really? honestly?

A conference, but not as we now know it?

When I was on work placement during my degree, I made conferences. It wasn’t hard. Pick a popular subject, suck up to the usual suspects on the circuit and get them to speak, bang out details to a few mailing lists you’d bought, and watch the pennies roll in. Easy money. You didn’t really whip up a storm of “it’s unmissable!” hype – well, you couldn’t really. This was before email.

A few years later, in my local government era, I saw a bit of the “traditional conference” game from the other side. Timing was a factor – those glossy leaflets would usually fall onto the mat precisely at the time we were realising the training budget was a bit underspent – and timing of events themselves? Well, nothing after 4pm, naturally. In fact, keep it light after lunch (and don’t start until 10). We’re going all the way to London – it would be just wrong not to do a little shopping or sight-seeing at the same time. Might even be best to stay a night…

You get the picture.

Roll forwards to 2009 and have things changed? A subject like Digital Engagement seems like a good target to knock off. Get Martha, get Andrew, get Tom (oh, hang on – who’s the new Tom? Well, yeah, find one if you can, otherwise Tom will do) – that Helen Milner does a good turn, and chuck in a couple of suppliers. They might get everyone down a bit with their cheap suits, but they pay well to have a stand. Print the brochure. Mail it out. Knock up a website with the speaker bios and if we get a few big names, we’ll pull along some sponsors as well.

Take some big fat fees, give ’em a fat printed brochure pack (that they’ll stuff behind the first coffee table they can), lock ’em in, talk the talk, thank you and goodnight.

But it’s not like that any more. No, really, it’s not. And it’s never going to be like that again.

Mainly because you don’t lock ’em in and just get on with it. They talk. They interact. They take pictures. Before, during and after the event. They communicate, with thousands of people. Thousands of people are also ‘there’. Without being in the room. Just by following streams, hashtags, feeds, blogs… Crucially, without paying.

And they do strange things, like organise their own conferences. Calling them things like un-conference, or barcamp, or meet-up. Done for free, in loaned empty offices, or in pubs, or community centres, often on a Saturday. In their own time. Fuelled by pizzas: either self-funded, or through informal, peppercorn sponsorship from an outfit that really “gets it”. Amplified by social media experts (real ones, not the sort that call themselves “social media experts”) and supported by pretty sophisticated technology to really, well, digitally engage.

Bad news really. This changes the conference game significantly. And if you’re going for a subject like Digital Engagement, then by definition you’re dealing with people who really know about this shit. As well as some suppliers in bad suits.

So how did this one go? http://www.digitalengagementevent.com/

Well, it had a rocky start. Weeks before the event it got a panning on Twitter when word got round about a) the pricing (£895+VAT for ‘private sector’) and b) the direct approach tactics being used to potential attendees. I won’t comment on the latter in any detail, as I wasn’t approached myself, but notable bloggers from the government/social media crowd such as @the_anke and @dominiccampbell made their views clear: this was not being styled or sold in a way that reflected genuine values of digital engagement and good use of social media. Where was a SME, committed to working in this sector, really going to find the best part of a thousand quid for something like this?

UPDATE: Anke Holst’s excellent post on the subject is here. I see that Aisha from the conference production team, to her credit, did engage and comment on this blog.

Others had paid up (presumably at the lower ‘public sector’ rate of £195+VAT), taking a balanced view that it would be worth going to as there’d be good debate and an interesting, informed audience. Not unreasonable at all.

The twitterstorm was fast and furious; the organisers didn’t seem to have given much support to the operator of the @digiengagement twitter account who did the best that she could as the fur flew. I’ll pass over the various stumbles in handling the medium – we’ve all been there, and learned the hard way – but the salient fact that emerged after a couple of hours was that pretty much anyone who made a fuss, or a case to the organisers via email, would get in free. Not a thousand pounds’ worth of value now – free. All in open, visible communication of the sort that gives real-time social media its very special power.

Nice for those who had dug into their organisations’ budgets to pay up. Even nicer for those who might have dug into their own.

But I took the offer at face value, and got a free ticket. What happened next – at the event itself? That’s the next post. This one is quite long enough for one sitting.

Filed under: Uncategorized

20 Responses

  1. Paul Webster says:

    So you will know the one thing people always complain about at an event ….

    Well in this case – “The FOOD was good”!

  2. TimHood says:

    cracking post.

    I got dozens upon dozens of hard sell phone calls about this event. The first one went on for twenty minutes before I realised that I was being pitched for exhibitor fees, rather than invited to speak (the staring price for that was 15k).

