December 29, 2010 by Jeff Hurt
Image by falling.bullet.
It was an opening general session with a marquee headliner. I was anxious to hear him. The session started to great fanfare and hoopla.
Fifteen minutes later, I felt like I was watching those hideous commercials that theaters play before the movie trailers start. I was Waiting For Godot.
The parade of association information, self-promotional, in-your-face “Hey member, look how great we are!” hype just kept coming. (If this association had only invested in providing good customer service and content to their members, they wouldn’t need the hype!)
Thirty-minutes later and the barrage of marketing and advertising continued. Were their pre-show commercials and movie trailers stuck on an infinite loop?
Forty-five minutes later and I felt like I was being subject to a faux-friend’s old, vintage vacation movies that meant nothing to me. It was boring and out-of-touch with reality.
Sixty-minutes later and the conveyor belt of association politicos and sponsor muckety-mucks along with the rehash of everything, every leader had done that year felt like a dog returning to its vomit. I wanted to leave. It was painful, gut-wrenching and nauseating.
Seventy-minutes later and my insides were screaming, “Make it stop!” This association water torture was reminding me why I did not want to renew my membership.
Amidst all the association chest-thumping noise, I tried to hold the terrible silence at bay. That silence that occurs from lack of human connection. In a room of thousands, I felt alone. Was I the only one thinking this was an absurd waste of my time?
Finally, the main event arrived. He spoke for less than fifteen-minutes. They paid this speaker a double-digit fee to speak for fifteen-minutes and shake some hands in VIP receptions. I was appalled. Where could I get my money back?
What was the purpose of the general session? Why did this organization feel the need to push seventy-minutes of marketing hype? Was it because they held me captive in the opening session? Did they feel it was prime-time to force-feed me in hopes of brainwashing me on why they are so important?
This association’s mission statement says that education is their primary goal. Huh? In a ninety-minute opening general session, they wasted seventy-five minutes on cotton-candy fluff that is not going to have any impact on my job, my life or my profession. It was all about them.
Most general sessions are worthless because the majority of the information shared focuses incorrectly on what the organization does. The belief is that people are like computers, input information and output is controlled.
The key to a successful opening general session is listening to the member’s heart first. Then planning it around their needs. Create an experience that connects with them emotionally. Give them content that can improve their lives.
Disclaimer: The names have been omitted to protect the guilty. If you want to know who I am talking about, insert your favorite nonprofit association name.
Why do so many conference general sessions feel like unnecessary high-school reports of what I did this summer? How can we convince organizers to change their general sessions and give us relevant, useful information that can change our lives?
Filed Under: Experience Design
I think I was there. Of course, your very valid point is that almost all of us HAVE been there, just at different iterations of the same event.
I wanted to add that sponsor presentations are not necessarily bad. Sponsor support helps hold down the cost of attending a meeting, and sponsor goods and services can be of value to us.
It would help if sponsor presentations told us less (or nothing) about their goods and services and much about what they see happening in our world. Third parties can bring a fresh perspective that spans the many organizations they sell to. It could help to hear that.
I agree that sponsor support adds to the revenues. Having planned my share of conferences, rarely do the sponsorships keep the actualy meeting costs down. Typically, sponsorhsips go to profits of the host organization. Most associations use confereces as a revenue stream which is why so many education sessions have gone awry. The focus is on raising dollars instead or providing education and learning for members.
I like what you said, “It would help if sponsor presentations told us less or nothing about their goods and services and more about what they see happening in the world.” That would be a breath of fresh air for sure.
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Good point about how associations allocate sponsor revenues. It’s possible that conference profits help manage membership dues, but even that’s a decision that could vary by association.
Although it was not an association event, in mid-December I attended an e-book “summit” that was sponsored in part by Ingram, a distributor of books and magazines. The sponsor slot was actually more informative than some of the other panels, largely because the speaker focused on what Ingram was seeing both in its home market (the U.S.) and globally. They possess and could share a perspective that no one publisher could offer.
I wish I had a clever alternative to the parade of association dignitaries. I lose it when each of them begins to thank staff, spouse, partner, family and close personal friends. Asking them all to stand and be recognized is icing on the cake.
How can we get these associations to change? Vote with our feet.
And there are places to go, too. I believe you’ve touched on the outbreak in recent years of for-profit organizations creating events or competing in areas that used to be monopolized by the not-for-profits. Watch out!
Example: Dave Ramsey is kicking butt helping people get their finances in order. He’s appealing to their hearts. He’s for-profit.
His competition is mostly ministry-based organizations who are falling way behind and not reaching anywhere near the number of people Dave is.
Not for profit and going nowhere.
I’m beginning to really like the for-profit model led by people with a heart for their businesses. They’re responsive to their customers and nimble to make mid-course corrections and get the job done.
Not-for-profits (associations fall in this category) seem to be much slower and non-responsive in comparison.
I really like the idea of a sponsor using their time to be more educational and informational than promotional. Let’s hope more sponsors follow that trend!
Yes, vote with our feet to get associations to change. I’m with you that smart savvy for-profit endeavors will become many association’s competitors. Some for-profit organizations have even started calling their customers members.
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