I just finished reading Jan Schaumann’s short post on Why Companies Should Pay for Their Employees to Attend Conferences. I liked it. I generally agree with it. But I have more to add.
First off, I think it’s reasonable for managers and company leaders to be wary of conferences and events. It is absolutely true that if your employees attend them, there will be costs associated, and it’s logical for businesses to seek a return on investment.
Let’s start by attempting to tally up the costs:
That’s no small barrier. For many small businesses or agencies, it’s a month or two of their marketing expenses or the salary for an employee. There needs to be significant return on those dollars to make it worthwhile. Thankfully, in all of my experiences over hundreds of marketing events the last 12 years, there is.
Nearly all the benefits of events come from three sources: the growth (in skills, relationships, exposure to ideas, etc) of the attendee(s), applicable tactics & strategies (including all the indirect ones that come from serendipitous touch points), and the extension of your organization’s brand and network.
In the personal growth department, we see benefits like:
In the applicable tactics & strategies, we get benefits like:
In the extension of organizational brand/network, we get benefits like:
But I said above that these three included “nearly all” the benefits, didn’t I? 🙂
It’s true. There are more intangible forms of value events provide. I think one of the biggest is the trust gained between a manager and their team or an employer and their employees. When organizations offer an events budget, especially when they offer it with relative freedom for the team member to choose how and where to spend it, a clear message is sent. The organization believes in its people. It trusts its people. It is willing to sacrifice short-term work for the long-term good of its people. The organization accepts that someone might be recruited away through the network they gain at an event, but is willing to make the trade-off for a more trusting, more valuable team. As the meme goes:
CFO: What if we invest in our people and they leave?
CEO: What if we don’t and they stay?
Total: $A Lot?
The challenge comes in because these are hard things for which to calculate ROI. In fact, any number I throw out for any of these above will absolutely be wrong for your particular situation and organization. The only true way to estimate value is through hindsight, and that means having faith that the future will look like the past (or rigorous, statistically sound models with large sample sizes, validated through years of controlled comparison… which only a handful of the world’s biggest and richest companies do).
It’s easy to see stories like “The biggest deals I’ve ever done, mostly (80%) came from meeting people at conferences” and “I’ve had the opportunity to open the door of conversations previously thought locked” and “When I send people on my team I almost always find they come back more inspired, rejuvenated, and full of fire” and dismiss them as outliers or invent reasons why the same won’t apply to you. It’s also easy explain away past successes gained through events as not necessarily requiring the in-person component.
I see this happen a lot. I’m embarrassed to say I’ve seen it at Moz. Remember last summer, when we did layoffs? One of the benefits cut was the conference and events budget for team members. While I think that was the right decision, I’m also hopeful & pushing for that to be one of the first benefits we reinstate now that we’re profitable again.
Lexi Mills at Turing Festival in Edinburgh
Over the years of my event participation, first as an attendee, and later as a speaker, I can measure my personal and Moz’s professional benefits, and come up with some ballpark range. It’s harder to do with my team members because I can’t observe every benefit, but I can certainly see every cost in line-item format. Human beings are pretty awful in situations like these. We bias to loss aversion over potential gain. We rationalize why others benefit when we don’t. We don’t know what we’re missing so we use logic to convince ourselves it’s ROI negative to justify our decision.
It’s the same principle that often makes hard-to-measure marketing channels the best ROI ones.
Before writing this post, I asked on Twitter about the pros and cons of marketing conferences that folks felt were less often covered. A number of the responses were insightful and worthy of discussion follow-ups, so I wanted to include them here, with some thoughts.
If you’re a conference organizer, you know how tough a conversation this is. Want to bring in outside food vendors (which are much more affordable and interesting than what venues themselves usually offer)? 90% of venues have restrictions against it. Want to get great food for attendees? That same 90% are going to charge you on the order of hundreds of dollars per attendee. MozCon’s food costs are literally 25%+ of our entire budget, and considering we usually break even or lose a little money, that’s huge.
If you’re a media company and you run events for profit, or you’re a smaller business that can’t afford to have your events be a money-losing endeavor, you’re between a rock and a hard place. At places like MozCon and CTAConf, the food is pretty killer, but the flip side is there’s no margin at all. Many conferences simply can’t afford to swing that.
