The Changing Face Of Conferences – Traditional Media vs Social Media

(photo courtesy of Liz Hargreaves)

I recently had the opportunity to speak about the future of radio at both the Northern Voice digital media conference in Vancouver and the Multimedia Meets Radio conference for European Public Broadcasters in Prague. In both cases, I came away learning a lot from the other presentations, but the lasting impact will be the realization that it’s the attendees, more than the speakers, that are transforming the definition of these gatherings by making them more interactive, social, and meaningful experiences.

‘OLD’ CONFERENCES

Every year, I go to a few conferences that are pretty much exclusively targeted at ‘traditional media’ – people who work for broadcasting companies. Here’s what happens at a typical one:

The Speakers

  • -A few impressive speakers with great information and learnings to share
  • -Several of the speeches provide no new information to the audience. After all, everyone in the room is in the same business and most media companies are doing the same things. So there are always a few people up there talking about things that EVERYONE is already doing themselves in their own companies. In other words, a total waste of time.
  • -Several speakers who are only presenting because their company is a sponsor of the conference and who generally have either very little of value to share, or who treat the gig as an marketing opportunity or the chance to do an extended product demo. EVERYONE at the conference dreads these presentations.
  • -The speakers do a ‘speech’ – a lecture, a one-way push of information to the audience

The Audiences

  • -Lots of suits
  • -The attendees sit and listen and occasionally jot down highlights in a notebook

What You Get

  • -Many of the speeches are focused on revenue
  • -Most attendees REALLY want to spend most of their time networking and making business deals – it’s almost like the speaking portion is the justification for bringing everyone together to socialize and make deals

 

‘NEW’ CONFERENCES

The NEW Conference also has several impressive speakers with lots of good ideas to share, BUT there are several significant differences:

The Audience

  • -Almost EVERYONE in the audience has a laptop open (almost 100% Macs or netbooks)
  • -On every screen is either Tweetdeck so they can post updates to Twitter instantly, or a WordPress or Blogger web page where they are furiously live-blogging the sessions
  • -Probably a third of the audience have digital cameras, with the first couple rows of the theatre or room filled with avid photographers with some SERIOUS equipment
  • -Maybe a fifth of the audience has a video camera and is recording the speeches
  • -After the presentations are over, the bloggers in the audience set up interviews with the presenters and take them off to a quiet area to get some exclusive content for their blogs
  • -The attendees come from a wide variety of backgrounds – education, entertainment, bloggers, photographers, artists, business people, and some who are simply curious. There are active discussions about how to take ideas that work in one area and how they might apply to other fields, industries, etc

The Speakers

  • -Speakers aren’t chosen based on sponsorships – in some cases, they have to pitch to speak, and in others, are selected because they’re doing something relevant to the audience’s interests
  • -In the case of Northern Voice, there was an ‘unconference’ portion, where there were deliberately un-booked slots in the agenda.  Individual attendees got up and pitched ideas to the rest of the audience (who voted on what they most wanted to attend).  The most popular choices got slotted into the agenda and boom – the audience helps shape the conference and lead sessions!

What You Get

  • The result is that far more of the presentations are about ideas, theory, and how to apply it, rather than just product demos and marketing pitches
  • Some of the unconference sessions were at least as good as the ‘professional’ speakers
  • During and long after the presentations, the ideas and themes were discussed, dissected, evaluated, and shared widely in extended digital conversations on blogs, Twitter, Flickr, and YouTube.

WHY THE ‘NEW’ CONFERENCE WINS

Having seen both types of conferences first-hand this year, I’m blown away at how much more effective a ‘Social Media’ Conference is. On several levels, it achieves unique results:

Impact & Reach

  • -People who are not attending the conference are ‘following’ it extensively online from all over the place.
  • -These ‘virtual attendees’ contribute and extend the conversation online. In a traditional media conference, those not in attendance would probably never know the conference even existed, and in this model, they are contributing to make it more effective and valuable (at no cost to the conference)!
  • -People leave the conference buzzing with new ideas and excited to put them into action. The online discussion at the end of Northern Voice was exhilarating – so much enthusiasm that it was contagious. At the end of a traditional media conference, most people are exhausted (usually due to excessive passivity – sitting and receiving an avalanche of information for two days).

Quality Control & Authenticity

  • -Speakers get REAL and HONEST feedback online from people they don’t know. If you did a great job, you see the Twitter activity telling you. If you bored everyone to tears, you’ll probably get some suggestions from strangers by following the conference tags on Twitter.

Value

  • -Attendees get more from the presentations because they’re based on ideas, theory, etc and actively discuss how they will try implementing those ideas themselves – in other words, it’s valuable, useful, and relevant. People are there to learn and share ideas.

Engagement

  • -The attendees are SO much more actively engaged in each presentation because they are often doing a simultaneous presentation of their own – to their audiences / networks online through either tweeting or live-blogging.

Marketing

  • -The conference gets an insane amount of free marketing from all the social media activity, which generates increasing interest in following years, allowing it to grow and flourish.
  • -The speakers often end up getting great word-of-mouth referrals from the attendees – when so many people are twittering, blogging, and recording the conference, they can drive a lot of awareness and traffic to people and companies that provide valuable information in their presentations.

