Why Email Conferences Suck

Why Email Conferences Suck

"I've been to a lot of conferences. But frankly, a lot fewer than I used to. Why? It's simple: conferences, especially email conferences, have become an increasing waste of time that fail to deliver (drumroll, please) sustainable ROI."

I've been to a lot of conferences. But frankly, a lot fewer than I used to. Why? It's simple: conferences, especially email conferences, have become an increasing waste of time that fail to deliver (drumroll, please) sustainable ROI.

There's a lot of reasons for this trend. Some are on the participant (i.e., client) side, while some (OK – MOST) are from poor conference planning. There, I said it. I feel better.

Let's start with the participant side. Listen up, fellow clients, you sometimes give really lousy presentations. Granted, many people are not very good at being an analyst by day and entertaining speaker by night. But it's not even that you sweat through your shirt around more than four people. It's that you're presenting lousy content.

So the clients reading this can now stand up and scream "but it's PROPRIETARY!!!! Our COMPETITORS will SEE it." Let's get one thing straight. You can stand up and present exactly how you achieved your results. EXACTLY. And there won't be a damn thing your competitors will do about it. The reason? Every ecosystem is different. You might have exactly the same problem as a competitor but the internal processes you need to navigate are different. So the road map you lay out is highly customized to your company. It's very, very, very difficult to replicate a customized process. You ever try on someone else's customized jacket? It's like that.

Think of it this way, clients – it's a chance to scare the crap out of our competitors...which is always fun. If you've got something cool you want to talk about, do it. If you get copied? Fine – you should be conquering the next thing while everyone is playing catch-up.

So let's move onto the conference organizers. I could go on and on and on...but I might want a free cocktail or room upgrade. Gotta be careful with this one. So I'll just do two.

Your biggest problem is tied to the problem outlined above – lousy content that, as a kicker, is usually restricted. The only real value left in most conferences is networking with your peers because conference organizers charge a boatload of money to have people attend the sessions. Problem is, most of those session are kinda crappy. You ever notice the sessions that are the best attended? It's the ones where someone is (a) giving kick-ass content or (b) talking about leading edge issues that people are still trying to get their hands around. I would happily hand over MORE money to have content that is engaging and relevant. Unfortunately, the last three conferences I've been to have resulted in one take-away. ONE. That's not enough. And once you lose the senior-level people from the show...you're toast. Because, yes, we look at roster before we enroll.

So what do conference organizers do to fill the content gaps? They allow vendors to present. It shocks me how absolutely shitty some of these presentations have become. The last conference I was at...I swear that I wanted to get up and kick the vendor right in the (stomach) for giving such a lousy effort. Vendors – listen up. You have unique insight in that you actually work with clients and see ACTUAL results. Can't get the client to present? Then present for them. You don't have to work with their actual creative – ever hear of XYZ Company? If you have a client doing kick ass work, that knowledge is much more valuable than you spouting off drivel about how much more expensive it is to acquire new customers than to maintain existing customers.

The second and – in my mind – much more controllable problem is how much the conference wants to suck up to sponsors. It's a very delicate balancing act, as one of the main reasons to attend a conference is some face time with vendors (then talking to peers to get the real dope.) But here's what can happen...when you are tied too closely to sponsors, you eliminate anyone who might say anything that pisses off a sponsor. Which is the true poison of most email conferences – there are fewer and fewer people who will point out that the emperor might not have any clothes. I mean, why pay 2-3 grand for a corporate commercial? Look at what happened last week when Jaffer Ali took on Big Data – he was unjustly vilified by the vendor community. Or the continual bashing of Dela Quist when he says really smart things like "you should send more because the data says you should send more." Thank goodness that snarky tweets are a poor substitute for pitchforks and knives.

Conferences NEED people who disagree with the corporate drivel – no matter how well meaning that drivel can be. They need people to say "I tried this and I crashed into a wall" in order to keep the same crash from happening again. Joni Mitchell once said "chase away the demons and they'll take the angels with them." Granted, she may have been talking about why she wouldn't take anti-depressants...but the point rings true. And if you don't know who Joni Mitchell is...go look it up. She's Canadian...it's ok.

The best parallel I can think of is American Idol. The show worked great for two reasons (a) content in the form of some really great singers and (b) Simon. Simon was the only judge who was a truth-teller. People booed him but he didn't seem to care. But when Simon went away, so did the ratings. The producers thought they knew better but it turns out that a show where everyone is fawning over each other to talk about how fabulous the content is makes for a lousy show. Turns out it also makes for a lousy email conference.
So organizers have a choice – suck up to the corporate dollar or run a kick-ass show. The choice is yours. I've got money to spend and an itch to travel!