“If we live in a world where information drives what we do, the information we get becomes the most important thing. The person who chooses that information has power,” says Seth Godin.
Currently many conference hosts put the power of their conference content into the hands of administrators focused on shuffling speaker proposals and scheduling speakers. Or they allow a volunteer committee that is often focused on personal agendas to choose the conference content.
Rarely do either the employees or committee volunteers have a strategic view of the organization or its customers. Nor are they held accountable for their decisions.
Huh? Does that make sense? We put that much power into the hands of people that are not usually focused on the customers’ needs but instead are focused on checking off tasks. That’s totally backwards!
The Aggregator Disguised As A Meeting Planner
For years, many organizations have hired an employee to act as a speaker proposal aggregator to secure conference education.
Aggregation is the collection of as many of things possible related to a topic. In the case of conferences, these meeting planners have collected as many speaker proposals as possible related to their organization’s industry.
Typically, an administrator meeting planner:
- Creates the CFP for approval
- Sets deadlines for the process (submission, marketing of CFP, speaker selection, submitters communications, speaker selection, submission of appropriate forms)
- Approves speakers
- Oversees the various steps
- Collects all necessary forms including signed contracts
- Communicates with selected speakers
- Schedules selected speakers in time slots
This entire process is one focused on efficiency not effectiveness.
Ironically, savvy businesses have automated much of the process. The human aggregator role has been diminished to that of a verification administrator or a task hound.
Time To Refocus The Goal
Is the call for speaker proposal aggregation process enough? Does it lead to learning? Is the right content selected? Does the call for proposal process equal good education?
Most organizations give little time or attention to the quality of the potential speaker’s presentation or if the proposal solves a registrant’s need. The focus has been on managing stuff, not meeting attendees’ needs.
Some organizations feel it is their obligation to allow all customers that submit a speaker proposal a chance to present. This is done at the expense of the paying customer. The conference is speaker-centric instead of attendee-centric.
The Power Is Shifting To Conference Content Curators
Curation is a person or persons, engaged in the act of choosing and presenting things related to a specific topic and context. It’s about choosing what’s in a collection and sometimes finding things that need to be in the collection. Aggregation is just collecting.
Smart conference organizers are shifting their conference content creation and development process to curators. They are moving away from the traditional Call For Proposals as the only source for speakers.
Instead, they work with strategic thinkers to identify three to five big picture issues. Then they look for speakers that can address those challenges. The content is meant to solve customers’ issues.
This is the type of conference content people will pay money to attend. It contains more value than the traditional aggregated conference content collection.
The conferences that are succeeding have placed power into curation, not content collection.
Read more about conference content curation:
- Seeing The Meeting Professional As Content Strategist And Conference Curator
- Five Steps To Become Conference Content-Strategist-Curators
- The Next Big Conference Job Of The Future: Conference Content-Curator-Strategist
- Three Infographics On Conference Content And Delivery
What role do volunteer committees have in the conference content curation process? What are the traits of an employee that can serve as a conference curator?
Jody Urquhart says
It makes a lot more sense to look at content curation instead of relying solely on the call for proposals.
We always ask if the meeting planner wants Keynote Speakers to fill out the call for proposals and often they say no.. this is just for workshop presenters.
when it comes to keynote speakers I think they mostly decide this on the committees preference.
Adrian Segar says
“The Person Who Chooses Your Conference Content Has All The Power”.
So why not let conference attendees choose the conference content? That’s what I’ve been doing for a long time, and I can tell you, based on thousands of evaluations, it works very well.
During that time I’m seen no evidence that any one person, whether they are given the title of “curator” or not, can put together a conference program that can match what attendees choose. I don’t buy the frequently trotted out argument that an expert curator can, somehow, create a better conference program than the collective wisdom of attendees.
I agree, Jeff, that a smart curator can probably do better than an administrative hack. But why not harness the desires, needs, and resources of attendees to create the program that they want, rather than the guesses, however well-informed, of a curator?
thom singer says
You are correct. There is more to speaker selection than filling the slot and giving clients and sponsors a chance to present.
You said: “Most organizations give little time or attention to the quality of the potential speaker’s presentation or if the proposal solves a registrant’s need.” There are assumptions being made that are not based on the realities of sitting in a chair and listening to speakers.
I talked with a meeting planner at a Fortune 500 company who said “our attendees only care about high level content, they do not care if the speakers have good speaking skills or about topics that are not very technical”. An attendee at this company’s event told me, “There was good technical information, but I wont go back because the speakers were so awful that it was painful”.
Why the disconnect? Because nobody was asking the attendees the right questions.