Relationships

  • -At the close of a traditional media conference, everyone departs with ‘see you next year’ or ‘I might go to the ‘X’ conference, so maybe I’ll see you there…’. They are mostly connecting people they see ONLY at these conferences.
  • -By the end of a social media conference, you’ve got loads of new Twitter followers, Facebook friends, and LinkedIn connections. Your relationship is actually just starting with a lot of these new connections and you can interact, share ideas, or simply stay updated on what they’re doing through social networking.

 

NEXT STEPS FOR ‘SOCIAL’ CONFERENCES?

The social media conference isn’t perfect, but it’s far more enjoyable, stimulating, and educational. In future, here are a few ideas I’d like to see make it into future conferences:

  • -Move From One-Way To Two-Way
    Even at the ‘social’ conferences, the presentations (mine included!) are still often one-way pushes of information. Usually, there’s a very tight speaking schedule and there’s little to no time for discussion in any depth. To be truly social, interactivity and participation need to be baked into the concept of each presentation.
  • -Speakers & Conferences Help Each Other
    I would like to see a stronger relationship between speakers and conferences – too often, speakers get chosen and they just get told when and where to show up. Beyond a paragraph overview, the organizers won’t know what they’re speaking about or how it will be structured and the presenters won’t know much of what’s expected of them or how their presentation will relate to the others and how it fits into the context of the larger conference. Quality control is often compromised and this is relatively easy fix to make.
  • -Make The Presentations Stronger By Working Ahead Of Time
    I’d like to see a ‘presentation consultant’ at each conference work with people who have great ideas but can’t give a successful speech to save their life (or least find a way to filter people who can’t communicated out of consideration). It’s ironic that most of the worst presenters actually work in the communications industry: they can’t tell a story, can’t grab their audience’s attention with a great hook, and can’t keep it short and sweet. I recently saw a presentation about a multimedia program with a very cool concept doing a lot of innovative things, but the impact was totally lost because the speaker hadn’t planned well and rambled for 45 minutes and either put everyone to sleep or drove them to checking their email on their phones and laptops. (Even more surprising: the speaker was the producer of the show – someone who makes content for a living!)
  • -Wi-Fi, Wi-fi, Wi-Fi!!!
    Wi-fi needs to be AMAZING at these events. I’ve been to four events this year where wi-fi either didn’t exist or kept cutting out so much that it hampered the audience’s attempts to see what others were ‘tweeting’ about and also to spread the ideas to their own networks in real-time.

For me personally, I’ve seen the ideas I’ve presented in these ‘new’ conferences reach people and places far beyond my expectations thanks to all those in attendance who spread it to their own networks, I’ve met a lot of new people who share similar interests and ideas, and most importantly, I’ve learned how to ATTEND a conference much more successfully.

As a closer, here’s a killer keynote from comic / social media wizard Rob Cottingham at this year’s Northern Voice conference…


10 Comments

  1. Sean E
    March 14, 2009

    Great post Steve. Attending a lot of traditional and new media conferences myself I’ve seen a lot of what you speak to. Glad you took the time to write it down.

    I have an engagement coming up and you’ve got me inspired.

    Reply
    • Steve Pratt
      March 15, 2009

      Hey Sean – I saw you’re going to be at NextMedia speaking in June. Hope I’ll be able to be there and see you in person!

      Reply
  2. Sean E
    March 14, 2009

    Great post Steve. Attending a lot of traditional and new media conferences myself I’ve seen a lot of what you speak to. Glad you took the time to write it down.

    I have an engagement coming up and you’ve got me inspired.

    Reply
    • Steve Pratt
      March 14, 2009

      Hey Sean – I saw you’re going to be at NextMedia speaking in June. Hope I’ll be able to be there and see you in person!

      Reply
  3. Guinevere
    March 15, 2009

    I agree. I find the unconference format better overall.

    Reply
  4. Guinevere
    March 15, 2009

    I agree. I find the unconference format better overall.

    Reply
  5. Dr. Syb
    March 18, 2009

    Hi Steve,
    I agree wholeheartedly with your sentiments. Hopefully, professional associations are listening especially the traditional ones that have already cancelled their annual meetings this year like ASNE. We are talking about change and some entities just refuse in spite of the obvious consequences. I have often shared the same information you did in different ways. Keep writing…..

    Reply
  6. Dr. Syb
    March 18, 2009

    Hi Steve,
    I agree wholeheartedly with your sentiments. Hopefully, professional associations are listening especially the traditional ones that have already cancelled their annual meetings this year like ASNE. We are talking about change and some entities just refuse in spite of the obvious consequences. I have often shared the same information you did in different ways. Keep writing…..

    Reply
  7. John
    March 21, 2009

    “There’s a reason the button says submit”
    HAHAHAHAHAA! Finally watched the Cottingham bit – it was fantastic.

    As was this post.

    Reply
  8. John
    March 21, 2009

    “There’s a reason the button says submit”
    HAHAHAHAHAA! Finally watched the Cottingham bit – it was fantastic.

    As was this post.

    Reply

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