Defrag Blog

On Community-driven tech conferences

by Eric Norlin on Mar.12, 2008, under general

Prelude: Please know that everything I’m about to say should only be applied to tech conferences - because that’s all that I know. Also know, that I consider “conferences” to be quite different from “expos,” and since I’ve never run an expo, I wouldn’t apply any of the following to that either. Okay, enough prelude…

It seems that once every year I end up either having a major conversation or writing something about how I view tech conferences. Is that because I’m some vaunted guru of tech conferences? Hell no. I’ve been around them (running, owning, working on) since 1999, and I’ve had success and failure. And through it all I’d like to think I’ve learned some things.

The recent “lacy/zuckerberg incident” (can we puh-lease stop talking about this?) has now led to the inevitable spate of articles about conferences. Some of which are good and some of which are bad, but all of which, I think, are missing some essential points. This has led me to the position of pontification that you find me in this morning.

First, there are essentially two kinds of tech conferences: community-driven tech conferences and (for lack of a better term) lead generation tech conferences. Neither of these types of tech conferences are in and of themselves *bad*, but they do serve distinctly different marketplaces, and they are heading in distinctly different directions.

Let me begin with “lead generation tech conferences”:

We all know them. They’re organized by companies. And their basic purpose is to “put butts in the seats” that they can then serve up to their sponsors as leads. Now, to be clear, ALL conferences eventually (as markets mature) become tools for either lead generation or some large “branding” effort, but the key differentiator of “lead generation tech conferences” is that they, in their heart of hearts, believe that the vendors (the people that buy sponsorships) are their customers. Its not that they don’t care about attendees or content, its just that at the end of the day, they’re organized to see the vendor as their primary customer. This stance, by the way, puts them closer to “expos” in how they view their business. (Expos clearly see the vendors as their customer.)

Community-driven tech conferences, on the other hand, recognize that their primary customer is the attendee. This is not to say that community-driven customers don’t see vendors as their “secondary” customer –after all, they’re an integral part of how a conference succeeds. But, and this is often hard for vendors to understand, for a community-driven conference to succeed it *must* see the attendee as the primary customer. After all, if the attendees aren’t there, then what difference does a sponsor make?

Further, community-driven tech conferences (that at some level recognize the importance of the attendee) can then be sub-divided into what I would see as ones that are succeeding and ones that are failing. And I measure that (success/failure) on one metric and one metric alone: engagement. Is your community “engaged” with the conference? All of this leads to the number one reason that I like to start community-driven tech conferences: there’s a big problem-set that hasn’t yet formed a cohesive community. Is the conference the one solution? Of course not. It is a part. And it can be an important part.

So, “engagement”:

Last year, when I decided we’d have some unconference/open space format in the middle of Defrag, I had someone tell me that the attendees wouldn’t take kindly to having to “sit back down and listen.” My response was simple: GREAT! I want people there that know that the conversation is not about passively listening to what’s on stage. (sidenote: there is, of course, a difference between being active in a discussion and being rude. we’re all adults, right?)

Rule #1 of engagement: you (and by “you” I mean the organizer, speakers, panelists, whatever) are not smarter than your “audience.” In fact, conference content should really just be the spur that kicks the ass of the horse known as conversation.

Rule #2: Don’t be afraid of your attendees. Value them. Embrace them. Someone told me that we need a twitter stream monitor running during Defrag - great, wonderful, can do. Will that upset the speakers? Only if they’re not the right kind of speakers for Defrag. In this context, the word “attendee” starts to get misleading. Its more like there are a bunch of “conversations” that you’re gathering. If your speakers aren’t ready for it, its because you (as the conference organizer) did a bad job of prepping them.

Rule #3: Have a vision of what you want. Corollary: growing in size of attendance and sponsor dollars is NOT a vision. When I “dream” of what I want Defrag to be eventually, I don’t dream of dollars. I dream of how the people that are there are energized, engaged and enthusiastic. That “dream” needs to get specific and be maintained. Example: Defrag will never (as long as I’m breathing and running it) go over 500 people. Reason: Simple - you lose the intimate nature of the networking. Does this shut me down from certain revenue possibilities? You bet it does. Did I make that choice knowing this? Sure did. And why, as a guy who does this for a living would I do that? Having a vision. When a conference gets excited about “blowing out their attendance number”, and having to “increase space” - ask yourself if they’ve thought about the vision. Is there a size limit for what people want? Sometimes. Its circumstance specific. But it is the job of the conference organizer to think about that circumstance well ahead of time.

Rule #4: The single most important thing you can ever do with attendees is listen. You should also listen to your sponsors, but you have to be much more careful with that kind of listening. If you’re not, you’ll end up stuck with a conference that the sponsors want and the attendees don’t care about. Remember: Vendors do NOT always know what’s best for them. I mean that in the sense that when you’re heads-down, fighting to succeed as a tech vendor, it gets VERY hard to see the forest for the trees. One of the great things conferences can do for vendors is help them to jiggle their thinking a bit; shake some assumptions; view things differently. Search out vendors wanting that. Listen to them. Listen to your attendees 4x as much.

Okay, enough rules….

What’s it all mean?

I think that community-driven tech conferences are the way to go (clearly). And I think that there’s a wide open market for all kinds - unconferences, more traditional formats, conversational tones, etc. I’m not a fundamentalist on this (beware of fundamentalism) - it really is about “knowing your market” and tailoring things to suit that best.

Further, I think there’s a very interesting thing happening in community-driven tech conferences that has to do with the niche media. Tech conferences with knowable people attached are doing better (over the long run) than faceless conferences. Examples:

Web 2.0 summit: Batelle and O’Reilly
PC Forum: Esther Dyson
DEMO: Chris Shipley
Lockergnome: Chris Pirillo
Money:Tech: Paul Kedrosky

…and, of course, Defrag. ;-)

When I say “doing better,” I mean that their level of engagement is far outweighing shows that are A) topic driven with B) no discernible person engaged with the conference community on a year round basis. These kinds of shows are numerous and (yawn) not so much fun.

Lastly, there are now articles being written about how social media is allowing “the people” to “take over” the conference. WE SHOULD ONLY BE SO LUCKY. Do I want Defrag attendees to take over the conference? You’re damn right I do. Attendees at PC Forum knew they were part of the community. They came because Esther (and Daphne) cared - about them, about the setting, about the conversations, about everything. It was not a job. It was a passion.

Look for that in the next conference you decide to attend, and you’ll find a conference that you’ll enjoy growing with…..not just “attending.”

[eric steps off of soapbox and resumes planning for Defrag 2008. Amen.]

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