Why conferences are the way they are

Posted on Posted in Artificial Intelligence, Data Science, Marketing Science, Technology

You may have been to a conference.

Ever wonder why they’re the way they are?

The Conference Market(s)

Different people hire a conference to do different jobs.

For some, a conference is a chance to learn, be exposed to new ideas, and exit a comfort zone. Or, to enter a comfort zone to be exposed to new ideas and feel safe enough to learn.

For some, it’s entirely about networking with colleagues, or recruiting, or to be recruited.

For others, a conference is a chance to spam people with signing authority with their marketing messages. Or to upsell. Or to crossell. Or to retain.

For others still, a conference is a reason to visit a city. To get the hell away from the office.

These jobs impose hard constraints on the organizer.

The Organizer

There are three types organizer with three different types of jobs.

Those that organize on behalf of a firm, in order to promote that firm.

Those that organize for a living.

And those that volunteer to organize something. (Let’s set the volunteer run ones aside.)

Those that organize on behalf of a massive firm, like Google or Facebook or others, are constrained by physical space. They need huge convention spaces. And the number of those convention spaces, along with supporting hotel capacity, are limited to major global cities – Las Vegas, New York, LA, SF, Tokyo, and so on.

These events tend to have a keynote with product announcements, multiple tracks about getting the most from various products and modules, customer success stories (successes only), and usually there’s some form of entertainment involved. The whole thing is a commercial for the customers, a few consultants sprinkled in, and perhaps a well known industry personality or something. Usually the customers are happy to be marketed at.

Smaller firms have fewer constraints in which cities they can select. If they have something on the order 100 keystone customers, they can put their conference in a city that their market likes to visit. Smaller firms are sometimes linked to a city with a nice, fat, elastic, airline route. A firm based in Dallas for instance may have the conference in New York, Atlanta, LA, or Denver, and fly much of its staff out for it as a sort of junket. Some firms will even haul their product managers and data scientists out to talk. Usually they won’t have a Weezer or Cold Play or U2 to entertain, and don’t need a huge stage setup or venue. Everything is smaller.

Smaller firms tend to have one room sort of events, with keynotes and speakers all happening in one track. Sometimes there’s a second room for more technical sessions, but not always. They have a lot of content they want their customers to know. (It’s up to the customers to learn what the firm doesn’t want them to know).

Then there are those that organize for a living. And there are many of these events companies.

For these firms – their special constraint is that they’re typically aggregators.

The Aggregators

Aggregators aggregate. Unlike a firm like Google or Facebook, typically, aggregators do not have content of their own. They rely on others for the core content.

In academia, researchers provide the content. They pay to attend. They present. The venues tend to be held at universities and the food is catered in. One neat feature of the INFORMS MS community is that you typically get to visit a freshly built management building. These are specialist affairs. If there are sponsors, they’re contained in a track, and you can go see what they’re talking about if you’d like to. There are sometimes booths from industry, but there’s rarely a large sales floor.

For trade associations, the community provides the content. They pay to attend. They present. The venues tend to be held in conference centers and the food is catered in. There are commercial booths and there is usually a lot of sponsorship. The communities tend to produce quasars. People who aren’t quite stars, but who are commonly recognized within the community. Sometimes people are drawn to trade association conferences because one of these quasars will be there. There are often quite a few tracks and there are many recurrent themes from year to year.

And then there are the independents. Independent event firms can aggregate in one of two ways. They can run a trade show, or they can host a summit.

I’ve come to be confused by the term ‘summit’. A summit was originally defined as a top level executive meeting with high security and high exclusivity. Like the G7 summit or the G20 summit. It isn’t called the G7 conference. I’ve been to summits without high security. So, perhaps, summit is meant to communicate that something is important.

In a trade show, the organizer attempts to aggregate enough corporate sponsorship for money, and gives away tickets for free (or close to it) to generate an audience for those sponsors to reach. Because the ticket is free, you are the product that sponsors are paying for. As a result, there are a lot of commercials inserted into mainline tracks. It’s common to have entire tracks sponsored by a single sponsor, and to have it larded up with product claims.

In a summit/conference, the organizer attempts to aggregate just enough corporate sponsorship and just enough from ticket sales to satisfy both sides of the market. Sponsorship commercials are usually 15 to 20 minutes and sprinkled throughout. Often a customer is asked to present a successful case study. (And only successful case studies. Questions in the format “What went wrong and what did you learn so we can keep that from happening to us” are gauche and should not be asked.) It isn’t really a presentation. It’s a commercial.

Searching for alternatives and learning about new companies is a job that some people hire a conference for. Trade shows and conferences can facilitate search for alternatives. There’s actually a market for commercials.

The Costs of Aggregation

And this is where it particularly difficult for the aggregator.

