A couple of threads seem to be converging around “tech conferences” these days, so I’m feeling prompted to add to the mix.
Computerworld is reporting about Gartner canceling two “flagship” events, MacWorld losing Apple for 2010, Novell canceling Brainshare, and general doom and gloom in the tech conference space. We’re also seeing the apparent shuttering of the European Dreamforce and a 22% drop in attendance at CES. In the midst of all of this, we’re launching Glue.
All of which begs the question: Am I nuts? (Several people have asked me this.)
The answer, quite simply, is no.
First, let me preface my explanation by positing that there is a big difference between a “tradeshow” and a “conference.” I view it as a spectrum with “tradeshow” on one side and “conference” on the other.
A tradeshow is about scalability and size. Tradeshows are *massive* undertakings (and I should disclose that I have never personally operated a tradeshow, though I have worked on them in the past). Tradeshows invariably end up viewing the exhibitors and sponsors as their customers because that is where the vast majority of their revenue comes from. The result (try as the organizers might) tends to be a forum for vendor pitches and product launches — which aren’t bad in and of themselves, but they do dictate a certain dynamic for attendees. The dynamic is less about intimate networking, community and real interaction, and more about buzz, volume of sales leads and parties.
Conferences, on the other hand, are a bit different. At the farthest end of the spectrum, a conference would derive NO revenue from sponsors and exist solely on attendee registrations. I’ve only personally ever seen this done by Esther Dyson with PC Forum (my favorite conference of all time). Most conferences (Glue and Defrag included) can’t simply rely on attendee registrations, so they also have a mix of sponsor revenue thrown in. This is where the key to understanding what makes a “good” conference “good” lies. A good conference is defined by the fact that the organizer explicitly realizes that even though sponsors give them revenue, they are NOT the customer (that’s a hard pill to swallow — especially for sponsors — but it is always the truth). The customer of a conference is the attendee. There’s just no way around that. A conference lives and dies through fostering a community of attendees that derive value from the content, interaction and community-building that takes place at said conference. And that’s the hard part.
I’m a pretty good salesperson when it comes to conferences. I work my butt off, and it doesn’t always come easy, but I’m good at it. However, the effort I put into sales is not “brain power” effort – it’s just brute-force work. The real “brain power” effort for Glue (and Defrag) comes in the content, “attendee” participation (I prefer “participant” over attendee), and subsequent community that gets built. For that, I lean heavily on *you* (all of you). That is the key to a good conference.
Now, it’s not the only key. Logistics count (I thank the heavens every day for my wife Kim, who handles logistics). Details matter. Knowing how to run the operation matters. But above all else, community matters.
All of which leads to the inevitable question: how do you build community?
I wish I had some nice, neat answer. I don’t. Community building is flat-out hard work. Beyond that, it’s hard work that takes *time*, the passion to care about the conference topic, and a nearly obsessive desire to engage with real people (not sales leads, real people). Companies that succeed as sponsors of conferences understand that. They put as much effort into “engagement” as they spend. Same goes for me. Why am I on twitter? Because it is an amazing way to engage with people. Why do I blog? It’s certainly not to hear myself think. Why am I always on the lookout for tools like Eventvue? Community, community, community.
Am I saying that everyone should come (or will come) to Glue? Of course not. But if the topic is appropriate to your work (or your passion, or whatever), then you absolutely should come. Reason being: Every sponsor at Glue, every attendee at Glue, and everyone involved in organizing Glue is coming at this with just as much “skin in the game” as you are. We’re all in this together — building something that isn’t quite there yet; figuring out the problems that aren’t correctly scoped; helping each other find solutions via new business, partnerships, or even hallway hack sessions; forming (dare I say it?) a “community.”
That is why tradeshows will fail, while Glue succeeds. That’s why some conferences will feel bland, while Glue is packed with excitement and innovation. That’s what matters – hard work, innovation, and all of you. 😉
I hope you’ll join us. (Eric gets off his soapbox and promises this will be the only post of this kind between now and Glue.)