“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”
On the #FuturePRoof podcast a couple of weeks back, Stephen Waddington lamented the state of the communications industry conference circuit in the UK, suggesting that we have “event fatigue” and that there are “too many organisations organising too many events”.
It may seem like an odd thing for me to write about considering I’m running Digital Download Live 2018 on 7th June, but I’m not one to hide and I think it’s a question worth addressing through the lens of someone who a) has been attending industry conferences for ten years, and b) runs a ‘conference’ himself.
Stephen’s point was to encourage event organisers to really think about what they’re putting on. And I agree with him 100%.
The whole reason I came up with the concept for Digital Download Live back in Autumn 2016 was essentially because I was sick of the ‘same old, same old’ conferences I’d been attending. I’d grown weary of the ‘sit in a huge auditorium passively listening to people talk for six hours’ thing.
Sure, I’ve learned stuff from many of the events I’ve attended, but their value had been on the wane for a number of years. So much so that since I set up independently at the end of 2014 I’d not attended one single industry ‘conference’.
I did break that duck at the back end of last year, but I attended a conference with a very singular goal in mind, which was to inform what I’d be doing with my own event this year. And though it was useful in that respect, lo and behold the conference I attended was exactly the same dull format I’d sat through time and time again. The conference ‘model’ is outdated.
There’s really no excuse for just gathering a bunch of well-known speakers and putting them on a stage or in panels. It’s lazy and it lacks imagination.
When I put Digital Download Live together I purposefully mixed everything up. Yes there are a couple of parts where the audience will sit and listen, but for the most part it’s highly interactive. I believe that you learn by doing not listening, so rather than lecture people on influence marketing theory (for example), let’s get everyone to actually do it there and then!
One of two workshops I’ve organised is about podcasting and I’m trying to get everyone in the room to actually make a podcast that will be published the week after the event. We’ll take them through the entire process, from ideation and planning to recording, editing and publishing.
Now let me be clear, this is a massive headache! It looked great on paper when I came up with the idea, but my cohorts and I are still struggling with how to actually make this work on the day; how to not only ensure that all 50 people have a hands on session but that they actually produce something valuable at the end of it!
The logistical challenges of this are numerous. But does that mean we shouldn’t do it? Does it hell! It’s all part of giving Digital Download Live delegates an unforgettable day that they’ll remember and genuinely learn from.
Now I’m not saying I’ve managed to single-handedly re-imagine the communications conference. Far from it; I’m not that smart! But at least I’m trying to do something different.
A few weeks back saw probably the largest PR event in the calendar take place. It was run by a very well-known media house, and delegates were paying up to £800 for a ticket (which in itself is insane). I had a long look over the agenda, and things like artificial intelligence and voice recognition were nowhere to be found. I searched the code of the website and there wasn’t even a mention of AI on it.
Seriously? Two of the biggest, most important changes in PR happening at the present time and this supposedly industry-leading event doesn’t even mention them?!
We as an industry seriously need to rethink events.
Conferences as Cash Cows
But let’s take another view; that of those running these conferences. From an event organiser’s perspective, events are not cheap to put on.
By the time you’ve hired a decent venue, paid to water and feed everyone, shipped in any additional tech or staffing support you might need, advertised and marketed the event, branded it, paid speakers (if you pay them) and then paid direct expenses like hotel rooms and travel and everything else, the margin on tickets is pretty low. Trust me on this!
That’s why events all have sponsors. When you add sponsorship fees and ticket sales together, suddenly you can create something pretty lucrative. Stephen said to me the other day while discussing this that: “Most events are little more than another income stream for media groups and organisers”.
And at the end of the day, therein lies the problem.
The sad truth behind why there are so many conferences, and the reason they’re all the same with the same agenda and all the same speakers, is because they’re little more than cash cows.
This is a sad state of affairs. Aren’t conferences and events supposed to be for the benefit of those attending?
That’s the angle I’ve taken with Digital Download Live. Do I make money on it? Sure. Is it a lot of money? Hell no!
For starters I don’t have event sponsors, and if I were to sit down and work out how much I get paid for every hour I put into it compared to how much I get paid for consultancy, it would make absolutely no financial sense whatsoever.
So why bother?
Events That Provide Experiences
As well as being bored by what was already out there, there were two other reasons I started Digital Download Live. Firstly (and I’m being very transparent about this), I thought it’d be a great way to expand my own business network. As Stephen said, most events are organised by media houses, so an event organised by an independent professional is, in theory at least, good for my awareness and reputation.
But second, and more pertinently, I genuinely want people to learn stuff that’s useful to them. Almost the raison d’etre of my business is to help people to help themselves. It’s front and centre of everything I do, and I can’t quite describe the satisfaction I gained hearing the amazing feedback after last year’s Digital Download.
The thing that links my blog, my podcast, the workshops I run, my membership community and the Digital Download Live event, is that I want to help to educate public relations and communications professionals.
I don’t have all the answers to AI or voice recognition or influence marketing or audio communications strategy or GDPR, but I do know others who are really informed in those areas and if I can bring all that knowledge together, that’s truly rewarding for me and I very much hope for those who subscribe to my blog or listen to my podcast or attend my events.
Looking at it that way, maybe me putting on Digital Download Live is as much driven by self-centred goals as a media house putting on a conference? It’s just that while their goal is profit, mine is self-actualisation.
Either way though, whichever way you look at it we can and should do better with public relations and communications conferences in the UK. It’s probably too much to hope for consolidation, as all the time organisations can make money from them they’re going to.
The challenge is therefore on us, as delegates, not to accept the status quo and to demand that event organisers do better.