Be Careful What You Pay For… Or Speak For

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How would you feel if you paid over $1500 to attend a conference but you were never informed that some of the "speakers" actually paid to be speaking in sessions that were nothing more than a heavily veiled sales pitch?

Just recently I recommended someone as a speaker for a well-known organization that holds many different types of conferences. It was a perfect fit. Their content was in the specific niche that this conference was covering and, according to the online schedule, there were still several session slots that had not been finalized. I wrote a fairly compelling email with supporting links and even media coverage on behalf of this speaker. It felt like a slam dunk.

Then, this arrived via email…

"Thanks so much for your email and your interest in [conference name]. Although it may look like there are slots available on the schedule grid, the main program is now full. That being said, I do have a few sponsored speaking opportunities available… I could offer you a very good deal. Please let me know if this would be of interest and we can discuss further."

Do you think the people who paid over $1500 to attend this conference are informed that some of the sessions are paid sponsorships? It’s not mentioned anywhere in the online schedule and there is no visible indicator that would even signify this differentiation. I don’t know about you, but I would like to know which – if any – sessions I am attending are a sales pitch versus authentic content that was put on the slate because it was earned.

Businesses are getting pretty desperate.

As bad as things might be because of the economy, these types of antics are going to happen more and more. People are looking for angles. The are looking for ways to pull more profits. The problem is that it’s not a sustainable model. Someone else would probably "drop a dime" and call this conference organizer out. There’s no doubt that this sort of thing would severely affect their business. But, in a world where a company would be happy to pay to get up on stage and deliver a glorified sales pitch to a full room, and the conference organizers can walk away with not only the full registration fee from the attendees but also some extra shekels from this "speaking" revenue stream – with no one being any wiser – it was bound to happen. It’s sad to think that conference organizers might need some kind of "code of conduct". It’s even sadder to think about how much they are taking advantage of their attendees/customers.

What can you do?

As a professional speaker, I do over sixty speaking events a year, and this is the first I have heard of this. Going forward, you can bet I will be asking both conferences that I am speaking at or attending if any of the sessions are paid sponsorships (i.e. sales pitches) and whether or not the conference organizers notify their attendees of this practice.

I think it sucks big time. What do you think?


  1. man, I would be seething!! I really hope that this tactic doesn’t take over as conferences are expensive and a time to network and learn technical nuances from SMEs. Its almost like the sneaky way the movie industry now subjects us to commercials for 30 minutes after paying $10 each. rubbish and best of luck to you mate!
    btw, your twitter post was how i landed here and it intrigued me to find out what happened. thanks again!

  2. Gah, that sounds totally shady. To be honest, though, I feel this way in many conferences I attend, like everyone is trying to sell me something rather than share valuable information for the sake of learning. Ah, but that just makes it more of a challenge to find the really great ones!

  3. I would be incensed if I was laying out the money for that conference.
    Having said that, I did experience that at a conference I was invited to (to attend not speak) and everyone in the room realized it was a pitch in the first 5 minutes and we all started communicating amongst ourselves. And it was a shameless pitch too – added *nothing*
    As a speaker (not of your renown alas) I pray I shall not end up on such an event and I certainly won’t be paying for the pleasure.
    Thanks for letting us know, still waiting for the next Foreword Thinking!

  4. Great article Mitch. I completely agree with your sentiments. I am asked to speak at a number of conferences each year on communication topics for free and wouldn’t want to be in a conference where I knew that others were paying to speak.

  5. Hi Mitch – I ran into this last year when speaking with IIR. And again last week when speaking with a UK event organiser.
    Sponsorship and spotlight go together in this business. You can usually sniff out the speakers who don’t belong – they are the ones that are clearly a few notches down from the rest of the program.
    It’s been a while. Hope I run into you this year at a conference! πŸ™‚

  6. I entirely agree that this is egregious, Mitch. But tell me, why did you not out this “well-known organization that holds many different types of conferences”?

  7. Chris– I agree. I’d love to know who these people are. Unless it’s going to put Mitch in a legal bind, let’s expose these people! As always, thanks so much for your good work!!

  8. Can’t say I’m surprised. If a conference is popular, then this is bound to happen. I’m sure the conference pays a few superstars to get people to buy tickets, and then need a lot of filler or opening acts to fill in the time. Then those spots get opened up to the highest bidder. Sleazy? Yes. Surprising? Nope.
    With everything else, it’s buyer beware. If you are spending $1500 and, more importantly, a lot of your time, then you should do some research to see how valuable the whole thing is.
    I do have to disagree with you on one thing Mitch. You can’t blame this on the economy. This “business model” would happen in boom time and recessions and everything in between. Heck, it probably works better during boom times.

