A conference is about community

By April 28, 2009glue conference

I’ve been watching with interest a great series of posts over on Pamela Dingle’s blog. It all began when Pamela tried to get a blogger pass for the RSA conference. What really caught my eye, though, was James McGovern’s response – specifically, “Achieving the goal of educating attendees is never the goal of those who run conferences.” [sidenote: I OBJECT your honor!] Pamela, then responded to James with the very sensible point that it is all about attendees (I agree). And, finally, the RSA representative came back with some idiotic excuse about page views and technorati rankings.

I’ve said all of this before, so forgive me for droning on, but…

1. Start by distinguishing between trade-shows and conferences. RSA is a trade show. Glue is a conference. Trade-shows (it is correct) get the huge majority of their revenue from the “expo” portion (i.e., vendors) – and, therefore, tend to view the vendor as their customer (if even subconsciously). Conferences, on the other hand, have a revenue stream that is more evenly split. And, therefore, have a choice…

2. A *badly* run conference doesn’t understand that the attendees are the customer. A *badly* run conference mistakes sponsors (vendors) as customers, not realizing that without attendees you have NOTHING.

3. A well-run conference knows that your primary job is to make attendees happy. So, sorry James, there are some of us that have a goal of education of attendees (though your sweeping generalizations sure are incendiary).

4. A well-run conference focuses on quality over quantity. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – if (you’re a vendor and) you want 1000 “leads” go to the web 2.0 expo. If  (you’re an attendee and) you want parties and 6-wide breakout sessions, head to RSA. If on the other hand, you want quality conversations that can evolve over a two day span, find a well-run conference.

5. Conferences are about community. Community is about a shared concern or mission. Smart vendors get involved in that mission because they know it will increase their sales over the long run.

At the end of the day, it is a tough thing to run a conference well. It takes a lot of care, a lot of work and a nice heaping teaspoon of “luck” (good fortune, whatever). But most all, it takes attendees that CARE about the topic, and in turn, the conference. Even if that core group is only 15 or 20 people — over time those 15 or 20 people –talking, thinking, building– will help attract the right folks, and real innovation can occur.

And no, you’ll never get that at a trade-show.