The Conference. Shriek. Gasp. Cower. Shudder.
Is there any industry more conference happy then the tech world? From a three person tweetup at a local bar straight on up to CES and SxSw, if you were so inclined you could attend a conference everyday of the year. Should you?
The question I see asked more than any others: “Is it worth it?”
Let’s try to answer that.
Pricing The cost of a conference is really the biggest factor in deciding if it’s worth attending. There is a certain slice of the conference world that we can eliminate right off the bat: the wildly overpriced. They tend to be targeted at the corporate market, and the thinking behind the pricing is “Hey, your company is footing the bill, so who cares!” Usually, there are one or two “Big Names” attached as speakers, which is supposed to somehow justify the outrageous price tag. These conferences are never worth the money. There is no “magic bullet”, secret strategy or tip you can learn in a few hours that will ever justify the cost.
If an event you want to attend is double, or even more than what most conferences cost it’s a rip off, plain and simple. Save your money. If the pricing seems on par with similar events, it passes the pricing test and is worth examining further.
Stay on the lookout for tiered pricing. Some conferences have a low general ticket price, then offer upgraded passes. This can be a fine pricing structure, but take a look at what the basic ticket gets you. If you can get into most of the events, then it isn’t an issue. I’ve noticed in the last year, that more and more events are requiring an upgraded badge to get into the most interesting part of the conference. This stinks. Check that the type of entry you buy actually gets you into the events you want to attend. The entry fee may seem very reasonable, until you realize all you’re entitled to is the right to hang around an empty conference room showing YouTube videos on repeat.
Scheduling The way speeches, panels and roundtables are scheduled can easily make a conference with great content a nightmare to attend. It makes sense to write yourself a quick plan of what you want to attend before you buy your ticket. Carefully take a look at the conference schedule, and see how many sessions are happening each day. Is there a huge amount of downtime, breaks or dead air? No question that some free time is important to digest what you’re learning, especially during multi-day events. You also don’t want to drop your cash so you can spend half the day in a shabby hotel lobby drinking bad coffee while annoying MLM’ers glad hand you and stuff your pockets full of business cards you won’t ever use. At a good conference, there will always be something going on. At a really good conference, they will even have social events or other activities in between the main events to keep you learning, socializing and enjoying yourself.
It’s important to determine how man sessions you’ll be able to attend. A well put together event will be structured so that all the attendees can make it to a session during every period. Sometimes the sessions are overlapping, which is a sign of a poorly administered event.
Make sure you take note of where the sessions are too. In some cases, the talks may be spread out in different buildings, or even entire different parts of the city. Depending on what session you attend first, you may not be able to make it from session 1 over to session 2 on time. It would seem like a no-brainer to schedule events in close physical proximity, but I’ve attended conferences where it took a full 30 minutes to get from point A to Point B. If you aren’t able to make it to all the sessions you want, re-consider attending.
Content Reading the marketing materials for a conference would lead you to believe that not attending that conference will passively destroy your career. Finding out who is speaking, what they are speaking about and the format they will be delivering the information is, are really the heart of any event. Doing just a few minutes of research on your own, beyond the official website of the event, will quickly give you a sense of the quality of the content.
Who will be speaking at the event? There is an entirely new breed of person that has invaded the tech world in the last few years: The Professional Talker. You probably know their names, see them hawking their wares on Twitter and being constantly quoted in blog posts. The Pro’s are often the keynote, or main event at a conference. No matter how big their reputation (or head is), don’t let the professional speakers be the reason you attend a conference. Lot of pro’s have interesting, useful things to say. You can nearly always find these things on YouTube. The talk you’re going to hear is probably just a slightly customized version of the same speech they’ve given dozens of times. If you’re attending a conference mainly to hear Famous Social Media Guru X enlighten you, my advice would be to save your money. You can definitely dig up the wisdom they dispense somewhere online.