Traci Browne says
Really like this post Jeff. I agree, I think someone (or a couple someones) who have a bigger picture of the strategic direction of the industry should be choosing the speakers and session topics. These people should also be creative and reach outside of the industry as well. For example, if you are talking about innovation in the packaging industry don’t limit yourselves to packaging discussions. Let’s bring in the kids from the West Philly Hybrid X Team who’ve been award winners as part of the X Prize for the last 10 years. After all the subject is really innovation, not packaging.
Jeff Hurt says
At several of the organizations I worked for keynote speakers had to complete the Call for Proposal just like breakout speakers. It’s all so random. VCC and Tagoras will be releasing results from a speaker survey soon that shows that the decision maker for hiring a professional speaker is all over the place from CEOs, to Executive Directors to Board members to volunteer committees. Rarely is an education professional, one that understands presentations and learning, involved in the decision process with speakers. That’s so backwards!
Thanks for reading and commenting too.
As I’ve said numerous times, I believe there is a place for peer conferences that engage crowdsourcing. I do not believe crowdsourcing content is the one size fits all format for all conferences.
I can’t imagine the Louvre crowdsourcing an art exhibit and then expecting to make money on exhibit fees from attendees. A crowdsourced art exhibit and a curated art exhibit are two different experiences with different purposes, goals and outcomes.
I personally believe there is more opportunity for higher revenue from a well curated conference content experience than crowdsourced content.
In my opinion, here are four weaknesses of crowdsourced content:
1. Attendees don’t know what they don’t know!
2. You don’t go to your neighbor to diagnose an illness. You go to the expert, the doctor. We need experts, futurists and curators to help us with content.
3. Attendees have attention blindness…they are so focused on their own tasks that they often miss the obvious. (The famous basketball and gorilla experiment illustrates this point well.)
4. Content is rarely strategic, big picture or advanced. Content falls into the middle ground due to attendee votes. Attendees wanting advanced content lose in this process.
I like what you said about people choosing content and speakers having a big picture strategic direction and reaching outside the industry. We need more conference organizers to reach outside of the industry for new ideas. So true! Thanks for adding that to the discussion.
Adrian Segar says
Jeff, in response to your comment to my comment:
– “I do not believe crowdsourcing content is the one size fits all format for all conferences.”
I didn’t say that (and don’t believe it either). My comment compared the quality of conference programs created by attendees via a solid, time-tested process versus your claims, with no supporting evidence, that a “curator” will somehow do a superior job.
– “I can’t imagine the Louvre crowdsourcing an art exhibit and then expecting to make money on exhibit fees from attendees.”
Why on earth not? You don’t think people would go to see art that they asked to see? Implicit in your statement is the elitist attitude that only “curators” can put together an art viewing experience that the rest of us would value. Sure, many people don’t have much experience or opinions about art. In my experience, those people are less likely to respond to a request for suggestions. But I bet that there are enough people in Paris and the surroundings who care about and have enough exposure to art to create a fantastic art exhibit at the Louvre if they knew they’d be listened to and the right process was used to solicit and amalgamate their opinions and desires.
– “A crowdsourced art exhibit and a curated art exhibit are two different experiences with different purposes, goals and outcomes.”
Yes, they are, and that’s fine. The problem arises when you imply, with no evidence presented, that the latter is superior to the former.
– “I personally believe there is more opportunity for higher revenue from a well curated conference content experience than crowdsourced content.”
Currently, I think you’re right. But I’d argue that’s because 1) the crowdsourced model is barely understood and rarely used effectively and 2) curated conferences cater much more to the broadcast model of learning, a model that easily scales profits as more people attend. There are plenty of ways of making lots of money in this world, but, in my view, that shouldn’t be the overriding criterion for producing an excellent event that caters to the actual rather than the predicted needs and desires of those who attend.
– “In my opinion, here are four weaknesses of crowdsourced content:
1. Attendees don’t know what they don’t know!”
Actually, in my experience, attendees collectively know better what they don’t know than any outside “expert”. Sure, we all have our individual blind spots, but when you use an in-event program development process where, at the start, desired topics are communally shared, your proposal that not a single attendee will mention an important issue is far less likely than some “expert” will miss it completely.
– “2. You don’t go to your neighbor to diagnose an illness. You go to the expert, the doctor. We need experts, futurists and curators to help us with content.”
Jeff, are you saying that experts and futurists never attend conferences? Is your model event one where experts and futurists fly in, speak, and leave? At every conference I’ve attended that wasn’t a training in disguise, there were plenty of experts in the audience. (By the way, see this Forbes article for a skeptical viewpoint on the value of futurists: http://www.forbes.com/2007/10/13/futurist-business-consultant-tech-future07-cx_ee_1015futurist.html). People with relevant expertise and experience attending a participant-driven event are quickly recognized and their program suggestions are more likely to be influential. You don’t need to have a cadre of outside experts to create a great conference program; use the ones who are already present!
