Time for the Digital Conference Scene to Evolve

Businesswoman Preparing for PresentationRecently I had the opportunity to attend a local event sponsored by LaBreche and Twin Cities Business named: Reputations. The keynote? None other than Chris Brogan. The event also featured a solid panel of communicators and leaders from local agencies and organizations like Best Buy and Select Comfort (disclaimer: client).

Leading up to the event, I was both excited and skeptical. Excited to hear how a major brand like Best Buy manages its reputation online. Skeptical because I have heard the same song and dance a few too many times now.

Unfortunately, like a number of other folks at the event, I left a little disappointed.

No reflection on the organizers or hosts, but this particular event just didn’t help advance my professional development. And, isn’t that what professional/industry conferences are all about (even though, technically, I will admit, this wasn’t really an industry event)?

Yes, I know there’s a networking element. For me, it’s one of the main reasons I attend most of the events I do. And the connections and friendships I have made over the years have been invaluable.

But, I also want to learn. And right now, when it comes to digital events, largely, that’s just not happening (at least not to the level I’d like it to).

Over the last year, I’ve been to a number of digital PR and marketing events. It seems like we may be preaching and talking about the same issues and topics now that we were six months ago.

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What’s more, as I observe conferences and events across the country, I see the same names popping up as keynotes and session leaders. I know it’s a revenue stream for the A-listers and others (heck, I even list “Speaking” on my blog—although I’ve never made a dime from it), but how many times do we need to see and hear from the same people over and over again? Can’t I learn just as much—if not more—from someone like Chris Brogan from his blog and e-newsletter? Chris gives so much away for free—it’s one of the main reasons the guy has 100K-plus followers on Twitter.

Before I get too far down the road here, let me stop right there. I’ve never been one to complain and not offer up ideas, so here are a few things I’d like to see happen on the digital event scene in 2010:

  • More mid-level speakers. Here’s the problem with asking VIPs to speak. They don’t actually do the work. They’re typically brilliant people. Tremendous speakers. But, they’re not on the front lines. I want to hear from the folks in the trenches sometimes. What’s working? What isn’t? What surprised you? Simple but potentially fairly interesting questions.
  • Grade out events. It might be time we start assigning “grade levels” to events so we can tell what’s appropriate and useful given our particular experience and skill set. I may be missing the boat completely, but right now, there just doesn’t seem to be that many events catering to the more advanced or experienced practitioner. Am I wrong?

  • More case studies. Yes, more. I know there are hundreds of case studies out there (if you haven’t seen Peter Kim’s wiki yet, check it out). But, that doesn’t mean I still don’t want to hear from the folks working for brands that are strategizing and implementing within the four walls of the organization day in and day out. You know the best event I’ve been to all year? BlogWell last August at General Mills here in Minneapolis. Hands down. They brought in communicators and marketers from Fortune 500 companies to talk about how they’re strategizing and executing. Real-life examples from the people who are actually doing the work. It was fantastic. Kudos to the GasPedal team. More, please.

Think back to the last digital event you attended. Did you learn anything new? What would you like to see in future digital PR conferences? I’d like to hear some meaningful feedback from you because judging from what I’ve been hearing lately, I’m not alone in this opinion.

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  • jeffespo

    I find the premise of this piece interesting Arik. It doesn't come as a surprise as we tweeted while you were at the event, but also hits home something that I often wonder about some of these digital or inbound marketing conferences. When the same speakers are talking on the same thing, you begin to wonder what differentiates conference X from conferences Q & Z.

    I would argue that at times it becomes old hat with the speeches. Not knocking anyone, but how many times can you give the same presentation? It would be interesting to see your point on inviting the front liners to speak at conferences. Do I smell a conference started by Communications Conversations?

  • Certainly not alone. In fact I blogged about this very thing on Friday: http://bit.ly/9oC3L5

  • I've been wondering the same thing about local SM events as well! It was so cool the first time around to meet a Twitter celebrity or hear from an SM author, but after a few times, I've stopped learning anything new, but instead I walk away with only a few more connections. So where do we go from here?

    I would be much more interested to hear directly from the folks who are doing it and doing it well or completely failing. I personally love the format of Social Media Breakfast where tables are organized by topic and you basically have a roundtable discussion with other folks interested in the same topic.

  • I share a lot of your feelings on conferences, Arik. You arrive so full of hope that you'll learn something new or useful or interesting, and you leave a little disappointed. It's not the fault of the organizers or the speakers; it just seems like there's not a lot left to be said that we haven't already heard. (Because we are a talky bunch, we communicators.)

    Sometimes the greatest A-HA! moments come when you're eating lunch with a colleague, or getting a coffee, or e-mailing back and forth. I wish that sort of A-HA-ness could be replicated in a conference setting, but the fact it that the format of these conferences doesn't lend itself to that. Sure there are Q&A sessions designed to get people talking, arguing, whatever, but it's a pulpit-based system that always leaves you feeling a little dissatisfied.