  9. I’ve run into this a couple of times this year. Peter Kim mentions one of the offenders. I was proposing one of my co-workers as a speaker at this conference (he would have been a perfect fit, in my opinion).
    And I was essentially told: We can find a spot for him if your company signs on as a sponsor. If not, you’re out of luck.
    Generally, I’m not a fan of the pay-for-play model.
    And as an attendee at conferences, I almost always skip the sessions in which the presenter or presenters are sponsors. In my experience, their talks are usually thinly-veiled sales pitches that I have ZERO interest in hearing.
    Bryan | @BryanPerson

  10. Conferences like this are all too common in every industry. Paying to give a ‘lecture/speech’ at a conference is not representing your product/service genuinely.
    I think that if you have to pay to be give a speech at conference then do you really want to be associated with such an event.
    Paying to promote your company is what expos and booths are designed to do. I do not goto conferences unless they were sponsored by professional organisation/associations but even these have succumb to the pay for place model.
    I maybe naive but I feel that conferences should be about imparting knowledge for free, giving something that furthers understanding of a topic or issue. The only promotion should be your name with company name in the conference material. It should not be a promotional speech, if you want to do a promotional speech hire a space in the same hotel/event space or one across the road and invite people to come along while their in town. Your product should speak for itself not be under minded by under table pay for place speeches.

  11. “I did experience that at a conference I was invited to (to attend not speak) and everyone in the room realized it was a pitch in the first 5 minutes and we all started communicating amongst ourselves. And it was a shameless pitch too – added *nothing*”
    Phillip, I hope you spoke up loudly. As an audience member you should not be shy to tell a speaker to stop pitching.
    Some speakers can be quite sneaky. They hide the pitch from the organizers and include it on the day of the conference.
    I agree that all presentations should be selected on the merit of their content.
    I have even heard of conferences where all content has been sponsored.
    In my experience some of the absolutely best speakers are those who speak out of passion (they don’t have to pay to speak nor do they ask to get paid to do so). They know not to pitch.
    I don’t believe sales pitches work anyhow. Provide quality content and people will come to you. Pitch and people will avoid you.

  12. You should also look at who the producer is. If it’s a big conference company they’re more likely to be doing it just for profit.
    I have organized both conferences and free get togethers. In one case the profit is zero, in another there is profit but less than people think. I could do a lot more profitable things, but I am into this because of passion.
    Check if others are as well.
    BTW, if you’re afraid of paid content — avoid conferences sporting ten Seth Godins. It’s not cheap, and they have to get their money back somehow. Especially if they’re not getting thousands of participants.
    Me? I’m for content being selected based on it’s quality. No more, no less.
    And no, no sales pitches.

  13. A couple of additional points:
    1. I know this happens all of the time. In this case, it was the company that was doing it that astounded me. This is a company that many of us hold in the highest regard. Certain brands should be above this.
    2. I’m not outing the company because you never know who you will be working with or for in the future. Plus, it’s not “who” is doing this that’s important to the conversation, it’s “what” they’re doing.
    3. I’m not against sponsored speaking at all. I am against it if it’s not clearly defined to the audience members.
    4. I know this practice was happening long before the economy sunk. but I’m willing to bet that this specific organizer never did this before. When profits do start dropping off, people get more and more desperate.
    5. Saying “this is an accepted practice” does not make it any more acceptable or right. Especially if the consumers are not informed and are not able to make an informed decision.

  14. I got a bait and switch recently, actually. I submitted a speaking proposal for an education conference (which has never been pay for play in the past) and got an email around the time of session notifications that they wanted to go to pay for play for the speakers, with tiered pricing depending on what part of the industry the speaker was from – i.e. schools paid a certain amount, but for-profit businesses paid a different, higher amount.
    Needless to say, I passed on the opportunity, and am planning my own higher education conference based on the PodCamp model.
    If you can’t join ’em, beat ’em.

  15. I think conference attendees also have a responsibility to ask conference organizers the same question, not just the speakers. If you pay money to attend you should do your due diligence.
    I also like some of the comments where we as the attendees should call out a deliberate sales pitch. I plan to do it at the next conference I attend.

