An Open Letter To Conference Organizers

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Dear Conference Organizer,

It’s rare that you will get a letter from someone like me. I speak professionally at over 60 events per year, due my industry involvement I also help to organize a handful of high-profile events every year and, top of that, I am a willing, happy and paying participant at many conferences per year. As the years pass and the events management industry continues to evolve, I would like you to consider the following concepts…

Be careful how you market your events… 

In the past, there were many great conferences that simply struggled with their marketing and positioning. Lately, I’ve been to several conferences that have been marketed so well that the actual content did not live up to the marketing of the event. What does that look like? Session titles and descriptions that are written so well, I would feel stupid to miss them, only to show up and not have the content match the description. It’s better to undersell and over-deliver than to hype a session and not live up to the marketing of it.

Prepare your speakers…

Spend a serious amount of time on the phone with the speakers who are struggling with the content they have to deliver. Don’t rely on the handful of your keynote speakers to save the entire event. People are paying good money for the entire event, so each session has to be amazing.

Pay your speakers…

I’m sure this one will be controversial (especially because I am a paid/professional speaker), but it’s true. Covering expenses and offering free access to the event is not enough. You know the saying: "you get what you pay for." Beyond that, if your participants are paying to attend and you stack your program with free speakers who don’t deliver because they’re not professionals and have not worked with you to perfect and craft their presentations, you’re making your paying clients feel like they have been hoodwinked.

Prepare your panels…

I hate seeing panelists converge next to the stage twenty-minutes before their session for the first-time. If they’re not prepared or have not spent any time speaking to one another about how their session is going to run, what level of confidence do you think I’ll have in them as a participant? Just like any other performing artist, it’s probably wise that they spend some time rehearsing before the big event.

Keep in mind that participants do more than pay to attend your event…

Outside of the registration fee, there are expenses (travel, hotel, food, incidentals), but beyond that there is a hard cost to a professional who is not billing their hours or working for the day(s) that they are attending your event. I wonder how many conference organizers do the math to figure out what their average attendee will earn for each day and if they are delivering more value to them than if they were in the office working? Wouldn’t that be the best/easiest metric to use to establish whether or not your event is worth attending?

Surprise and delight…

As prices to attend these events go up, it seems like all of the goodies that used to go along with that price have all but disappeared. From quality nametags and interesting delegate bags to the food and beverage service and the comfort of the session rooms. People are paying money and the expectation is that they are going to be treated as royalty. Don’t go cheap on them.

Know your customer…

Many organizers run the same event each year. Instead of bringing back the speakers and sessions that really worked, they try to bring new speakers and different topics in the hopes that the participants from last year come back. That may not be the best strategy. If you run an event and every participant tells their entire team that it is "the event not to be missed," but the next one is completely different and starts suffering from content fatigue, everyone loses: the participant from the first year loses credibility and the new participants don’t get the same quality as the year before. Spend some time studying who really attends your conferences (newbies vs. regulars).

Let people connect prior…

At the Radian6 User Conference, Social 2011, last week in Boston, the website had live links to each speaker’s Twitter profile. They made it simple and easy to connect to people prior to even attending. You can do this with Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, etc… and you can even open this up (with permission) to the participants as well. Adding people via Social Media prior to the meet-up is both super-easy and really does allow people to connect and make newer connections.

Now, it’s your turn: what can conference organizers do to make their events more relevant to you?


  1. Mitch.
    AMEN. Being a frequent conference visitor and speaker at several of them, this resonates with me. What really stings is when I get my own reviews back explaining I did a good job, but the public perception is that the speakers as a whole were not that good. (I wrote about this on my blog a couple weeks ago.)
    What can conferences do to make it relevant? As a speaker, they can make the attendee profiles more transparent. It’s one thing to have an understanding of the conference and objectives, but that doesn’t mean the audience is the same. I would love to have access to the attendee list. Not for personal gain, but to understand how I can build a better presentation. Because, let’s be honest here, if I was in it for the names, it wouldn’t do me much good if I tanked on the stage, would it?
    Your comments about paying speakers, treating the attendees better. . .spot on.

