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The Friday Roast: conference season

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy August 21, 2014
Conference season can be a soul destroying experience. Near non stop travel, predictable presentations and a lack of reality make for a tough time.

[sws_grey_box box_size="690"] SUMMARY: As the fall conference season swings into view, Den gives the worst of these the roasting treatment [/sws_grey_box]

conference infographic
As the fall conference season starts up, yours truly has a pretty packed plate through to the end of October. I'm not alone. Other diginomica team members are tee-ing up a slew of conferences and we're co-opting trusted colleagues to fill in some of the blanks. Check out the calendar in the sidebar to see where we'll be.

The main problem for me is travel.

The event frequency is now so crazy that I'm parking myself near the Mexican border for a couple of months to avoid the otherwise yo-yo experience of transatlantic flights. The hope is that cheap street food will sustain the body while the mind slowly rots. At least that's the plan.

The upside is vendors avoid what are becoming insane transatlantic flight costs and we get a few more feet on the ground when the event stars align. All good so far.

The downside is that US AR/PRs often have a very different way of managing analyst/media types that can be horribly frustrating for people like me. It beats the situation where someone who is normally bucketed as EMEA based suddenly becomes confusing to the AR/PRs when I turn out to be US based -however temporarily that might be - but only just. Fortunately, many of the event sponsors know us well and are working hard to make sure we get solid content. What of attendees?

The infographic reproduced on the right hand side (Not Safe For Work) sums up some of the depressingly familiar aspects of what often happens at vendor sponsored events. While aimed at the social media crowd - a very easy target in my view but one well worthy of evisceration - the general tenor works with many events.

Let's face it, most events are a glorified flogathon where the vendors wheel out their top sales people to pounce on all the prospective customers they can possibly wine, dine and shuttle around the local golf course or other source of distraction.

Often billed as customer conferences, they are nothing of the sort since customers have almost no say in what happens or the extent to which they are represented in the main event schedules. If anything, they act as supporting cast to the marketing talking heads. To my mind, that's an insult, even if the enterprise contract states 'thou shalt do customer reference calls including as many stand up shows as we deem necessary.'

Instead, attendees are often presented with a diet of buzzword heavy, vacuous presentations that create and then reinforce guilt at not having already bought [name your solution here.]

In recent years, vendors have gone over the top in inviting irrelevant people who just happen to be on the talk-talk circuit at the moment. The theory seems to go that the more noteworthy the name, the more likely they are to get bums on seats, even if the content is utterly irrelevant to the main purpose for being there.

For people like me who care about enterprise buyers, past military leaders and politicos or personal betterment coaches are about as relevant as an interview opportunity with Ronald McDonald.

Then there are the fake customer panels where Mr/Ms CMO joyfully goes through a set of predictable and canned questions with customers who have been rehearsed to within an inch of their failing will to live. G-d forbid that a customer should actually express an unscripted opinion or explain the pain they went through in order to get a solution up and running. That's reserved for cloistered sessions far away from the prying eyes of customers who really want to know what's going on.

Top that off with a dubious rock show either from some past famous band/person now reduced to doing corporate gigs at nose bleed prices or someone almost no-one has heard of that can be bought in cheap while the band is on the upswing and it is little wonder that so many vendors find it necessary to provide templated 'how to justify your trip' pages on their event sites.

But if these events are so bad then why turn up at all? Why not simply tune into the broadcast keynotes, rehash the vendor story and be done with it? That may well be what many in the media and analyst brigades do but we like to think there is a higher agenda and one that buyers appreciate.

I wish for instance that more vendors took the step of broadcasting the media sessions. That way buyers would get to see who are the slackers and who are those prepared to stand up and ask the tough questions that need answering. And by that I don't mean what will be on the CEO's next lunch order. I wish the vendors would allow customers to tell their stories, not simply dwell on the best of the outcomes. I wish the marketers were more attuned to the need for conversations, not a broadcast diet of fat and pap. I wish more CEOs took the opportunity to expound exciting and expansive visions rather than simply pat themselves on the back.

Until that day arrives, we'll continue to tip up and do our best to get the right story out to the intended buyer whether that's good, bad or indifferent. And we'll continue to winkle out those great customer stories that we know are so important to buyers.

Endnote: this is a deliberately contrarian view from one who has attended well in excess of 700 industry events in the last 23 years, some one dayers, others full week affairs, still others somewhere in between. They're not all as bad as made out. The quality is improving, but it is a slow process with far too much control ensuring that the only thing attendees see is the good side of things.

Image credit: @Corporate_Brand, Featured image: © leszekglasner -

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