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.