  2. Yet another interesting post Mitch. Your points on under promising and over delivering, the opportunity cost associated with attending events and knowing your customers are spot on. I would add that knowing your customers goes a long way in how your market your next event to them. Don’t send them emails for every single one of your events. Send them emails about events that really strike a cord with them and will keep them from putting your next correspondence in the unimportant folder.

  3. Mitch,
    Thanks for this post!
    That is why I stopped attending conferences…… people who organize them are only worried about profit, percentages and bonuses..
    The best conferences I have attended are the one offered at MaRs in Toronto, they are offered for free and attract great speakers….

  4. Great post! Fully agree with you. I speak about 2-3 times per week and find that speaker preparation is one of the boggest problem areas. Many conference organizers seem to focus on just the logistics. Last year, I received a call from a project manager who requested me to reduce the number of my slides. Well, I use a lot of visual slides. He didn’t like that either (makes it difficult for the audience to read along). I agree with your idea to pay for speakers. People tend tomtake things more serious when moneynis involved. Also, I have suggested to some organizers to startnproviding some coaching ahead ofnthe sessions. That could also be a nice incentive for people to speak.

  5. Not sure I can say AMEN loud enough so you’ll hear it from Boston.
    All the points you laid out are dead on right. The more I speak at events the more I notice when one of these points is missed and lately it seems to be happening more and more.
    There are so many events happening every week that people are quickly going to remember the ones that stand out and do a great job and deliver what attendees promise.

  6. *applause* –
    “You get what you pay for” is right.
    If you pay for a 1 staaccommodationon, you cant complain there is nJacuzzizi.
    However, if you pay for 5 stadon’tont tell me there is no TV.
    When you get a FREE event, you expect a certain level of speakers & general facilities. Most time youpleasantlyently surprised.
    However, when you pay for an event (and most of the time pay big), you expdifferentffernt level of event. Most tiunder deliverslivers.
    Its getting more and more difficult to justify the costs (including travel etc.) when the take-home value is very little and/or can be found on the web a week later.

  7. I’m noticing the same trends. It’s discouraging to see conference presenters mail it in. From ending 30 minutes early, saying “That’s all I have, any questions?” to presenters not showing up, with no attempt by the conference organizer to even apologize and offer a make-good with that same presenter at a later time, via a webinar or some other way to present the content that was paid for. And don’t get me started on the presenters who stand up and read their PowerPoints, filled with 100 words or more per slide. I’m a lot pickier now about the conferences I attend in person.

  8. Great post, Joel. I saw you speak a couple weeks ago in NY and you were the best of the entire conference, ultimately, for many of the reasons you outline above. Wish I could say the same for the rest of the event. Thanks for this post!

  9. Great summary. Most conference organizers collect feedback about their events. It would be helpful if they would actually read it and contemplate it. Perhaps this would help with the preparation for their repeat performances.

  10. “You get what you pay for” might be true with respect to speakers, but it seems it is often not correlated in any way to conferences themselves.
    Thanks for your insightful remarks. Worst are “bait and switch” conferences where one or more keynotes have an “emergency” – there are some where this happens regularly enough that it becomes the little boy who cried wolf.
    So a question – since it’s possible now to follow and learn from anyone – what’s the future role of conferences?

  11. Some great points Mitch.
    What especially resonates with me is your comment about great titles matched with underwhelming content. It applies in worlds well beyond event marketing as well.
    I’ve been stung by both webinars and books as well. Frustrating. I wanted to immediately return the book. Ugh.

  12. I stopped going to events too, after spending thousands of dollars, only to be pitched to by suits and consultanspeak.
    That’s why we created our own, and did it our way, which actually follows about 90% of the advice here — in addition to several other improvements.
    We call it the Attendee-Comes-First principle. It scares sponsors away, frankly, which is fine…we’re not seeking sponsors who need to dominate the learning experience. It’s absolutely refreshing to personally greet first-time attendees to our annual conference, and see that look in their eyes, so SURPRISED to be cared for; surprised the speakers aren’t pitching products, but actually teaching; surprised to be served.
    It’s kinda sad, on one hand, that the buyer-end of the supply-demand curve has been programmed to simply show up, shut up and listen, rather than engage with the speakers, participate and challenge ideas. On the other hand, our conference wouldn’t be as unique as it is if that programming hadn’t been going on since the 1970s. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  13. I really like your point on the real cost of a conference, namely not being billable for a few days. That’s how I look at participating and calculating the bottom line.
    Besides that I get the feeling that (here in Europe at least) conferences are set up to be great the first three years (good speakers, etc.) and than the business model is to cash out on the reputation earned, which usually means that the quality drops to sub-par at best.

