Neil Thackray’s Business Media Blog

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How do you run a conference in a digital age? The same way, but smarter

Although some people thought a conference about running conferences organised on April 1 must be some sort of a joke, the Conference for Conference Professionals was anything but funny.

Its mission: to find out the health of the conference business. In a vote at the beginning of the day, only seven percent of delegates thought the standard conference format was “Engaging informative and highly valuable”. But despite that, only 16 percent of delegates admitted that their own organisation needed fundamental change.

What does this mean? It shows the idea the events industry is largely unaffected by the digital revolution is a myth.

Informa , Incisive adapting their events models

– In a video interview, Peter Rigby, CEO of Informa, said that his business been had been robust, not least because his company has been only marginally affected by declining advertising revenues. Rigby argued the digital revolution had aided the conference business: so much work is now done in front of a screen, he claimed, that meeting people was more important than ever. However he acknowledged that events of the future had to be “different and exciting”.

Tim Weller of Incisive Media said that small event organisers that don’t inspire and motivate delegates to engage with a brand more than once a year will stay small organisers.

Conference biz too complacent?

It’s possible that the greatest threat to the conference industry is complacency born of the relative robustness of the model during the last recession and the continuing media revolution. While readers and advertisers have been steadily shifting away from print, leading to wholesale strategic shifts in most print media companies, the conference delegate and sponsorship market has trundled on.

Does that mean event organisers can ignore the media revolution around them? For some delegates that is precisely their plan. It could even be most of them. During a Q&A session, one attendee argued that his target market were not users of social media. He scornfully dismissed the Twitterfall being displayed on the stage and said that it might be relevant to his business in ten years’ time, but not today.

As I listened I was reminded of print publishers 15 years ago. Our print brands will see us through, many argued. Is the conference industry making the same mistake?

Livestreaming cannibalisation worry

Many delegates said they were worried livestreaming their events via online video would compromise delegate sales – just as print publishers worry web publishing cannibalises offline reading. Only a few understood that streaming is a great way to expand your audience – the trick is to make sure that the live attendee experience is not the same as the streamed experience. What is the point of attending a live event if the experience is no more interesting than watching it on a computer screen?

Some event businesses are stretching their competencies in new and exciting ways. United Business Media Loading… companies united-business-media claimed to be running more than 100 virtual events a year, not including its webinar programme. Whether you think virtual shows are compelling or not, you could not accuse UBM of ignoring the opportunity to experiment.

TED events engage online and offline

Greg Hitchins of Terrapin pointed to the success of TED which not only runs great events but has developed compelling ways for non-attendees to engage with the brand online.

As Hitchin put it out: “Most of the TED talks are pretty damn slick. Some people take six months to prepare but many presentations at our conferences look like they haven’t been prepared at all.”

What is the main challenge here? It’s same one being faced across the media: how to put the delegate, or customer, at the centre of all you do. In practical terms:

– What can we do to engage with visitors on the 364 days of the year they are not attending our event?
– How can we improve the experience of attending a conference event. As one delegate pointed out, the days of back to back Powerpoint presentations are over?

There were no more than half a dozen twitterers at this event. Many delegates complained that they could not submit questions to the panel using the mobile app provided as they did not own a smartphone. There was palpable resistance to the benefits of social media ( LinkedIn , Facebook and the like). One delegate asked: “Are we really saying that if I have 200 events that I now have to run 200 social media groups?” Er – yes!

The event industry is only at the beginning of this journey


April 9, 2011 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. The thing I most enjoy in reading this, Neil, is that it points to opportunities for new players to bust their way into a crowded market.

    But perhaps the other point for those who aren’t engaging with wsocial media is that it also offers a huge marketing opportunity ahead of events.


    Tim – Mumbrella

    Comment by Tim Burrowes | April 10, 2011

  2. I’m interested in how live event content is being captured and given (new and extended) life to online perhaps in a closed ‘club’, paid-for community. Neil have you come across any good examples in this area? Eg taking conferences content and using it towards professional learning?

    Comment by contentworththecash | April 11, 2011

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