The Future Conference Is About Increasing Attendees’ ROI


The future conference is not about the environment, the furniture, the venue, the audio visual or the technology.

The future conference is about increasing the paying attendee’s ROI. The future conference is about helping the attendee transfer and apply their conference learning to their job.

Actually, the fundamental job of future conferences is threefold:

  • To facilitate and guide the social process of attendee’s learning,
  • To help paying attendees remember their new learning and
  • To assist attendees in the application of that learning on the job.

It’s only when the three steps above occur that the attendees’ ROI increases. And then that attendee is willing to return to your event.

The Socialization Of Learning At Conferences

Learning is not a classroom event. Learning is not something that occurs in person, virtually or digitally.

Learning is a biological process that occurs in an individual’s brain. The individual controls learning, not the speaker.

Conference learning occurs when we actively engage attendees in

  • connecting new information to their past experiences and knowledge,
  • making sense of that information and
  • considering how to apply it.

And that learning process cannot occur if the attendee is only listening to a presenter. Attendees have to stop listening and start thinking. And this means that speakers need to stop talking and let attendees think, reflect and talk to each other.

Interaction, participation and social learning experiences, not passively listening to speakers, are the keys to authentic learning, avoiding mimicry, promoting cognitive and personal connections, and avoiding isolation.
Paraphrase of Professor Robert Cormia’s thoughts about social learning as applied to conferences

Conference Social Learning

Ultimately, learning is an active, social process, say anthropologists, biologists, cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists.

We construct knowledge through our interactions with others says Professor and Psychologist Lev Vygotsky.

Language is the primary tool that promotes thinking, develops reasoning and supports activities like writing and reading says Vygotsky. We tend to solve our problems with our speech. We talk out loud to guide our own thinking. As we mature, we internalize that out loud process. We think out loud in our mind.

The best conference learning experiences move that internal thinking process to talking out loud with one another.

So what type of conference experiences foster the social process of learning?

It can occur through two primary ways:

1. Connexity

Connexity is creating community and connections through networking experiences. It’s about designing informal learning experiences where attendees share past experiences and insights about specific topics and issues. (Learn more about connexity in Sarah Michel’s webinar.)

Connexity is not about creating business card exchanges or speed networking. That’s old-school, outdated, traditional networking.

For social learning to occur through connexity, the conference organizer must be intentional about securing facilitators that design informal peer sharing experiences. It must be a guided, facilitated experience with specific questions to spark thoughts, reflection and discussion. If not, the social learning process is left to chance.

2. Interactive Sessions

The socialization of learning can also occur through formal interactive learning experiences in sessions. The speaker acts as both a content expert, helping the audience uncover what the content means to them , and as a guide through the social learning process.

Presenters and facilitators spend more time creating activities, discussion questions, exercises and reflective application experiences than developing their content. 50% or less of the session time is spent on the speaker talking at the audience. The remainder of the time is dedicated to interaction.

Technology & Learning Survey

Participate Now in this brief 10-minute 2015 Association Learning + Technology Survey by our friends at Tagoras. Whether you represent a small, medium, or large association, and regardless of whether you are actually using technology to deliver and/or enhance learning, the participation of your organization is very valuable – it contributes to better information for all of us.

What do conference organizers need to do to focus on increasing an attendee’s ROI of learning? What conference examples have you seen that were successful at helping attendees remember and apply their new learning?

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  1. Sandra Wood says:

    Excellent points Jeff. As always you get me thinking! There is, however, an elephant in the room and that is associations are looking not just at ROI but at the IOR! If an association has 12,000 members and only 400 of them attend the conference no matter how fantastic the program is, then they are spending a lot of money (in staff resources especially), to put that event together to only reach a small number. That said, I know conferences drive a lot of content that can be used through the associations operating year, but even if they doubled the attendance to say 800, it’s still a small percentage Of members to reach. With the race for relevance underway in many associations, they are indeed looking as the business of conferencing and whether the investment is giving them the returns they need to keep membership strong. I’m very interested to hear your perspectives on this.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Hi Sandra!

      Thank you for reading and commenting. You’ve raised two great thoughts that both deal with association structure models:

      • The business of meetings/conferences and
      • Investing equally in all members.

      As I wrote my response, it became longer that I had hoped. Then I realized it was good fodder for a blog post.

      I hope it helps. Let me know if you have additional thoughts, questions or perspectives.

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