  14. Mitch, this is one of the best posts I’ve read in a very long time. This is something that’s needed to be said for a long time, and I’m happy it is coming from someone as established as you.
    As both a marketer and a presentation designer, there’s a special place in my heart for conferences. However, it also means that I have a unique perspective on these events and whether or not they deliver on content. Unfortunately, most don’t.
    Outside of TED and the occasional book tour (Jay Baer’s for example), few speakers invest any money or time in designing the visuals (often PowerPoint) that accompanies their content. I have walked out on a handful of sessions that were designed and delivered so poorly that I went in search of a better session. That shouldn’t happen when I’m paying hundreds (possibly into the thousands) of dollars to attend an event. If someone gets paid to speak multiple times each year, wouldn’t it make sense to invest just a little bit in professional presentation design? At least run it by someone for feedback?
    As a speaker at an event, there should be one end-goal in mind: Deliver value to your audience and provide them with specific takeaways that make them better at their jobs, life, or whatever they’re seeking to improve. It’s not about touting your company, or how many leads you can get. It’s all about the audience. Too often though, it’s never about the audience.

  15. Success happens when preparation meets opportunity…at least, that is the mantra we had in mind when prepping for the Radian6 conference. Thank you for giving us a shout-out as an example of a conference connecting attendees with each other. I would like to add, that many thought it was overkill that our team spoke/planned with our panelists four times prior to the conference. Planning was our key for success. We knew what our attendees were seeking and we wanted to ensure we delivered on that expectation. Also, even after the conference venue has closed, there is still a lot of work to be done to amplify the voices of the speakers and attendees. If you are going to host a conference, you have to be able to ride the wave to the finish.
    Lauren Vargas
    Director of Community at Radian6

  16. When you mention conferences being over-sold it reminds me of writers focusing too much on the headline and too few on the actual content. That always fascinated me.
    Overall it seems to me organizers are trying to max out on cash at the cost of quality. That’s like when a new restaurant opens and it has to strive with competition, cheap prices and awesome quality, generous portions and all. Then after a while, the owner starts cashing out, quality goes down, quantity as well, everything starts to be taken for granted.
    I guess organizers start crunching numbers and decide it’s profitable to lose some “customer” if this means more cash in their pockets?

  17. I like the live twitter stream it adds interaction and allows for comments and questions form far away.
    Live twitter streams are not a perfect medium but they are social.

  18. Bravo Mr. Joel Bravo. A fantastico post today.
    I would say most conference I’m attending / speaking at are suffering from similar issues that you have already mentioned.
    However, one that I am wondering “Why did you not do this?” primarily when I’m speaking is an ability to connect directly with those in attendance. Much like your last point, it’s great for people to connect with the speakers before hand (personally I love that). But I would also enjoy a in-person opt to meet people. That’s what I enjoy about event like “The Art of Marketing” but even they could do it better.
    As you said, people are paying good money, for talks they can now mainly see online (or close). So where is the value add to go…What about actually meeting the person who is talking, being able to ask them a question or two.
    As the level of shared content goes up, so does the need for interaction, and “something you can’t get online”
    Excellent post

  19. Although I am a blogger outside of work, I attended the Radian6 conference for my day job and I wanted to say your presentation was fantastic. I have attended a lot of conferences both personally and professionally and agree with all your points! I was amazed at how well Radian6 did with it being there first time, etc. One comment I would make on *many* of these social media conference with enterprise attendees is that it is great to see execs from large corporations with a ton of money doing well in social media (Dell, Pepsi, etc.) but it would be much more useful to get insights from “on-the-ground” troops on how they are getting it done without the big budgets and the big teams. There have been conferences that I have attended where there were people like that presenting and I always gained the most from them, I would like to see more.

  20. As part of a team who organize events for the mobile industry I agree with many of the comments you make Mitch. I also like reading the comments from your audience as these are the sorts of things that make organizers step-up, change, and deliver. A lot of work goes into the preparation, planning, and delivery of an event and every aspect needs equal respect and care. Quality needs to be a well-rounded equation across everything from beginning to end.

