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How the rise of online is changing your events

by Adrian Segar

Encyclopaedia Britannica

How I used to find information
When I was living in England in the 1960’s, finding a telephone number was cumbersome. Five huge telephone books, each requiring both hands to lift, sat in a cupboard in our hallway, with millions of alphabetized names and associated numbers in microscopic print. The books quickly became out of date and were updated sporadically. And, if you didn’t know the exact spelling, or had only an address, you were out of luck.

Books were a key way to obtain information. Wealthy families (not mine) purchased the Encyclopedia Britannica and proudly displayed the 24+ volumes on sturdy bookshelves. The local free library was a key resource. For current information, I could watch three TV channels and read several rather good print newspapers. For specialized information, I subscribed to, or read in the library, a bewildering variety of magazines and journals.

And, of course, I talked to people. My parents, my teachers, my friends, and, later, my professional colleagues were all valuable resources. I found my friends from face-to-face social events or through my work. Finally, if I needed to know more about a subject of interest, I would attend a conference and listen to papers delivered by experts in the field.

How I find information today
I don’t remember the last time I consulted a paper telephone directory. Ten years ago I checked eBay to see if an Encyclopedia Britannica that I never consulted any more was worth anything. Reluctantly, I ended up recycling the set, because no one wanted to buy it. Today, apart from a local paper and a few paper magazine subscriptions, online is where I find telephone numbers, email or physical addresses, and information on just about any subject that, in quantity and mostly quality, dwarfs the contents of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

People are still a major resource for me, but the primary way that I first meet new people professionally these days is online, via a variety of social media, rather than an initial face-to-face encounter.

And, of course, these days I am a creator of conferences rather than a passive consumer of them. For me, a good conference is one where I can interact, connect, share, and learn with others, and can influence what happens at the event in a way that is useful and meaningful to me.

How the bountiful availability of online content changes events
Today there is amazing one-way content on the web. The internet is where we go for information about people, places, facts, processes, techniques, and solutions to problems. Our resources have migrated from cumbersome books and broadcast media to browsable indexed data servers in the internet cloud.

For face-to-face attendees, this makes vanilla delivery of content at events far less compelling.

In the future, people are not going to travel to your event to listen to a speaker they could watch streamed live, or as a recording at a time and place of their choosing. Providing a ten-minute opportunity for questions at the end of a presentation isn’t going to cut it either. Viewing one-way content over the internet is cheaper and more convenient for attendees, and if straight content is mostly what you have to offer people will gravitate to obtaining it online; either from you or a competitor.

As a result, traditional events concentrating on the transfer of predetermined content from experts to a local audience are dying. I don’t know how long it will be before rigor mortis sets in. Perhaps some events will remain viable as training opportunities for novices, or as vehicles for CEUs to be awarded or certifications to be maintained. Over time, however, the majority of professionals who care about their profession and best use of their time will stop going to face-to-face events that don’t incorporate significant opportunities for connection, peer-to-peer sharing, and participant-driven sessions. And, no, a lunch and an evening social or two aren’t going to be enough any more. Instead you need to put opportunities for connection front and center of your events, because connection around content is becoming the most important reason that people attend face-to-face events.

Why you should care
In the fifteen months since my book on participant-driven conferences was published I have been amazed and delighted by the flood of interest from meeting professionals, peer communities, and business & association leaders. And I’ve also been disturbed. A common story I hear is of long-running conferences in trouble: conferences where attendance, evaluations, and consequent income are falling. The organizers who are contacting me have realized that the traditional conferences-as-usual models are not working like they used to—attendees are starting to defect, or ask for something different. I’ve heard this story from professionals in many different fields.

In my opinion, it’s only a matter of time before the importance of the shift in emphasis away from content towards connection at face-to-face events becomes apparent and generally accepted by the events community. As usual with industry trends, the people who recognize and respond well to them early will be the beneficiaries, while those who continue doing things the old way will lose out. If you’re not currently investigating ways to restructure your events to significantly increase attendee connections and participation, I recommend you start.

Do you see a trend of increased attendee dissatisfaction at traditional events? If so, why do you think it’s happening, and what are you doing about it?

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  • http://www.justinlocke.com/speak.htm JustinLockeHBR

    Well Adrian, it has taken me years but you are finally bringing me into the light. As professional presenter, I wanted the environment to adjust to me, but that, amazingly, has not happened. Of course, where attendance can be forced, the industrial model is still there, of people “paying for information” as though it were a physical commodity. But in the open market, as you say, selling content these days is like trying to sell books in a public library. And it was always an illusion anyway, the real value of education has always been the social/connections aspect, Anyway, for me, what did have to happen was a transformation within, of seeing myself, not as an entity whose only value was in being an owner and disseminator of information, but as something no online source can yet do, which is, be a perceiver, i.e., meet the audience’s need to be acknowledged; cultivate their potential by observing it, recognizing it, and reacting to it; and just generally meeting the need of primates to gather in groups and be made to feel like they belong. Presence itself has value, and often the industrial notion of value for content actually runs counter to that. Of course to make that work, I had to rethink how I had been trained to think of my own value, as being beyond “what I know” . . . It is a big shift to become of a mind that each person has infinite value to share, and this goes against standard pecking order models of management. In fact is all against everything I was ever taught. . . . -jl

    • http://www.conferencesthatwork.com/ Adrian Segar

      Wow, this coming from you Justin, I take as high praise. Thank you! Please stay in touch and keep sharing your journey, as I attempt to share mine on this blog.

      • http://www.justinlocke.com/speak.htm JustinLockeHBR

        Well Adrian nice to hear from you. Here is one big lesson I learned: If I stand up in front of a crowd and say “I know more than you do,” it doesn’t matter what he value of that knowledge is, because it creates a greater negative impact of a de facto “shaming experience.” It implies that the audience is a lower order of being. While some people put up with this, like turnpike tolls, “I have to get talked down to/ pay this time/money /do this unpleasant thing in order to get certified/ get to where I want to go,” absent some gatekeeping power to force people to take certain classes, the idea that one can live as a fountain of information just doesn’t work any more. But I had to transcend/heal past all the shaming *I* went thru in order to rise above that hierarchical model, and that was not about information, it was about a healing process. My biggest issue these days is not “what I know,” as it turns out someone else figured it all out before, it is in managing the exchange and coordination of that information, as the language we currently have is very fractured, and it is our emotional fragility and issues of trust (again, shame issues) preventing teamwork, not the availability of solutions, that is the real issue. And you kinda sorta need to do that in person.

        • http://www.conferencesthatwork.com/ Adrian Segar

          Love this Justin. We are both recovering from the shame-centered education we (and, likely, almost everyone) received in our youth. Perhaps we should start EA: Education Anonymous! You have described many aspects of what you & I have in common in our goals for working with a group of people.

          • http://www.justinlocke.com/speak.htm JustinLockeHBR

            I’m giving a PowerPoint Presentation on it next week. You’ll need to sit very quietly for 90 minutes as I read the text on the slides. :-)

          • http://www.conferencesthatwork.com/ Adrian Segar

            Glad to hear you are not deviating one iota from the hallowed ways we were “taught”. :)

          • http://www.justinlocke.com/speak.htm JustinLockeHBR

            Well I am just trying to help people improve their communication and leadership skills, so NO TALKING and DO EXACTLY WHAT I TELL YOU

          • http://www.conferencesthatwork.com/ Adrian Segar

            Yes Sir!

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