What are conferences for?

I am in the midst of the September-November conference season. Having spent last week at the Australian Marketing Institute’s annual conference in Melbourne and being just about to attend the ESOMAR 3D event in Amsterdam and the MRSS annual conference in Singapore my mind turns to thinking about the purposes of conferences.

Several things seem to have changed about conferences over the last 20 years:

  1. There are a lot more of them
  2. A smaller proportion are category specific (20 years ago more of them focused on things like retail, or finance, or auto).
  3. A larger proportion tackle ‘fashionable’, generalised topics. In 2012 we have been deluged with mobile related conferences.
  4. Attendances for the larger conferences tend to be smaller than 20 years ago. For example, there are very few attracting over 800 delegates these days.
  5. Attendance fees appear to be paying for a smaller part of the cost of conferences, with sponsorship becoming ever more important – a pattern which is mirroring how a large part media has changed over the last 20 years.
  6. The key sponsors of conferences used to be research agencies. These days the key sponsors tend to be suppliers to the research industry, such as the big software companies and the online access panels.
  7. One of the main reasons to attend a conference 20 years ago was to hear the latest thinking, however most of the good stuff, these days, is broadcast on the web, available as downloads, or written-up by the ever improving trade press.

My feeling is that the current conference model is probably heading for a crash. I do not believe sponsors are getting sufficient value from the current conference format, so I would expect their support to start to dry up. I think the proliferation of very similar events is going to drive attendance numbers down, especially if attendance costs go up. If the quality of online materials keeps improving, then I think it will become ever harder for people to justify the cost of attending an event in terms of learning new things.

So, what do I think is the future of conferences? I think we will see a growth in the following:

  • Face-to-face training at conferences, for example, workshops the day before or afterwards.
  • Caucus events at conferences, for example, a morning where, say, all the marketing scientists or auto researchers can get together to tackle a specific project or topic.
  • Better and smarter networking and socialising. Some staff are audited on how many business cards they bring back from conferences, make it easy for them and they will recommend the event.
  • Lower cost, more convenient locations – with a growth in bar camps and hackathons.
  • More one day events, perhaps with workshops before and after.
  • More virtual events.

What do I think conferences are for? I think there are two main purposes in taking part in a conference:

  1. Developing a sustainable brand image. Perhaps the best image is that your organisation has a good number of bright people, applying good solutions, and delivering value. This makes your brand attractive to prospective employees, to clients, to thought shapers (e.g. journalists), and makes your staff feel good about themselves.
  2. Gathering, market intelligence, for example: who is seen as hot, whose performance is attracting attention, what are the rumours, who is struggling, who is looking to be acquired?