Totally agree with Ross — interesting one, and pros/cons to each. At smaller shows, I love the more intimate connections, but I’m also well aware that for most speakers, it’s a tough proposition to ask for a new presentation or to bring their best stuff. It’s also hard to get many big-name speakers. And, as Ross points out, the networking can be deeper, but with a smaller group. If you’re hoping to meet someone from company X or run into colleagues from the past, small size may inhibit.
For years prior to MozCon, I’d only ever been to events with a couple keynotes and then panels of 3–6 people in breakout sessions the rest of the day. I naively thought we’d invented some brilliant new system with the all-keynote-style conference (it had obviously been around for decades; I just wasn’t exposed to it). It also became clear over time that many other marketing conferences had the same idea and today, it’s an even split between those that do all-keynotes vs. those with a hybrid of breakouts, panels, and keynotes.
Personally, my preference is still all-keynote. I agree with Greg that, on occasion, a speaker won’t do a great job, and sitting through those 20–40 minutes can be frustrating. But I can count on a single hand the number of panel sessions I’ve ever found value in, and I strongly dislike being forced to choose between sessions and not sharing the same experience with other attendees. Even when the session I’ve chosen is a good one, I have FOMO (“what if that other session around the corner is even better?!”) and that drives my quality of experience down.
This, though, is personal preference. If you like panels, breakouts, and multi-track options, stick to SMX, Content Marketing World, INBOUND, and others like them. If you’re like me and prefer all keynotes, single track, go for CTAConf, Searchlove, Inbounder, MozCon, and their ilk.
I agree this is a real problem. Being a conference organizer, I get to see a lot of the feedback and requests, and I think that’s where the issue stems from. For example, a few years back, Brittan Bright, who now does sales at Google in New York, gave a brilliant talk about the soft skills of selling and client relations. It scored OK in the lineup, but a lot of the feedback overall that year was from people who wanted more “tactical tips” and “technical tricks” and less “soft skills” content. Every conference has to deal with this demand and supply issue. You might respond (as my friend Wil Reynolds often does) with “who cares what people say they want?! Give them what they don’t know they need!”
That’s how conferences go broke, my friends. 🙂 Every year, we try to include at least a few sessions that focus on these softer skills (in numerous ways), and every year, there’s pushback from folks who wish we’d just show them how to get more easy links, or present some new tool they haven’t heard of before. It’s a tough give and take, but I’m empathetic to both sides on this issue. Actionable tactics matter, and they make for big, immediate wins. Soft skills are important, too, but there’s a significant portion of the audience who’ll get frustrated seeing talks on these topics.
Hrm… I think I agree more with Freja than with Herman, but it’s entirely a personal preference. If you know yourself well enough to know that you’ll benefit more (or less) by attending with others from your team, make the call. This is one reason I love the idea of businesses offering the freedom of choice on how to use their event budget.
There were a number of these conflicting points-of-view in reply to my tweet, and I think they indicate the challenge for attendees and organizers. Opinions vary about what makes for a great conference, a great speaker or session, or the best way to get value from them.
I get this question a lot (which is fair, I go to *a lot* of events). It really depends what you like, so I’ll try to break down my recommendations in that format.
Big, industry-wide events with many thousands of attendees, big name keynotes, famous musical acts, and hundreds of breakout session options:
Mid-tier events with 1,000–1,500 attendee:
Smaller, local, & niche events with a few hundred attendees and a more intimate setting:
This list is by no means exhaustive, and I’m certain there are many other events that give great value. I can only speak from my own experiences, which are going to carry the bias of what I’ve seen and what I like.
Two years ago, I ran a survey about marketing conferences and received, analyzed, then published the results. I’d like to repeat that again, and see what’s changed. Please contribute and tell us what matters to you:
I look forward to the discussion in the comments. If the Twitter thread was any indication, there’s a lot of passion and interest around this topic, one that I share. And of course, if you’d like to chat in person about this and see how we’re doing things at Moz, I hope you’ll consider MozCon in just a few weeks in Seattle.
Roger’s note: *beep* Rogerbot here! I think Rand forgot an important benefit of one conference: At MozCon, you can hug a robot. If you’re considering joining us in Seattle this July, we’re over 75% sold out! Be sure to grab your ticket while you can.
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