“It is a conference Jim, but not as we know it.”
I can’t help but notice that over the last few years audience numbers at conferences have dwindled, notwithstanding a price drop for a one-day conference in London by some organisers.
An unwelcome side effect for any marketing manager is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to convince barristers / lawyers / accountants to speak at 3rd party conferences. Normally speakers don’t get paid and then there is the element of loss of earnings for the time spent at the conference. This never posed too much of a problem: partaking was an opportunity to demonstrate that they were specialists in their field, show their ability to explain complex litigation in practical terms and network with their target audience. But with ever smaller audiences, the ROI on these activities becomes less and less attractive.
A self-fulfilling prophecy?
It is a very tough market indeed and one which has become even more competitive over the years. It is not too difficult to pinpoint the reasons for this downward trend: 1) the arrival of technology, 2) the diversification of educational products, 3) the consolidation of knowledge management providers and 4) the need to control budgets by its audience.
The arrival of accessible technology means that people have information on every topic at their fingertips through the use of the internet and social media all the time and at the time they want it. The development of Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, blogs and inter-active websites results in more ‘thought leadership’ pieces authored by specialists who now have a sufficiently large platform available through which they can reach their audience. Thanks to easily available and fast search facilities we need to rely less on specialist conferences to get access to ‘the expert view’.
With smarter technology came the diversification of educational products. For example, webinars are now more easily and professionally produced by knowledge providers and effortlessly accessible to viewers. In their attempt to diversify, providers created their own competition. The need to acquire CPD points can be a driver, but today there are a lot of different opportunities to obtain CPD.
Because of the consolidation in this market (think Thomson Reuters / Sweet & Maxwell / Practical Law Company and Lexis Nexis / Tolleys / Butterworth), all of a sudden providers found themselves competing with their own products as their competitors’ wares became ‘theirs’ overnight. Some view these products as complimentary, while others view these as alternatives for eachother. For example, a firm may decide to give employees access to webinars rather than conferences as it is more cost effective and time efficient.
The need to control budgets is fairly self-explanatory. With leaner teams taking on heavier workloads, people no longer like to be out of the office the whole day. The price drop has not done enough to entice the punters. Remember the days when a one-day conference in London would easily cost £695-£895? The supply / demand curve has definitely driven down the price but with some providers offering webinars at £50 a pop, the playing field changes again.
On top of all that, solicitors, accountancy firms and sets of chambers offer their own CPD-accredited seminars, often at no cost. This is an active marketing tool in the professional services industry and more indirect competition for conference organisers.
So who remains successful?
Conferences with dual purposes or those that are ‘focused specialists’ remain successful. More often than not, they can rely on the reputation they have successfully carved out for many years. I hereby think of the annual IBA conference where acquiring knowledge almost becomes secondary to the networking opportunities presented; the C5 fraud conferences offering an excellent platform to meet specialists in the fraud field, the White Paper specialist conferences and the annual Law Tech Media conference which successfully combines exhibition space with an attractive seminar programme jammed with top speakers. Ray Kurzweil, Google’s director of engineering, keynote speaker at their 2013 conference, is to date one of the most impressive and captivating orators I have seen grace a speaker’s platform.
So what can a conference organiser do?
If profits dwindle, they may need to rethink the product and review whether there is still a place for conferences in the first place. Action points to consider are:
Going back to basics. The Chartered Institute of Marketing defines marketing as: “the management process responsible for identifying, anticipating and satisfying customer requirements profitably”. Conference organisers have been so busy defending their existence in-house, given the consolidation wave that has taken place in the last few years, that in my view they have lost sight of what it is their audience wants. Have the conversation with the firms that send participants. Ask what they are looking for when attending conferences. Why do they send people? Maybe more importantly, why not? Is a whole day convenient? Do they want more interaction?
Realise they serve two kinds of customers: an internal and external one, with the internal customers being the contributors without whom let’s face it, there is no product offering. They need to keep both happy.
Refocus where it matters. Often, especially with larger conference organisers, the focus is how to adapt the product so that it becomes more profitable, potentially resulting in lower client satisfaction and sacrificing longer term durability for short term gain. I have been asked in the past what I thought of the ‘sponsor and you get a speaking slot’ formula. I don’t think that it necessarily secures the best speaker (and a savvy audience sees through that ploy) and it more or less destroys the loyalty of those that have supported the product for years.
Shorten the turnaround time. Often we get asked in March what the programme should be for October. Either this means we stick to a generalist topic which leaves room for manoeuvre (but does not inspire) or we miss the ‘topic du jour’. Smaller organisers which react to a real interest in the market, compile an interesting programme and market this in a tight turnaround time, and at a reasonable price, continue to do well.
Rather than discount prices which can create a false value offering, offer one competitive price in the first place and stick to it. Price dumping closer to D-day in a last-ditch attempt to attract sufficient numbers to break even is unfair on the people booking on time. If customers know you discount your price, they may wait till the last minute to see if they can get a bargain so providers are in effect destroying their own market. Given the amount of specialist information available, they might decide that by then, it is not worth attending after all.
As much as I believe there still is an active role to play by conference organisers; I similarly believe they need to take a long hard look in the mirror… and maybe opt for a bit of a makeover?