There are too many social media conferences.
We are in a recession. Budgets on discretionary spending like travel and training are tight. And yet there are more social media conferences per square conference facility than before the crisis. This abundance of events speaks to a few trends in the marketplace:
Marketers are taking social media seriously and want desperately to get a handle on how to do it well.
- An entire consulting industry - a bit of cottage industry - has sprung up over the years around social media and these folks bake in conference commitments in their "business plans". They must attend to drive awareness and business.
- Professional conference planners see the urgency around social media inside the enterprise and have shifted gears away from less popular subjects.
Many of these events are just no good.
The trends don't inherently deliver a great experience. I have been to a few this year, some that I would consider very valuable, some that were engaging or otherwise worthwhile and some that were just plain a waste of time. Now I seek the Perfect Social Media Conference.
Same speakers: The trends I described force the same speakers out in front of folks again and again. Two problems with that. The first is obvious in that you hear the same key points - usually intended for newcomers - over and over again.
Designed around speakers: The second problem - most conferences are designed around speakers - their needs, their credentials, their willingness to travel for free to speak. In today's economy, conferences should be designed around the learning experience they deliver for the paying attendee not around the speakers. This makes it difficult for the professional conference business with no skin in the subject matter to pull off any type of event that delivers significant value. All they can do is assemble speakers - usually the same ones - and hope that enough of them are informative, entertaining or inspiring.
Over narrowing of the niche: One of the reasons I got a lot out of 140 characters, WOMM U. and even We Media was the diversity of the program and the participants. It wasn't all marketers. While I generally benefit from a marketing focus, marketing does not live in a vacuum. Too many conferences have an uneducated view of a profession. They believe that so long as all of the speakers come from the "marketing" organzation, or that all of them claim to be "bloggers" that they have created a focused event. I look at conferences as learning events. I learn from storytellers, media entrepeneurs, artists, non-profit advocates and more.
The Perfect Recipe for a Social Media Conference
There is no "perfect," but here are the ingredients for an event that is worth this brand marketer's investment of time and money:
A program that is designed around learning not around speakers: if you start by outlining what your attendees will "know" and be able to "do" upon leaving, you stand a better chance of creating a compelling experience filled with great discussion leaders, engaging formats and tangible deliverables.
Rigorous case studies with results: nothing teaches professionals better that really great stories of how others have done it. Many conferences include cases but take no care to ensure that rigor. We need business and marcom problems, insights that drive a program, creativity and real results. Too many people dress up a collection of social media tactics with no clear impact as a case study. That approach serves no one, not even the novice. As for results, I would argue we need good and bad. As someone reminded me, "what do we learn from success? Nothing." I need case studies where we are not afraid to talk about failures and where we learned valuable lessons.
Practical training from, get this, practitioners that is clearly distinguished between beginner and advanced: how many events have you gone to where the content and delivery was too basic to be of use. You tell yourself, "well, I guess that was designed for those new to social media marketing." There is nothing wrong with social media 101, although if ever there was too well-trod territory, it is the introduction to social media and word of mouth marketing. identifying whether a session is intended for those just starting out or those with years of experience can only help set and meet the expectations of all those involved.
I need to hear practical lessons from those who actually do the work. If you are listening to someone tell you how social media marketing works and they have spoken at more than 6 events in one year, look a little closer. Chances are they are really a professional pundit with a shallow set of real experiences to pull from. Social media marketing is a new discipline that can best be learned from doing vs. observing. Look for those really doing the work for insight.
Surprising inspiration: Conference organizers need to think long and hard about who will surprise participants espcially when those attendees are jaded marketers. Getting the CMO of brand X to speak is all well and good but often the real inspiration comes out of left field. Ray Bradbury once keynoted an unusual conference staged by Silicon Graphics way back when. I never would have expected such an inspiring talk about creativity and marketing.
A social platform for discussion: conferences are as much about networking and being "social" in the service of business as they are about content delivery. Too many conferences don't plan for social interaction either by jamming in too many content delivery sessions (that "speaker-driven" mentality, again) or they rely on big meals as enough of a social platform. How can a conference plan around networking and even facilitate it? When I was with Discovery Channel some years back, we participated in a 'digital day' at MIT Media Lab (we were sponsors of the Lab). We broke down into groups of 12 or so and my group which also included Walt Mossberg participated in an hour-long exercise with a professor and his grad students studying filtering as it relates to email and messaging. That joint activity brought us together and gave us instant common ground for discussion. Not everything needs to be so structured nor does it need to just be the usual lunch hour here everyone spins off to address email business.
There are plenty of other things that can contribute to a worthwhile experience. Some things that help:
- I like smaller gatherings. Once you break the 500 person mark, I get a little numb.
- Focused sponsor exhibits where as much care has gone into curating the sponsors as teh sessions, themselves
- Diverse group of participants
- Easy to get to location (relatively inexpensive and a near airport)
These are the key ingredients I will look for in the events through the end of the year. If you know of one, please let me know. Thanks.