  21. I work as a community manager for a social media conference and really enjoyed your idea of fostering speaker connections before the event. Aside from the Radian6 conference did you have any other examples of events that created good mediums for this communication? Also you can create a good venue for dialogue but people won’t always participate…any pointers on how to increase this?
    Thanks, and keep up the insightful stuff!

  22. It could be a good part of the event where they can pick up some interesting questions in the live tweets. But I suppose it’s disturbing when it’s online in the whole part of the seminar.

  23. Mitch,
    Saw you at Radian6, you were great. My issue is conferences that promote as workshops and then bring people up that speak very loosely about ‘what they do’. They are not workshop level, they are ‘C’ level. Nothing wrong with having ‘C’ levels to promote your event, however, don’t then market so that people prepare to come away with a tactical plan. I’ve seen that time and again and it makes for an angry group of participants – and the wrong audience for the discussions had.
    I felt Radian6 marketed to the level of discussion they supported and, you are right, they worked hard to ensure people were able to connect. I truly enjoyed my two panel partners and had gotten feedback that we worked well together. I think it had something to do with our brief touchbase beforehand.

  24. Whole industry needs a reboot.
    1. Forget black canvas bags – they’re landfill
    2. Shorter talks
    3. More contention
    4. More ‘head to head’ debates
    5. Fewer speakers more panel discussions etc.
    6. Ban ‘reading’ from a prepared written speech
    7. Give entire delegate list and email/FB/Twitter/Linkedin list to everyone who attends
    8. Try no Powerpoint sesions
    Liked your point about ‘paying’ for speakers. Problem is ‘educational’ bods get paid to do this as part of their salary, the rest of us do not. If you do it for free you’re often the only person in the room not being paid!

  25. Superb post – couldn’t have said it better! I particularly like your point about ensuring the quality – in matching title to content, and also in preparing speakers to deliver something of real value

  26. My biggest conference pet peeve is the inevitable sales pitch. I understand the need to have them, but it must be done tastefully. I couldn’t even tell you how many times I’ve seen a great event go bad – because of car salesman type tactics in the end. Nice write-up.

  27. Mitch – Great stuff here.
    I particularly love the point about really knowing your audience. So much stems from this. I know that in running conferences, it can be a pain to collect audience feedback, because people don’t want to take the time. But I rarely even see evaluation requests from conferences I attend anymore, which is a big mistake in my opinion.
    If it’s going to increase the quality of your product, then invest in this, it’s market research! Why not offer a discount for next year’s event to all attendees who fill out an evaluation after the event?
    I have also really enjoyed it when conferences have made it easy for me to connect online with their speakers – and when they take the time to create and communicate an easy way for attendees to connect with each other, whether a hashtag or a Facebook group or special network.
    The big takeaways from great conferences I attend boil down to two things: relationships and ideas. Make those easy for me to get and transport back into my life, and there’s tremendous added value to me.

  28. Google “unconference” and the whole world will be a better place! Having spent the past ten years trying to get middle east conference organisers to engage audiences better we finally had our first unconference in dubai nov 2010. It’s the answer to all the woes above…

  29. Thank you for this entry! I was at two conferences in March, one that was amazing and one that was the exact opposite. The amazing one was well organized, sessions were so good I ended up squeezing more into my schedule. I was very impressed by the execution. The other one however was like a lot of what you have described here, sessions didn’t match marketing, some sessions had 200 people that couldn’t get a spot while others had zero people and just an overall fail.
    I get nervous going to conferences because you never know which way they will go

  30. So much great stuff was covered in the post and comments, so I’ll just add one cool tip / trick.
    I just came back from Summit at Sea, one of the most amazing experiences of my life.
    Before the event, the organizers (a group of amazing guys & gals in their mid-20’s) put everyone’s contact info on Pokens. Everyone got one with their info pre-loaded. Everyone clipped it to their nametag / badge and if you wanted to exchange contact info, you just touched Pokens until the green light showed up. Simple. Easy. No business cards necessary and no Hashable. Lowest “friction” possible.
    Yesterday I downloaded my Poken via USB and had not only everyone’s contact info but all their social profiles and a nice graphical timeline of the order / day & time I met them.
    Super useful. Conference organizers should add the cost of Pokens to the conference fee and use this process.

