Why traditional conferences are dying like music albums

Record albums 8447794421_fdfda28f9f_kRemember the Compact Disc [CD]? Or, if you’re old enough, like me, the long playing record [LP], aka “vinyl” records?

For many years, the music industry primarily sold “popular” (i.e. short form) music as rigid collections of individual tracks. If you liked something you heard on the radio and wanted to buy it, you were forced to buy the artist’s “album”, which often contained many other pieces of music you didn’t care for. Unless the track you liked was released as a “single” (for which you paid a premium) you couldn’t buy it by itself.

We all know what happened. CD ripping, and later the internet, made it possible for the music lover to pick and choose her music purchases one track at a time. Adore four tracks on a Manu Chao album? Just buy those four!

Why did this happen? Because great music albums that tell a compelling musical story from one track to the next are the exception rather than the rule. Most albums are disembodied collections that, apart from perhaps the artist’s and producer’s minds, have no perceivable flow from one track to the next.

Traditional meetings are also collections of disembodied sessions. But they have not changed in the same way. With rare exceptions, we still buy a conference album: a rigid set of predetermined sessions and speakers. Yes, you can skip a session you don’t like, but you still have to pay for the whole thing. Attendees are interested in, at most, the content of less than half the sessions offered, and often the worthwhile percentage is much lower.

I don’t know how to increase the proportion of great sessions at traditional events, because it turns out that asking attendees and/or program committees the conference sessions they want to attend before the event doesn’t work.

But I and thousands of other meeting organizers do know how to create a conference program that maximizes the match between what their attendees want and need, and what is offered. And the steady rise in popularity of participant-driven  conference designs like Conferences That Work continues all over the world.

Just as the album has been replaced as the unit of music consumption by the customized playlists created by each listener, participant-driven events build on-the-fly, crowd-created sessions that maximize learning and connection.

In addition, most participant-driven event designs includes a story structure, a conference arc, that turns the entire attendee experience into something coherent with an intimate beginning, middle, and end. So you can get the conference music you like in a framework that supports discovery and delivery of: a) relevant important learning, b) in-depth connection with relevant peers, and c) time to reflect and connect about what has been learned and what the community wants to do next.

LPs and CDs came from a time when the music industry ruled the roost. The industry was the gatekeeper of who made it onto plastic media; the underlying message was “we know what’s best for you—and you don’t have any choice anyway.” The music industry has been doing everything possible to hold on to this profitable message and delivery model for many years, and yet, as the world changed and it became possible for individual artists to get their music out without the industry’s help, the power of the music biz has shrunk to a fraction of what it once was.

The parallel holds for every meeting organizer. With rare exceptions, the traditional conference album is dying. Peer conferences offer anyone the opportunity to create events that truly meet participants’ wants and needs. The good news is that they still need all the logistical support of traditional meetings, together with a few new requirements: competent facilitation, different room sets, and new marketing approaches. So there are still just as many opportunities for meeting business; only the rules have changed.

You may want to familiarize yourself with the new rules. Otherwise, you’re in danger of trying to sell conference CDs when your market is buying playlists.

Photo attribution: Flickr user mariacasa