Commentary

Marketing Conferences: Time To Raise The Bar

Maybe it’s just me, but I feel marketing conference experiences are becoming a grind. I think there’s too much bad and ugly going on to offset the good. That is, unless you’re careful.  

If you’re marketing almost anything, conferences are an obvious choice to get smart fast. You learn the craft in a way you can’t in schools.  And you can get to know the folks on the other side of the table: sellers or buyers. And you can see, sometimes through a thick filter, what’s working for others -- even your competition.

Alcohol, gossip and entertainment flow.  “Expos” are circus-like, with tons of swag, booth babes, and, “psssst, hey buddy, wanna buy a list of cancer patients?” But still, frankly, amazing in many respects. When a conference sells itself, it’s a triple-meta: Marketing about marketing about marketing.

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According to the CMO Council, 14% of total marketing spend goes to conferences and events. (Hard to believe). That’s 14% of a huge number.

But when was the last time you left a conference energized and inspired? That brings me to …

The Ugly

One type of conference, “pay-to-play,” charges sellers to attend, and uses part of the revenue it gets to draw buyers to the table — er,  I mean golf course.

It can cost $50k for a media seller to buy dinner for 30 “buyers.” In return, the seller gets 20 minutes on stage to explain its product.

The cost is high, especially for a small company. but sellers seem willing to pay. Buyers attend happily. It can be a free vacation that doesn’t count against time off, with maybe a little learning thrown in. No disrespect, though. If selling hope were a crime, you’d need a license to use Power Point.

The Bad

Apparently, we marketers really luuuve to hunker down with our tribe. We voluntarily take long flights, go to a big concrete box, get bedbugs, drink with competitors, listen to boring speeches, see graphs that go up and to the right, and have fly-by conversations with total strangers. Woohoo.

Hallmarks of The Bad are endless transportation problems, long registration lines, content you could have read on the Web, rubber chicken lunches, self-aggrandizing speakers, incremental couched as revolutionary, and relentless pestering of buyers by sellers.

The Good

Some conferences offer high value, and they have some things in common.

Richard Saul Wurman founded TED in 1984. The value prop, eventually, was to celebrate the most interesting people on earth. Attendance was invitation-only at first. It has grown to become a global franchise presenting great ideas from all over the world.  Speakers must talk from personal experience, and are selected to surprise and delight the audience.

More recently and less famously, P&G’s marketing innovation team has created the Signal conference. Moderator John Battelle is a cyber-slick Dick Cavett (with an affable, wry sense of humor). Speakers are world-class branding or technology experts curated by Battelle and the P&G team for the purpose of inspiring brand managers.  It’s invitation-only, but it shows what’s possible when advertisers take learning seriously.

What the two have in common is a virtuous spiral between audience and content. Great speakers attract great audiences that motivate speakers to deliver, which draws other great speakers that pull in… you get the idea.

The Landscape

The A+ conferences are often either costly or subsidized. The C- (or worse) conferences are usually driven by an organizer’s profit motive, but there’s a continuum in between.

The industry associations (ANA, ARF, IAB, etc.) do useful events; they are nonprofits. They have deep connections and high-minded agendas. Publishers throw great conferences, too, propelled by their role as professional curators of industry information, and enabled by an audience they earned the hard way.   

The way to navigate the continuum, at least for advertisers, is to adhere to three easy rules: 1) Decide what information you need, and gather information intentionally. 2) Be willing to calibrate the cost of information to its value. 3) Hold attendees accountable to deliver something back to the company.

One great insight or relationship can pay for the whole thing. But if you don’t get any of that, be more careful in the future.

2 comments about "Marketing Conferences: Time To Raise The Bar".
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  1. Kevin Lee from Didit, August 18, 2016 at 12:05 p.m.

    Amen on the "Ugly"  But sometimes even the comferences that are not pay-to-play seem to prefer sponsors, so its far from church and state (not that a particularly good job is done in maintining that separateion). 

  2. Aaron Goldman from 4C, August 19, 2016 at 1:35 p.m.

    It's not just you Ted! Here are the 10 people you meet at trade shows: http://www.mediapost.com/publications/article/259427/the-10-people-you-meet-at-trade-shows.html

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