  31. No one leaps onto the big stage for the big bucks simply because they want to and no conference becomes TED simply because someone wants it to be that. But like so much of our professional life, carrots are dangled and it’s up to us to decide which ones to eat.
    A few sandwiches and a conference badge is often all new speakers are offered. It’s up to us who are aren’t at your level to decide if some potato salad and a hotel room is enough to gain more experience on the speaking circuit.
    This is not to suggest that is a wise strategy but we can also assume not everyone operates under the same open and honest rule book. Moreover, this does not excuse organizers of smaller conferences from cutting corners or lying about the depth of content.

  32. Mitch –
    I’m currently organizing the 140 Character Conference in Des Moines May 9. 10 minutes and no power point, visuals, tricks — just 10 minutes of talking. And they may or may not be professional speakers (in fact, most are not) – but the point is to get to the point. We don’t pay our speakers. It’s a free ticket, tshirt and major exposure. We do hold their hands, give them plenty of information, work on their preso with them – and make sure we can do all we can to make the experience good for them. And good for the attendees.
    I’m with Kneale – decisions are made at every level. I hope that organizers want the experience to be good for all — and do all they can to ensure it is.

  33. Seconded. While it may have been novel 2 years ago, we’re there to see and hear the speaker. Twitter and whatever else is secondary and distracting if you throw it up on the screen.

  34. I have no issue with speakers trying to earn their fee by giving great presentations. Unfortunately, those types fall into the minority. I’m talking about the conference organizers who ask a President of a company to speak and they show up (if they show up) totally unprepared and stumble through something. These speakers never realize that people paid good money to see them and maybe if they were compensated for their presentation, they would take it more seriously.

  35. Mitch:
    As a conference organizer, I say, “Thank you for saying it out loud. Thank you for telling meeting professionals everywhere. Thank you for putting it on the line.”
    Now, as a conference organizer that believes in paying a speaker, I also believe that the speaker should be held accountability for delivering a presentation that resonates with my audience.
    I actually went as far as putting an accountability/incentive clause in my speaker contracts. If you get an 80% overall average satisfaction rating from my 10 criteria from the attendees, I’ll pay you 80% of your fee. If you get 90% or higher, I’ll pay 100% of your fee.” If you get less than 70% failure, (as you know 70% is one point above failure,) I’ll pay you half of your fee. And you expenses of course.
    I don’t mind paying a fee as long as you don’t mind being accountable. I’ve seen too many paid speakers fail at their presentations without any accountability.

  36. This year I kind of stumbled into a role of conference organizer when we held the Social Slam event in Knoxville. It was a huge success — 430 attendees from 17 states and Canada — and luckily we incorporated many of these points from our cumulative experience at other conferences.
    One of the biggest learning I had — reflected in your post and also the commnets — is enabling the conference to help make connections. We did a fair job by encouraing personal interactions with the speakers. We had 15 minutes between each speaker and people asked for more. That may seem counter-intuitive. People are paying to attend a conference and ask for LESS content because they are enjoying the networking.
    A superb post Mitch!!

  37. I agree almost 100% with this post … overall it’s spot friggin’ on … I have a slight amendment though to the panel section. You’re right, panels do need some advance preparation but the place where this almost always falls down is in lousy moderation. If conference organizers pick the right moderator, that person will get that panel prepared PROPERLY – which does *not* include – in my personal and rather extensive experience – any form of “group think” in advance. It is precisely the excessive group phone calls and mass emails before panels that renders the on-stage content dull and, as I hear at so many events, just a bunch of folks sitting around agreeing with each other.
    Handled properly a moderator will engage all panelists in advance, set a basic format for the session so that folks know and understand the process/protocol/framework. They’ll also set a basic outline of themes/topics … ideally about 3-5 broad topics with some basic questions underneath. And then the moderator will engage *individually* with each and every panelist in advance, either by email or phone, to get each person’s perspectives and thoughts so that they can guide and engage the discussion well.
    This means that the panel discussion actually takes place DURING the panel, and not before.
    Panelists may very well be meeting each other for the first time before they go on stage, and that’s fine … but so long as the moderator has done their job to get everyone on the same page that should never be an issue.

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