To what degree are conferences considered content versus sponsored marketing pitches? In the scheme of things, are attendees considered loyal readers or are they viewed as caged pigeons?
Going in, you know there are going to be keynote speakers and breakout sessions and Q&A discussions, all sandwiched around networking opportunities and recreation. Nothing wrong with that formula, even though I bet little has changed since Marconi authorized the first radio confab. The problem I have is not with the conference agenda; it's with the speakers delivering "content" spiked with their own agendas.
Conferences need sponsors, to be sure. That's how the conference owners make money. Much like media editors, they sell advertising so that they can afford to secure a place in which to deliver content that attracts an audience. Where conferences like the one I recently attended differ from respected media outlets is that this conference did not offer the veneer of editorial independence.
Case in point. A widely known sales trainer gave the keynote at this recent conference. The sales trainer makes his living by training the very digital salespeople in the audience. His speech came off as one large sales call offering his insight laced with intentional provocation and the reassurance that the online market has all unfolded just like he said it would. He delivered his rote "speech" on how agency directors need to "tear down their business models" and "stand up to clients" and "do away with the click-through as measurement."
I listened and thought to myself, my sales calls often include conversations about interaction rates -- is he suggesting I play deaf and dumb when that subject comes up? And what does he expect us all to do -- take notes, run back to our offices and pen an email to our clients, the agencies we call on and our own management, telling them to tear everything down and start again? How is this advice I paid to hear helping me gain an advantage in the market in which I make my living?
Regardless of whether those in the room agree or disagree with his assumptions, my point is this: couldn't the conference producers find a keynote speaker who could deliver equal or greater value to the audience they addressed without having anything to personally gain from being there?
The "spot light" sessions that followed at this conference were more of the same. Speakers representing the sponsors of the conference I paid to attend led them all. I sat there listening to their canned pitches the way one listens to time share pitches in exchange for a free room and a few meals -- only this was far worse because I paid for the privilege of being pitched.
As an attendee, I was promised market insight and I was force-fed sponsored content from those who make their living off of me and my cohorts on the ground selling digital media. As I sat through these sessions, I wondered if those speaking understand how nonplused we (at least this we) in the audience find all of this?
I know a fair amount about the business of selling online advertising and I am very unclear about where everything is going and not afraid to confess that. However, I am sure where I am not going -- to any more online ad sales conferences, until one of them figures out how to deliver an experience worth my time and attention versus selling it.