  16. As a conference producer, I drive some vendors crazy. You want to speak? If I feel your presentation is likely to be a sales pitch because you happen to sell goods and services to my audience, then I throw you in the sponsor bucket and make you pay. How much time do you get in front of my audience? Depends on how much you pay. And there are only a few opportunities a day to subject paying customers to your drivel.
    I make it VERY clear in the program that some sessions are Sponsor Presentations. “Look out people, the following is a paid advertisement.” The most important of all of this is that these sessions are clearly identified. At my conference, it takes about four minutes for people to get up and walk out on a paid presentation – but it doesn’t happen a lot. That’s because good sponsors score some of the highest survey results from the audience. How? They deliver info rather than pitch.
    So – if you are a vendor, here are a few tips of giving a killer presentation to an audience that will hate you if you don’t:
    1. Describe the universe from your perspective.
    Don’t talk about products. Talk about the industry. Give us the inside scoop on what it’s like trying to read the minds of customers, train them and keep up with technical advances. Give us a clue about where you fit in the vendor landscape so that we can categorize you properly. Are you more like this one than that one? Are you priced higher than them and lower than the other? Useful.
    2. Give a case study.
    A client of ours had this business problem and here’s how we solved it and here are the results. Here’s how much time and trouble it took to make it work. Here are some of the tricks and traps we learned along the way. Useful.
    3. My highest scoring sponsor of all time sent their CEO to present. He got on stage, introduced himself, and then introduced a customer who spoke for the remaining 28 minutes. A client presenting his own case study. Useful, valuable, interesting and the company earned huge kudos from the audience for providing something tangible without using words like “leading” “premier” “world class” and “our sh*t doesn’t stink.”
    BTW – in some industries, technical presentations are critical for understanding the theory, strategy and case studies presented by all the rest.

  17. I’ve attended quite a few conferences where the speakers did not pay for the privilege, but were simply invited to speak like anyone else and chose to use their sessions as not-so-heavily-veiled sales pitches.
    Frankly, I think it ends up hurting them more than helping them. People are less likely to do business with someone who shamelessly self-promotes than with someone who brings quality content to the table.

  18. Jim – thanks for adding. I am happy to see a conference organizer like yourself here to add some perspective. As someone who has spoken at your events, I think paid sponsorships are actually valuable. Web Analytics is not an easy thing to understand and sometimes having people demo and explain their products and services adds perspective. The way you promote it also enables attendees to make a choice – not have to figure it out on their own.
    Deborah – here or somewhere else? I can’t remember Blogging about this before, but I have been it at it for many years πŸ˜‰

  19. I agree that certain brands are held to a higher standard in our eyes. Despite the fact that others or “everyone” is doing it doesn’t make it right.
    As an attendee with a limited budget to spend on conferences I would want to know which speakers are paying for the slot. Only to help distinguish between those selected for industry chops and those with a fat wallet. Given the topic of the paid slot I may still attend, if I believe it to be worthwhile.
    I strongly believe in the law of 2 feet.

  20. At my events if you sneak in a pitch you’re not welcome back. It’s OK to introduce yourself and tell about your business — for one minute. Then it’s time to deliver value. I’ve seen it time and time again: if you pitch nobody will talk to you in the breaks. If you make a great presentation and are “mysterious” people will hunt you like crazy during breaks.
    Who do you think will be the winner?
    Jim has a point though: sponsored presentations CAN bring value — provided the speaker understands the above points.
    Just like non-sponsored presentations can also fail.
    PubCon did a great post on speaking a while back.
    Maybe all organizers should make a joint website with speaking tips (no conference marketing on the site)?
    I mean, we all want quality content. Right?

  21. Lars – you said: “I mean, we all want quality content. Right?”
    That was the real spirit of this post. I brought them someone who was going to deliver just that. Someone with experience and the ability to speak. Instead of that, the were looking for anybody who pay money for a slot.
    That’s probably the biggest issue and what makes everything we’re all talking about so irritating.

  22. Good post. Any paid articles in print media have to say “sponsored”, so why should conferences be any different? I wouldn’t be going back to any of that company’s conferences until they adopt that practice.

  23. We offer our silver and above sponsors, a speaking slot, and it’s identified in the slot that it’s a product session. We don’t want our attendees finding out halfway through or sooner, that it’s all sales pitch. Plenty of people are interested in the pitch, but we want everyone to know going in, that it’s a pitch.
    Our sponsors appreciate it because more often than not, it’s the presenter AND the conference that get slammed for being shady, etc.
    Full disclosure is a must.

  24. I’m a speaker as well, but not very well-known yet. As such, I do submit speaking proposals for conferences that appeal to my target – not because I can sell to them, but because I want to deliver content that is appropriate for the audience.
    Asking someone to pay *just* because their services are in-line with your audience is unfair – you could be missing out on great content!
    Simply make it clear that all proposals must deliver content and not be self-promoting. If you feel like pitching, you’re not going to submit a proposal to this one.

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