There’s no shortage of conferences you can attend. Some are mammoth in scale and complexity, like SXSW and CES. Others are more intimate in nature, generally covering a very specific topic. I love a great conference. Unfortunately, not all conferences are great. Most, are good and some are bad; but, few are great.
Time away from the office is priceless. When you attend a summit/conference, you’re giving up face time, meeting time and time to work on critical initiatives. That an organization wants you to attend a summit is a privilege. Beyond the time investment there are also financial investments being made. For example, attending SXSW Interactive can easily run north of $5,000 for the conference pass, hotel, airfare, food, drinks, etc. This isn’t to say that SXSW doesn’t deliver a return on that $5,000, it’s more to provide context, that knowledge isn’t free.
Having attended as both a participant and presenter at several conferences across the globe, I’ve developed a set of filters to determine if a conference is worth the investment:
- Commitment to Quality: This starts at the top. Conference circuits are a business and the leaders who run that business, have hard decisions to make. For example, how many sponsored presentations are part of the day’s agenda? But, it takes really solid leadership to say no to something that could generate revenue while infringing on the overall conference experience. A commitment to quality is reflected not only in those decisions, but in the editorial staff that’s putting together the day’s sessions. It’s not easy to get A level talent out of the office for an hour or two, to get on a stage and share their knowledge. However, a savvy editorial team coupled with strong leadership and great attendees, makes for a heck of a carrot when recruiting speakers. Many conferences claim to be high quality, few are high quality across every dimension.
- Vendor to Buyer Ratio: To run a conference, money has to come from somewhere. You either need attendees to form over anywhere from $500 to $2,000 for a “pass” or you need vendors to help fund the operation via advertising, speaking opportunities or the chance to connect with attendees that are “buyers.” Granted, this isn’t 100% black and white, as many conferences apply a combination of the two approaches. To my knowledge, I’ve never seen a formula that outlines the right ratio, but in my experience, when you get exceed 2 sellers for every 1 buyer, you cross a threshold that stunts innovation, learning and sharing, while casting a cloud over the entire summit experience. While 2:1 looks scientific, the reality is, this is equal parts art and science. It’s not just how many, but the quality and seniority level of the vendors. Again, this goes back to an overall commitment to quality. If you value the overall quality of experience, above all, you tend to end up with not only the right ratio, but also the right vendors.
- Content and Speakers: Again, no magic formula here and believe me, 10 attendees can listen to the same session and walk away with 10 different points of view regarding the quality of said session. That said, I try to keep this simple. I want 2 things from the content and speakers. First, I need a mix of inspirational and practical sessions. This isn’t easy. The practical ones, while not often fun can be the most valuable. And the inspirational ones, while having high talk value, can leave you struggling for how to apply the concept to your business. Too much of one and you have either a boring conference or a pointless one. Second, I want speakers from varying walks of life. Their backgrounds should be diverse, as should their roles, seniority and business verticals. This variety often creates compelling dialogue and enriches the overall conference experience.
There are only 2 conferences / summits that consistently hit the mark across my 3 pieces of criteria: iMedia and Brand Innovators. In full disclosure, I’ve had the opportunity to attend their summits, sit on advisory boards that guide programming and have become friends with several members of the summit staff. I think it’s important you know that, but I think it’s also important that you know, that level of investment and connection to these summits wouldn’t happen, if I didn’t find them both to offer incomparable value.
iMedia and Brand Innovators are similar in their approach. First and foremost, they realize, the goal of a great summit experience, is to inspire, connect and enable its attendees. The value they both place on quality is unmatched. From the speakers to the location to the vendors and everything else in between, they deliver a nearly flawless experience. But, what separates iMedia and Brand Innovators from so many other conferences, goes well beyond that aspect. They both have, in my opinion, the right approach to a summit size. They’re small enough to be manageable and provoke honest, real dialogue, but large enough to learn from a diverse wealth of knowledge. It’s similar to having a great party. You need the right mix of personalities and number of people.
I have a high bar for attending summits. You should too. Your time is valuable. Make sure when you attend a summit that you’re time is well spent. If you attend an upcoming iMedia or Brand Innovators event, you’ll be increasing your odds of making that happen.