– “3. Attendees have attention blindness…they are so focused on their own tasks that they often miss the obvious. (The famous basketball and gorilla experiment illustrates this point well.) ”
I don’t think you understand how communal crowdsourcing actually works. In the experiment you mention, 50% of the people saw the gorilla! During communal crowdsourcing, it only takes one person to mention a topic or point of view and everyone is exposed to it. Once again, we all have individual blind spots, but the likelihood that everyone in a group will “miss the obvious” is extremely small.
– “4. Content is rarely strategic, big picture or advanced. Content falls into the middle ground due to attendee votes. Attendees wanting advanced content lose in this process.”
This is simply not true, in my twenty years of experience. Peer sessions at the events I run can be frequently described by the above adjectives. Do you think that a topic must be mediocre just because it is popular, or that attendees are unable to recognize the value of strategic, big picture or advanced sessions? You have a pretty pessimistic view of the collective intelligence and capabilities of attendees if you believe this.
One more comment. Jeff, I don’t think that every event should be 100% participant-driven, though it’s hard to fit much else in and do a good job if a conference is less than a couple of days in length. In the longer events I’ve run, I like to include some predetermined general sessions. I’ve found that when the pressure is off to completely fill the program in advance with something, it’s fairly easy to determine those two or three hot topics and perhaps a really good keynote that attendees will rate highly, and that can be used as a marketing hook for attendees who haven’t yet experienced a well-run participant-driven and participation-rich event.
Dave Lutz says
@Adrian, thanks for reading and for your thoughtful response.
Our company primarily serves large association meetings where registrants are asked to invest a healthy registration fee and fly half way across the country. Attendees often need to provide advance justification on expected meeting outcomes including how it will help the business.
Many of our clients offer CE credit and need to define learning outcomes in advance to get education approved.
While Jeff and I both enjoy participant driven conferences, it is usually not the right formula for the type of clients and industry we serve.
Adrian Segar says
@Dave, thanks for the clarifications.
– With the ever-increasing avalanche of excellent quality online content, including streams and videos of top conference presentations, the long-standing model of flying long distances to be exposed in person to predetermined content at conferences is going to become far less compelling.
– Businesses that continue to believe that their employees are not able to create their own learning opportunities when given the option and support to do so will lose out to their competitors. Associations that share this belief will become increasingly out of touch with their members.
– Providing CE credit for most sessions at participant driven conferences will become normal practice. (Conference programs developed by participant-driven process reflect the real industry or association needs that attendees identify, and the resulting sessions invariably fit into the industry’s existing educational standards.)
I’ve written frequently about how hard it is for human cultures to overcome centuries of conditioning about how we “should” learn, and all three of us are working to influence the events and association constituencies on many allied issues. Where we disagree, it seems, is on the role of the “expert” in creating an event. I believe that the experts that conferences will need increasingly in the future are not curators or futurists, but facilitators who can guide and support attendees in their creation of an event that is truly what the participants need and want.
David M. Patt, CAE says
Isn’t a curator a gatekeeper, too?
Jeff Hurt says
Interesting thought that curators might be gatekeepers too. Will be pondering that one for a while. 😉
What is fantastic about this topic is that it is so BIG and that so many will have an opinion. Having planned conferences for much of the last two decades (when not being strictly on the creative/ production/ content delivery side)it is endlessly fascinating how each organization approaches this. Aggregating is not the best for the reasons stated – plus it is a bit like people who mark school essays – agonzing by the presenters over the content and then aggregation often goes to the “sexiest” titles that fit into the predetermined slots.
Curation I agree is going to continue to be critical as the information load available will continue to overwhelm. Having it vetted for both content, presenter and format or style of presentation to lead to takeaways will be important. I understand that even in a peer conference the sessions are vetted.
Agree also with Traci’s point – in any conference presenters may be included from inside or outside the specific industry and often cross pollination leads to interesting new places and innovations. This too remains important.
While there is no ideal structure, what I found the most pertinent comment after EventCamp Vancouver was “I liked that the topics and presenters were excellent but that we could then grow the content organically with all the smart people that were in the room”. I wish that at every conference I attended there was a balance of curated content that allowed me to sell the attendance internally, balanced with the learnings that come from the presentations and the ensuing discussions.
Thanks Jeff, as always, you make us think and provoke discussion. Happy holidays!
Jeff Hurt says
Thanks for your thoughts and your blog posts offering another perspective on a different kind of conference and how the sessions are designed.