    When the fee being mentioned started to sound sensible I did give it some thought and even started to iron my cheap suit in anticipation.

    Then the absurdity of it all hit me full square: a tiny self-funded start up paying a large PLC a gatekeeper fee for attending an event where democracy and inclusion was the main theme.

    I decided to keep the money and use it to sponsor pizza at the kind of events you refer to above- I’d rather Dave, Dom or Will have it anyway.

    Except of course I could have gone for free as it turns out (had I been able).

  3. […] Clarke has begun a hatchet job on the event itself. Let’s just say it was an eclectic mix of topics and I didn’t exactly get to share many […]

  4. cyberdoyle says:

    Excellent! look forward to part 2.

  5. John Popham says:

    Well done Paul for getting down what most people thought about this event.

    And don’t forget. There ARE lots of great things happening in Yorkhire (& Humber)!

  6. jamesfm says:

    Hmmm.. interesting. We’re used to the idea that the web makes the price of all digital goods and services tend to zero.
    Could the same be true for conference fees?

  7. Hannah York says:

    Hi Paul,

    I was so disheartened by the event that I toyed with finally giving in and starting a blog just to write down the rant I wanted to have. No need now!

    Nice to meet you yesterday – one of the few I did due to the bum numbing format! I look forward to part 2.


  8. Janet E Davis says:

    So good to see someone with the guts to speak out about such things. People like me don’t get to go to such events often. I usually work on publicly-funded projects that have no budget for me to attend paid events. Also, I have earned far too little to afford conference fees on top of the prohibitive costs of train fares + accommodation in London (I am very good value for money!).
    I should be able to participate openly in debates on our digital future since I am one of the people helping to shape it and make it happen. Like so many (especially the female contingent) who have the experience, knowledge and vision to help take things forward, I seem to be ignored.

  9. Josh says:

    The food was average – small portions and a very awkward stand-up arrangement for a plated meal.

  10. […] A conference, but not as we now know it? « Honestlyreal As predicted (the conference that is) (tags: events digitalengagement cabinetoffice) […]

  11. […] a Comment  Spent the day yesterday at the Digital Engagement conference in Westminster. As others have put far more eloquently, it was quite odd after the range of barcamps and similar free events […]

  12. paulclarke says:

    Part 2 on its way shortly. But I’ve been asked to make a correction and apology regarding one detail of this post. It seems I made a grave factual error which I will now hastily and happily address:

    When I referred to ‘London’ above, I did of course mean to say “that London”.


    (And for those that don’t get this, I trust that the joy shared by those who do will lead to a net positive smile factor in the universe.)

  13. Great post Paul.

    I was also approached a couple of times by the sales team for this event who were trying to flog me a sponsorship package. I also turned them down (although a couple of colleagues did attend, and I hope to God they didn’t pay the full price for their tickets).

    The idea that conference organisers are in the business of making a profit shouldn’t surprise anyone, But you are right to point out that the emergence of the Twitter backchannel and the impact of bloggers like your good self has brought a whole new bunch of risks for event organisers.

    I remember the trepidation I felt when I was asked to chair a panel at an OpenGov event a while back, knowing that many members of the Twitterati were in the audience. In the end, I actually found that being able to review the backchannel while the discussion was taking place helped me to gauge what the audience was thinking, and I think helped me to do a better job of chairing the session.

    So I guess this brave new digital world cuts both ways – do a great job, and you’ll get to hear about it – but if you disappoint your punters – you may live to regret it.

  14. P.S. I’m looking forward to Part 2!

  15. paulclarke says:

    And that’s one fairly succinct way of summarising a key facet of ‘digital engagement’, I’d say. Thanks for that Jonathan.

    Your OpenGov appearance was excellent, by the way – and very much helped by the way you used the technology to enhance, not distract from, your material. That hip-hop story (see: memorable) – have you written that up anywhere?

  16. Thanks for the feedback. I haven’t written up the Hip-Hop story yet – but it’s on my list of things to do!

  17. […] play, and after some fast and furious exchanges people were being offered free tickets. Paul Clarke documents the whole thing here and follows up with an assessment of the day itself. They are excellent posts, prompting […]

  18. Tim Lloyd says:

    I had almost forgotten about the incessant and slightly underhand ‘phone calls I received in the run up to this event, until I read your post. Thanks for bringing it to everyone’s attention.
    Even if the content had been brilliant, I was totally put off by the “Can you afford not to attend, Mr Jones?” pitch from the sales guys. Totally inappropriate for 2009, for the public sector and for digital engagement.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: