to charge $2,000 for admission, as long as it provides equal or greater value, have at it. In truth, the Social media world needs high level conferences of this type, and I would GLADLY spend $2K to attend a social media summit that actually delivered real value.*
No, my beef with rapidly growing number of “social media conferences” is that their $250 or $650 admission fee only buys attendees about $25 worth of value, as opposed to serious conferences (like #LikeMinds) that easily provide $650 worth of value for a mere £25.
Moreover, the fact that pointless social media conferences seem to be popping up everywhere has me scratching my head and wondering when the idiocy will stop. Let me ask you a simple question: Do we really need a social media conferences every week?
Of course we don’t. But with everyone and their brother suddenly looking to rebrand themselves as social media gurus, the demand for a accelerated conference circuit has hit a kind of fever pitch in 2009, with many organizers and speakers feeding on a self-serving loop of crap. Explained in as few words as I can, the former are looking to make a quick buck off the Social Media craze while the latter are so desperate for exposure that they will do just about anything for ten minutes of it.
Watch this video and we’ll continue the discussion in a few minutes:
If the video doesn’t launch for you, go watch it here.
Okay, now that you’re back, let’s continue our little discussion, starting with some typical low-value conference dynamics:
A. The problem with an increasing number of social media conferences: An upside-down value model
As we just discussed, on the one hand, you have the growing army of would-be social media gurus looking to make a name for themselves. This is the crowd furiously sending emails and DMs to conference organizers, begging them for opportunities to speak at their events to get a few conference gigs on their resumes.
On the other hand, conference organizers see in this endless stream of guru wannabes a welcome cash cow: Those confident enough to speak will gladly fill up session after session of their conference schedules for free in exchange for exposure. Enter the “Return on Engagement”, “Tweet your way to success” and “What will we call Social Media in 2010” breakouts. Wonderful. As if the internet weren’t already filled with these kinds of remedial turds posing as legitimate expertise.
The rest, those not speaking, are evidently more than happy to part with $200+ for the opportunity to rub elbows with internet-famous bloggers and perhaps befriend an A-lister or two in the hopes of raising their own profile in the SM world.
Below, some X-Box Live friends help me illustrate a typical high yield, low value conference model: A small number of speakers with valuable content the organizer actually has to pay isn’t enough to offset the large number of speakers with derivative content who will gladly fill content gaps for free. This model minimizes cost, maximizes profit, and guarantees a relatively low conference value for attendees. This is quickly becoming the norm across North America. No wonder most businesses look upon the social media “crowd” as a joke.
When you realize that an event that attracts 400 people at $200 per admission can gross $80,000, it isn’t hard to see why these things are popping up left and right, and for no other reason than to generate revenue. And as long as you, the folks who attend these types of events, are willing to fork out two bills to sit in a series of hotel meeting rooms for the better part of a day to listen to 20-40 minute presentations about how wonderful FaceBook is, how many people use Twitter, or how this company or that organization “engage” with customers using free tools you use in the exact same way and with greater success, these types of pointless events will continue to sprout all over the place. The margins are just too good for people to just stop putting them on out of… professional integrity.
What’s the solution? (Aside from putting on better conferences and events, that is?) A gut check would be a nice start. Stop going to every social media conference on the calendar. Become a little smarter and pickier about your choices. Start by looking at the overall roster of speakers. Then look for an actual point: Does the conference have a topic? A theme? A thread? Or is it just a mash of speakers covering every topic from how to network on LinkedIn to measuring web traffic using Google Analytics? Be smarter. Do your homework. Learn to spot the signs that a conference exists solely to extract money from your wallet.
Acceptable price-point: $0 – $75/day.
Next: A slightly better breed of conference.
B. The balanced Social Media Conference model: Investing in solid content pays off in the long run
In the model below, you have a more balanced approach: The ratio of established speakers (assuming relevant and actionable content) to aspiring speaker is slightly greater. In this scenario, the conference organizer is at least attempting to balance profit and content by mixing the really good stuff with some cheap filler. (Yes, kind of like the average bottle of whiskey on the middle shelf behind the bar.) This balanced, democratized model ensures that attendees will enjoy a much greater quality of content and networking for their money than the first model would have provided:
As mentioned in the previous section, this type of conference should also have a point. This can be demonstrated either by creating an overall theme for the conference (measurement, integration in the enterprise, customer service, best practices, etc.) or several specific tracks within the conference that will allow CMOs, CSMs, ITMs and other attendees with unique needs to go learn specific things as opposed to being forced to sit through a disjointed soup of “worthless FaceBook is great” and “let’s measure ROI in impressions” presentations.
Incidentally, conferences that charge upwards of $300 for presentations lasting less than 45 minutes are a waste of your time. Nothing can be covered in depth in under 30 minutes. If you spot a preponderance of 10-15 minute presentations on the conference schedule, skip it altogether.
So to recap, this type of conference’s three signature features are: a) at least as many respectable speakers as unknown speakers, b) a point/some kind of thematic structure, and c) presentations lasting more than 10-20 minutes apiece.
Acceptable price-point: $0 – $600/day, with $600 pushing towards truly outstanding content.
Next: The very best kind of conference – The summit.