Most likely the speaking roster will be filled with people who aren’t Internet Famous, and you don’t follow on Twitter. This is where it pays to do a bit of digging. Do a quick search for their name, and the company they work for. See if they have a blog, take a quick dig through their Twitter stream and look to see if they have spoken at other events. You can usually make a pretty accurate determination about what these people can teach you by seeing what their online footprint looks like. If they have interesting content posted online, it’s a good bet that will have interesting insights to share in person. If they work for a company that are innovators in the field they are speaking about, or do research at a university on this topic, you can expect to learn something. If the speakers have no online presence and work for a company you’ve never heard of, you might want to skip this one. If someone has original, intriguing and worthwhile thoughts about a specific topic you can be certain they have written and discussed it online before, so it should be simple to find this out. At the best conferences, the speakers will have thorough bios that point you to qualifications that make them good choices to discuss their specific topic. Remember, you are attending a conference to hear and learn things that you can’t find out yourself with a bit of time and a search engine. You’re paying. You have a right to expect quality presentations.
The last factor in deciding on the quality of the content is how it is presented. Will you be seeing a traditional speech, a presentation with a slideshow, a panel with several people discussing a particular topic or a round table where conference attendees have a discussion together? In the right context, all of these are great methods for learning something new.
Whether or not a certain format will prove valuable will depend on how much you already know about the subject. If you have deep knowledge on a particular topic, someone giving a slideshow aimed at a general audience probably won’t do much for you. This will be doubly true if there is no, or a limited opportunity to ask questions. Find out if the speakers will be taking open questions, or conducting a discussion at any point during their talk. The size of the audience is a factor as well. The smaller the audience watching is, the better chance you’ll have for asking questions or seeing if the speaker can address a certain aspect of their area of expertise. Most conferences usually detail the size of the various talks, panels and speeches, so factor these numbers into your decision making process.
If the conference offers a roundtable discussion, this can be another reason to attend, if the subject is one you know something about. A roundtable can go two ways. When a roundtable works, all the attendees will walk away with a much better understanding of the topic being discussed. You’ll also have the chance to share what you know, and help others learn. It’s also possible for roundtables to go off the rails. They might be dominated by one or two people with strong opinions, or devolve into petty arguments. There is no surefire way to see what type of roundtable you’ll end up with. However, experience goes a long way here. People that have run and attended many events like this will have a solid idea of how to run a session, so that everyone benefits. It’s worthwhile to check in with the organizers and inquire about their specific experience facilitating group discussions.
Socializing Socializing and networking can often be the best reason to attend a conference. Whether you are looking for new clients, vendors, partners or even just friends with similar interests, a conference is the easiest way to make this happen. You’ll definitely end up meeting people throughout the course of any conference, just by attending. Beyond that, find out what networking opportunities the conference provides.
Are there dinners, happy hours or specific times set aside to meet the other attendees? Does the conference provide any way to get in touch with other people before or after the actual conference? Will there be any opportunities to meet the speakers? The more opportunities the conference provides for you to meet people there, the more valuable the conference will become to you. Definitely investigate the time set aside by the conference for being social. To some people this may seem like a throwaway, but I would recommend you weigh the social aspects as heavily as you do the other factors when making your decision whether or not to attend. Some of the best experiences I’ve had at conferences have been at a bar, discussing what I heard that day, over a beer or six with new like minded friends I met earlier that day. Don’t write-off the nightlife!
Miscellaneous *Swag! – Sometimes conferences will promise you an “Awesome Swag Bag, with more than $500 worth of goodies!” These bags will always be filled with crap. Never let the possibility of getting something good in a swag bag sway your decision to attend a conference.
*Meet and Greet With Your Favorite Gurus and Mavens! – A meet and greet will always be an awkward, unsatisfying event. Generally, you and everyone else at the conference will crowd into a media room at a hotel. People will sidle up to the Internet Famous and make small talk. Everyone will realize how socially strange the situation is, and no meaningful conversation will ever occur. Meet and greets are never a good reason to decide to attend a conference.
There are so many types of conferences up and running now, that it is nearly impossible to create a definitive guide to attending them. What we’ve laid out here is a framework that we think is a solid jumping off point that can make the decision process easier. Most of all, we recommend doing your research asking lots of questions and having a clear idea of what you want to gain by attending. With so many events in the tech world, the decision of which ones to attend is getting harder. There are a lot of really terrible conferences out there. There are quite a few fantastic ones. We hope this guide helps you find the great ones. If you see us at a conference, make sure to say “Hi!” If we’re there you’ll know it’s a great one. Please drop us a comment on how you decide which events to attend and which ones to let pass you by.