    Wow. With that said, come see PRBC speak at a conference, guys!

    I kid, I kid. My hope is that our format (and our bizarre way of thinking) will give people something new. You've got to try, right?

  • arikhanson

    Jeff: Me, organize a conference? Clearly you jest. That is, of course, unless the PRBC family would be willing to help out. Food for thought.

    Jen: We seem to share a brain on this one. Your post sums up very well most of my thoughts. But, I do think there is opportunity for conference/event planners, here. Most of the points you bring up–those conversations are happening in coffee shops and online, but they *could* happen at events, too. Why shouldn't we be talking in-depth about measurement and ethics at these types of events. I know Todd Defren's recent blog series has been a great way to get the conversation going about ethics–why not build on that as part of an event (great idea for a future SMB, btw). Great thoughts, Jen. I hope you'll keep pushing the envelope locally with me here in MSP.

    Rebecca: SMB is indeed a great event. And the SMB events I've been to lately that I enjoyed the most were just that: discussions. Not talking heads. We have 100+ people at our SMB events locally–I think we should actually think about breaking that out into smaller groups. I don't learn well in halls with 100+ people. Make it more intimate. More personal. That's really what people want, I think.

    TD: The A-HA moment is what events are all about. You're right–lately, there haven't been too many. But, to Jen's point, I get a lot of those on the phone with Valerie Simon, or over DM with Cog, or in a coffee shop with a local colleague. They're outgrowths of discussions started at events sometimes, so the conferences themselves are starting those discussions. I just wish they'd do a better job of capitalizing on that and taking them to the next level.


  • Arik, this is the one of the reasons why I attend so few conferences (coupled with price). I simply can't justify paying hundreds of dollars for something that I already know. I seriously considered attending the Chris Brogan event, but decided I'd be better served by reading his book while continuing to read his blog and follow him on Twitter.

    As you mentioned the networking is important, but for most conferences, I still can't justify the price tag. The exception to that being SxSW. You get an enormous bang for your buck and it's immersive.

    As far as local events, I thoroughly enjoyed HealthCamp and felt like it was well the time and would have happily paid more ($50 remains perfectly reasonable). The biggest plus for me was seeing how other, local healthcare folks are using the medium successfully.

    I haven't attended a social media breakfast and I should. I'm hesitant as with all other conferences. I have yet to be at an event where I'm learning about anything new or different. I don't wan to spend my time there thinking, “This was great last year. What's next?” Even though my employer is behind the curve, I don't want to be playing catch up personally.

    I want to see what's coming and continuously push ahead of the pack. If I keep finding the new and pushing forward, I hope (eventually) I'll get us caught up around here. 😉

  • I rarely attend conferences anymore because it's the same six or seven speakers every year talking about the same topics to the same people. The PRSA is especially guilty of this.

  • From a student perspective, I have been to a number of PRSSA conferences and events during my four years of membership and can definitely relate.

    I think your idea of “grading” sessions is excellent. It seems it would really help people to find the most value during their time at an event.

  • Thanks for the feedback, Arik. This was an event for mid-sized businesses grappling with social media, and those interested in learning about ways to manage reputations. While it was fine to get the SM consultants and agencies in the room (they bought tix, after all) — that wasn't the target audience. Like I said on the panel — it's time to reach out to those businesses to expand the knowledge. Just curious, because I don't go to SM events, how many businesses looking to learn are there v. those who already know what they are doing? Also interesting to hear critics who think QBP wasn't advanced enough to be talking — when they just may be the ones to learn from. Read my blog — should be out today — that is us reviewing our own event. I think you will find it interesting. As always, it's great to read whatever you are writing, and know what you are thinking.

  • arikhanson

    Beth: Thanks for stopping by. Hope you know my post was not an attack on your event. It was just the most recent industry event I had attended. Like I said, some interesting perspectives were shared–I just left a little disappointed, that's all. I know it wasn't geared toward “me” (mentioned that above).

    But, if your intent truly was to reach out to midsized businesses, why not feature more midsized and small businesses on the panel? Not sure a midsized business can learn a whole lot from how BBY handles digital. Apples to oranges in a lot of ways. If I'm a midsized business, I'd want to hear from people just like me. Agree completely on QBP. I would like to hear from more small and midsized businesses on how they're managing their digital work. Finally, while I enjoy Chris, if you invite him to a local event (especially somewhere he's never been–as far as I know) and promote the heck out of it like you did (nice work), you're going to get all the usual local social media suspects (read: agencies, consultants, etc) in the room who want to meet him. For better or worse.

    Just my two cents.


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