C. The pinnacle of Social Media conference models: The best practices-style Summit
In this model, the organizer’s priority is obvious: Assembling the best minds on any given topic in the same place at the same time. The quality of the presentations, panels and discussions should be high as every speaker has been hand-picked for the quality of their content and delivery. This type of conference/summit is the rare gem that actually puts you in the same room as the world’s brightest minds and true expert. Bring a notebook or two, because you will probably be going back to the office with hundreds of pages of notes, all of which worth pure gold. If one of them pops up in your neck of the woods and you have an opportunity to attend, clear your calendar and get your ticket. No matter what this event charges, you will get your money’s worth by attending and learning as much as you can.
Unfortunately, many of these types of event are either by invitation only or put on for membership-only organizations, so make sure you are properly connected at all times. If you aren’t cool enough to receive an invitation, at least know someone who can help you secure one on the DL.
Acceptable price-point: $500 – $5,000/day depending on the level of the summit. Some focus on CEOs while others cater to VP-level execs. The price can vary greatly from one to the other. On average, shoot for $1,000 to $1,500./day (Considering that most of the presenters charge upwards of $2,000 per day, you’re getting a bargain even at the very highest end of that spectrum.)
Why you will now only see me at conferences with a legitimate reason for being:
Why am I telling you all this? Two reasons:
The first is to give you a heads-up: Before you start spending your summer vacation money on a half dozen worthless social media conferences over the course of the next 6 months, be aware that you could easily be throwing your money away on a bunch of hot air. Do your homework. Don’t just attend social media conferences because they’re there. Research the speakers, the topics, and more importantly, ask yourselves this simple question: What will I learn there that I couldn’t learn for free or on my own by spending a little quiet time with our friend Google? Stop paying unscrupulous conference organizers to put on crap events. Please.
The second is to let you know that effective immediately, I will not be participating in any conference that provides little or no value to attendees (you guys), and this for three pretty simple reasons:
- I don’t need the imaginary validation some people believe comes from becoming a staple of the US social media conference circuit. It’s a self-perpetuating ego trip. Nothing more. It’s completely meaningless and stupid.
- There comes a point where spending more time speaking than actually doing becomes counterproductive… and frankly, a little suspect. Anyone who has time to speak at 40+ conferences per year doesn’t have a real business. They’re a professional speaker, not a professional doer. No thanks. That isn’t who I am.
- There is absolutely no good reason whatsoever why I should ever lend my good name to the type of event that isn’t truly serious about helping businesses from around the world better understand, develop, integrate, manage and measure social media. That’s what I do. That’s what I am passionate about. If speaking at an event doesn’t serve that function, then it is a waste of my time and yours. Why should I lend my name to an event like that?
In short (and in case you hadn’t figured it out) I am serious about what I do, which these days basically consists in helping as many businesses as possible not only recover from this recession but emerge from it in better shape than they entered it. What it does not consist in is trying to become Mr. hot sh*t Social Media guru by showing up at every odd conference I can smooth-talk my way into. So aligning myself to every tom, dick and harry who puts on a horse and pony social media conference makes no sense at all in my world. I hope you guys won’t hold that against me.
And to be clear, if some of you want to try and become the next big thing on the Social Media conference circuit, I won’t hold it against you. I’m sure there’s money to be made there in the next couple of years, and the masses need good advice and insights into how social media can help them improve their lives. But if you don’t take that role seriously, if you aren’t responsible with the trust the public puts in you and your relative expertise, don’t be surprised if you pop up on the wrong end of my bullsh*t radar.
Conference organizers, you have your work cut out for you. If you want to create relevant events that will endure for years to come, I’ll be happy to help. By all means, let’s talk. But if you’re in this game to make a quick buck, don’t even bother sending me an email. I want nothing to do with what you stand for, and we’ll all see you on your way down.
Both the #Likeminds team and the audience/participants reminded me that conferences with a purpose are as wonderful and valuable as conferences without one are a waste of time and an insult to our collective intelligence. When the most valuable information to come out of a marquee social media conference seems to be that “social media “will probably be called “new media” next year, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that we’ve lost our way as a professional community. We can do better. We should do better. We have to do better.
After having attended three social media conferences while in the UK and a funeral while in France (yes, we’ll talk more about that as well), I came to the realization that the level of discourse about Social Media in the US needs a serious kick to the arse, and fast. This isn’t a game. This isn’t a fad. While the Twitternets were busy RT’ing an article that a distracted Fast Company blogger wrote about all the cool parties he went to in Vegas for BlogWorld as if it were gold, while pundits discussed the finer nuances of whether or not “Social Media” should change its name to “New Media” in 2010, our European counterparts were busy asking hard questions about how to actually plug social technologies and processes into the enterprise. How to sell it to their bosses. How to actually measure it properly. How to budget and plan for it. How to train their staff to use it. How to create a working social media management structure within their organizations. How to adapt their management cultures to the new realities of a perpetually networked and socially-empowered world. In other words, how to move forward from here.
Yep, while the US social media conference circuit was busy navel-gazing and playing rock star to its own eager fishbowl, real businesses with real problems were asking real questions, out there in the real world, where companies make and lose real money, where jobs are either created or lost, and where the world of business either adopts new ideas or moves on without giving it a second thought. Not next year, not in six months but right now. This week. Today.
In light of this, I hope everyone had a blast partying like rock stars in Vegas. Where’s the next party? Los Angeles? New York? Miami?
We can do better. We’re going to do better. And yeah, we’re going to start right now.
To be continued…
* Such a global best-practices summit is currently in the works. Details soon.