I still struggle to form an opinion whether I find the current debate of the future of conferences just boring or outright bulls***. Here are my four thoughts on the current conference scene.
Thought #1: The “digital” camera was first developed from Kodak engineer Steven Sasson in 1975, but it took around 20 years for market penetration. Interestingly the invention appeared to deprive the inventor of its largest and most profitable film business, and Kodak consequently filed for Chapter 11 in 2012.
How can organisations miss the boat they built themselves? And how did Kodak finally foster a team that steered them out of bankruptcy in 2013?
Thought #2: The conference market has experienced a seismic shift many appear to ignore: It is not only that (a) the traditional focus of organisers to primarily provide ‘access to information’ has lost its original value. Certainly more accurate, more updated, more engaging and better-curated content is found online - free of charge, anytime and anywhere. Deep, personalised AI-driven search will make information more and more accessible and isolate high-quality and relevant information. But (b) more notably also ‘networking components’ need to benchmark themselves now against simple search algorithm or premium package on LinkedIn, et al. especially with Millennials having entirely different interaction habits and preferences. It appears valid that specific demographics still resolve to traditional channels for their information and networking needs, and conference organisers can and should leverage this segment (e.g. affluent senior citizens). On the other hand revenues and margins in those categories might not be very sustainable.
Are we still building too many castles on melting icebergs? Who started building the boats for the digital natives and who will be left on shore?
Thought #3: The Latin word Conferre means “bringing together”. Internet platforms appear to be more effective and efficient in bringing content as well as people together than any conference organiser. But in parallel “what” (please note, that’s a clue) can be achieved when you bring the right people together remains beyond the capabilities of even most modern artificial intelligence. 20 years ago we started to increase the time allocated to panel discussions trying to add context to content. Trying to engage the audience to become participants, and involving them in panel discussions has now been a standard feature of every conference.
But those Q&A sessions and panel discussions have become a little stale, haven't they? Ever pondered why people share a photo of a sleeping hamster 15 million times in Snapchat but your witty questions raised in your nifty conference app or your Periscope video of all those reputable panellists gets zero attention?
Thought #4: It appears like we are experiencing a renaissance of the conference. And I risk to say that keywords like “experience” or “engagement” are not the solutions to direct our future, but potentially only solutions that try to address problems of the past. We may have to look just a little deeper to find a so much simpler answer… Ah, yes, a so beautiful and so much more purposeful answer.
The conference is dead; long live the conference. If we don’t want to miss the boat, we will need to marry some strategists, engineers, and investors to come out on top.
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