Event space is expensive. Catered food is especially expensive. A/V is expensive. It’s expensive to hold it in a hotel. It’s expensive to hold it in a convention center. And these cost curves are absolutely brutal. Two costs – content and marketing can be expensive, but at least they are far more controllable.

The aggregator needs to earn enough money from corporate sponsors and from attendees to cover your base hosting costs and your variable content/marketing costs.

This tends to drive the organizer into a set of primary cities with large enough hotels with conference centers: Toronto, Miami, Denver, Seattle, DC, Boston, and sometimes, New York and SF. One must be quite a bit more clever to get away with a smaller market and less elastic airline routing.

All of these economics – from the size of the booths to the regression-to-the-international-palette chicken – is all pretty much baked. Costs fall within a predictable range, and sponsors get their share of attention and leads.

The real flexibility comes down to the content.

The Content

There are two related concepts around the content: that of organizing a draw, and that of organizing a theme. These are not always related.

Who is headlining it? Is it somebody known? Is it Seth Godin to fly out and talk about something? Is it Danny Davito? Is it Weezer? People can be sold on the headliner, and justify on the theme. These people are draws.

A second kind of draw are cool company logos. The specific logo typically doesn’t matter. If the logo is recognizable, it’s a draw. If they hear that USAA is there. Or Nike. Or Apple. They’ll get people showing up to the conference.

The draw typically has some connection to the theme, but not always. So, you might get Seth Godin out to talk to the American Direct Marketers Association of America, and that would make sense. But you might also encounter Seth Godin speaking at the American Electrical Transformer Trade Show of America as well and he would figure out how work ‘power’ or something far more clever into one of his core talks. I attended a Strata that featured Paula Poundstone for some reason.

Speakers from the logos tend to have some connection to the theme, but hilariously, not all the time. Sometimes you’ll been treated to the spectacle of somebody from a major brand that starts off by saying, “I don’t know anything about analytics…but…” and proceeds to share feelings about the net promoter score,  getting the technical definition wrong. And this going on for a full 40 minutes. And this works. Many people seem just happy to hear from a major logo. Sometimes that wrong definition gets picked up and repeated because nobody corrects them. (That too is considered rude). What is fun about those talks is that you pick apart a paradigm in that stream of consciousness. It’s just a lot of fun and useful to hear what people believe.

Most of the time, somebody from a major brand will have something novel and on theme. Some of my favourite people are specialists at major brands who really aren’t great storytellers, but the content is damn good.

Theme is also important, and in tech circles, it tends to follow hype cycle.

When mobile was hot, you got loads of conferences out to the theme of mobile (Is <current_year> the year of mobile?). When banner ads were hot, you got loads of summits about banners. While cryptocurrencies are hot, you’re seeing a lot of conferences about cryptocurrencies. When the hype is gone, so are most of the summits and trade shows.

Other themes seem to be immortal. Marketing. Retail. Auto. Consumer Electronics. Science Fiction.

Huge themes. Huge shows.

Some themes cluster under a technology and they’re too be aggregated in various ways too. So you might have the various forms of Python conferences, or various open source conferences which are aggregated in different ways.

A content aggregator either attempts to surf a hype wave, or they attempt to take on a niche of the immortal theme pie. One way or another, content will get aggregated, and it will be put on stages.

The Calendar

A major firm will hold their major conference at a point in the product release cycle that makes the most sense for them, and have the conference anchored around that point.

If it’s a minor firm, they’ll hold their major conference around a point they like. I’ve known these to coincide with the start of fiscal or around a common shutdown point.

A major aggregator often anchored on a month/week pair ages ago and since they have the draw, they get to keep their choice.

A minor aggregator has to dart around the majors and make an attempt to avoid coinciding with another conference of a similar theme.

Transcendence

If a conference is very successful, and it serves to concentrate a group of people regularly, the organizer gets something quite valuable. It’ll transcend much of the content aggregation and become a weird community, and a recurrent revenue stream.

When I say, “The 8am Saturday session on product adoption at INFORMS Marketing Science,” I think of some of the hardest core people on Earth listening politely to a presentation. And six out of the eleven people there all know each other very well and often only meet each other once a year, on a Saturday. And it is weird because it’s unusual. And it is weird because they’re unusual.

You’ll find really unusual collections of people in some places, especially when they’re self-organizing over a common trait or theme. These communities may be very open, or, they may become very insular. Typically, for the organizer, it’s best for them to be wide open, with a loyal core.

Conclusion

Conferences are the way they are because of a mix of community, calendar, inventory, content, cost, and jobs to be done. The more international a conference is, the more regression to the median palette, and in general, the blander the food (Although there are rare occasions — looking at you Dr. Tellis!).

Not everybody attends a conference for the same reason, and the motives of the organizer are not always aligned.

The unsolicited advice is to understand what job you’re hiring the conference for and pick one.