January 12, 2020

Conference Evolution

The 40% of you who read this blog and are die-hard catalogers probably learned about the news yesterday (click here).

I've run my own consulting business for nearly thirteen years. In case you haven't noticed, the world was very different in 2007 than it is in 2020.

When I began my consulting work, conferences were critical to success. If you were invited to speak at NEMOA, you earned $20,000 to $40,000 in follow-up consulting work. And in 2007, there were very few voices with a public audience. My blog was a year old, and I quickly earned 2,500 followers. In no time at all. It pays to be out in front of a trend. Some of your 2,500 followers would attend the conference just to hear you speak in a live setting. The conference benefited from your attendance, and the speaker benefited from people hiring you. That's how the relationship worked back then.

The financial meltdown of 2008-2009, coupled with the evolution of social media ... that combination changed conferences.

In 2007 it was common for trade journals to pay writers. It was common for conferences to pay me to speak ... you'd make $4,000 for an hour of your time, and you brought 25 of your followers at $1,000 each so the conference made money and you made money. By the time I spoke at NEMOA in 2012, vendors were spending $20,000 to get an opportunity to address the audience. Do you see the difference? The conference doesn't have to worry about hustling to find 25 quality attendees ... the conference just needs to find a gullible vendor who has a generous marketing budget, and then has to find 25 warm bodies.

Around 2013, I began receiving emails from conferences, asking how much money I could bring as a speaker? Just like a NASCAR driver who has to bring $20,000,000 in sponsorship dollars, the equation flipped. Not surprisingly, the content at conferences got much, much worse.

As the content got worse, attendees disappeared. I spent my own money to attend NEMOA in 2014 just to see what the mix of paid content and attendees looked like, as I had been told by so many in my client base that they were fed up with attending conferences and being hawked by vendors at every turn. On the first day, the Leadership of a major industry vendor that so darn many of you use cornered me in a conference room, closed the door, told me to shut down my blog, shut down my consultancy, join them, and participate in an effort to "monetize the industry".

Monetize the industry.

Nice job, NEMOA.

Attendance at traditional conferences began slumping, and for good reason. Who wants to be "monetized"??

This trend required conferences to take new and innovative approaches. It became common for sports stars, media stars, or celebrities to be paid to speak about the kind of stuff that actual industry speakers used to speak about. Get five vendors to pony up $20,000 for speaking slots, flip the money to a celebrity, and the celebrity helps bring attendees back. This is no longer a conference where attendees learn ... this is called a "show" ... a place where you learn about retail from Gwyneth Paltrow, for instance. 38,000 people attend, and only 16,000 are actual retail employees. And nobody cares that the majority of attendees aren't retail employees.

Well done.

There's big business in "shows". A "show" that you know and love ... Shoptalk ... was acquired last month for the modest fee of $145,000,000

Yes, you read that correctly. One hundred and forty five million dollars to acquire a "show". Everything that is wrong about my industry is outline in the prior sentence.

You probably read this quote as well:
  • "... consistent with our goal to acquire product-led market-leading events in large industries that have achieved significant size, secured distinct customer bases and developed compelling value propositions, and that hold tremendous opportunities for organic growth and international rollouts."
Maybe I missed something ... but there's nothing in that quote about saving the retail industry ... the very industry that Shoptalk is dependent on.

Click on this one ... here's a few of the sponsorship opportunities available to you at Shoptalk 2020. Again, this is a "show". It's not a place where you learn how to be great at your job. It's a format that allowed the founders to sell for $145,000,000. Heck, you can obtain a 30'x50' booth for just $150,000. Is it any wonder the poor folks forced to work the booth are so obsessed about giving you a free pen in an effort to get you to learn about why QR codes are making a comeback?

$150,000 for 1,500 square feet. That's just $100 a square foot. You've been monetized down to the square foot.

That's how conferences (#shows) evolved in the past decade.

Conferences are dead. Long live shows!! Enjoy being monetized.

So what now?

Last year I performed a quick video-based presentation for Catalog University. Close to 200 Professionals registered for the one hour event. Nobody had to travel. Nobody ate a lousy $29 hamburger at a hotel bar. Nobody was forced to accept a free pen in exchange for hearing about why QR codes are making a comeback.

Fifteen months ago a talented woman asked me to be a guest on her podcast. To this day I still get feedback from people who have listened to the podcast for the first time. No consulting projects came from the session, nor did I expect a consulting project to happen. I just wanted to see what happened to the content over time. 

In other words, there are myriad ways to get honest content out there for you to consider. 1,550 email subscribers and 1,000 RSS subscribers get access to my 5x/week posts. Another 500-750 people read each post courtesy of Google and their algorithm. Video.  Collaborations. Partnerships. Podcasts (my podcast from 2015-2017 generated an average of 2,000 listens per episode ... didn't generate enough business, but that's my fault for not offering content that led to business).

In our modern world, when one door closes, a hundred vents open.

This year, I'm going to explore some of the vents ... different ideas that may or may not work, ways to grow my business while providing you with actionable assistance. Why cling to an old pay-to-play business model that has been monetized to the tune of a $145,000,000 acquisition when there are so many other ways to thrive?


P.S.:  Your turn ... what do you think I should do? Which "vent" should I pursue in 2020? Contact me at kevinh@minethatdata.com or send me a message on Twitter @minethatdata.

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