On conferences and pissing on rugs

Ok, first a disclaimer. I’m writing this post based largely on one conference that’s coming up in Ottawa but it’s really applicable to a lot of conferences and events going on these days. For that reason, I’m not naming the conference or any of the people speaking at it. It’s not fair to cherry pick. I happen to have a lot of respect for a lot of the people speaking at this particular event, actually, a lot of them do some great work for the community and truly practice what they preach about collaboration, openness and information sharing.

Which actually serves to compound my confusion, but more on that later.

First, the relevant background. I’m seeing a lot of tweets and comments about an upcoming conference aimed at social media in government. I work in the government sphere so such things are of particular interest for me. Not surprisingly, then, I am connected to a lot of the people who are attending and presenting. This is very much a traditional conference organized by a company that organizes conferences for a living. Registration costs anywhere from $1,300 for early birds not attending any workshops to $2,700 for those who want the whole shebang.

Which leads me to my first point of confusion: Why are social media advocates agreeing to speak at a conference that charges so much money for information that is readily available and shared online and at various unconferences, meetups and camps?

Looking down the list of presenting organizations I am struck by how familiar the list looks. These are organizations (and, presumably, people) that have told their stories before. For a lot less money.

Sadly, I realize that there is still a pervasive notion that you have to pay for value. This is especially true in government, where they’d rather contract out strategy and planning work because work done by in-house professionals can’t possibly be good enough. But that’s a rant for another day. Suffice to say, I recognize that a good portion of this audience probably wouldn’t be exposed to these stories in those other forums.

But as a taxpayer, it’s slightly offputting to consider how much public money is going to be spent sending public servants to a conference full of information that could otherwise be gleaned from wikis, meetups and unconferences.

And as a social media enthusiast, it seems somehow counterintuitive. Pay $2,700 to listen to someone tell me how important the open and free flow of data and information is, or how open-source software can save money and foster better relationships with the public.

My other point of confusion stems from the line up of presenting organizations. It’s an impressive list to be sure. The government departments and agencies that are presenting are the ones you’d expect to see, the ones doing good work in the social realm. Notwithstanding my previous point about the cost of registration, attendees will get great value from their stories.

But almost half the list is made up of consultants and for-profit corporations. I assume these companies are the ones that have “partnered” with government agencies in the past and that they have relevant experience to share. So why don’t their client departments speak instead?

This is a conference for government types. Wouldn’t the government types involved in each case be better placed to share their experiences? Wouldn’t the audience be better served by hearing from their counterparts? Selling social media in government is, from what I’ve heard, more about learning to overcome institutional and cultural barriers than it is understanding how the tools work. If these consultants have truly been successful working with government clients, why aren’t their clients speaking?

This isn’t intended to come across as a shot at the private sector. I have immense respect for what a lot of agency-types are doing and I understand they have a role to play in social media adoption across government. There are schucksters and snake-oil types in every industry, of course, but the names I recognize on this conference bill are ones that seem to know their shit. But why do we have to keep turning to consultants to talk about government use of social tools?

I’m sure this post sounds holier than thou and I want to reiterate that I’m not trying to piss on anyone’s rug. Maybe the social media community in the government hasn’t matured to the point where outside voices aren’t needed. Maybe traditional thinkers need to pay $2,700 before they’ll assign value to what they hear. But I can’t get past the disconnect I see here, no matter how much respect I have for some of the speakers.

If you’re involved in any of these conferences, as a presenter or as an attendee, please comment. I’m not asking these questions rhetorically. I genuinely want to know.


  1. You ask some very important questions here, Joe – and this is the thorn in my side for most “conferences for the sake of conferences”. Let’s face it – companies who exist only to set up conferences are doing it for the cash. They aren’t in the business of fostering education or relationships. They are in the business of making a profit.

    I was asked to speak at one of these social media in government conferences a few months back. What was shocking to me was although they were charging over $1000 for registration, the conference speakers were unpaid. It was hyped as a “promotional” opportunity, like they were doing us a favour by letting us speak to their audience. In the end I declined the opportunity, not because it wasn’t a paying gig, but because when I discovered that there were only 15 registrants, I decided it wasn’t of value.

    I cannot speak to the conference to which you are referring as I don’t have the details. I don’t know if the speakers are paid or not, nor to I know the registration numbers. I’m only telling you my experience with a similar type of event.

    There are lots of people out there who are holding conferences/un-conferences for the benefit of all (Podcamp and Jeff Pulver’s 140 Conference come to mind). These formats have their good points and bad points, but that’s a topic for another time. The point is, not all conferences are bad. I think it’s up to individuals to see past the hype and decide what the value is for them.

  2. Even if government agencies are interested in going, frankly, the cost prevents a lot of people from taking part. $2,700 is a substantial amount of money, particularly for smaller departments and agencies, and in my case at least it is multiples higher than my personal training allotment. I think it’s safe to say that a fair number of the people who are most interested in social media (read; younger, lower-level) aren’t going to get approval. I know I didn’t, and I was shooting for the slimmed-down version.

    Getting my managers to look seriously at social media is hard enough, and asking them to commit a couple thousand bucks for a conference they’ve never heard of on a topic they’re uncomfortable with is not something that is likely to go over well. Your mileage may vary.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Dan.

      So why did you want to attend? Did you expect to get more value for the money versus some of the free / nominal-fee events that are on offer? Was it an opportunity to network?

  3. I had several reasons. It’s been a couple months since I looked at the agenda, but I seem to recall there were two specific events I was interested in attending for their content. While networking would be handy, sure, it wasn’t a deal-clincher (and I’d accomplish more of that if I was allowed to blog anyway).

    One of the reasons was also tactical. It’s customary in government (the comms departments I’ve worked for anyway) for a person returning from a big conference to do a presentation on the conference, take-home ideas, lessons learned, ways forward, etc. I was planning to use the occasion of said presentation to outline the business case for the implementation of social media I’ve been working on.


    1. Cool. Which ties back to the whole issue of government putting more value on something that costs a lot of money. Would anyone have turned up for a post-mort presentation after ChangeCamp? Thanks for the comments, Dan.

  4. Hey Joe- Definitely agree on the paid conference angle. Especially like Sue mentioned, when speakers aren’t even getting paid.

    However, on the consultant/private companies speaking, I would disagree. I think a mix of government and private corp speakers would add the best value, because when embarking on something new it is important to look what’s going on outside your realm and an outside perspective can go a long way.

    That being said, if they are there to pitch their products or services, that’s a whole other story (and a waste of everyone’s time).

    I always think of this banker guy I met once who told me the problem with banks is the only ever compare themselves to one and other, and that’s why customer service in banks never improves–because as long as they’re just slightly better than the other guy, it’s all good.

    1. Of course you’d say that, Ms. Media Miser!

      I keed, of course. Thanks for the comment Kelly. That’s a really good point, especially given the silo’d thinking that often dominates in government. An outside voice might be able to give a broader viewpoint.

  5. Joe, having been a part of ChangeCamp and had the opportunity to speak at a number of Toronto events around non-profits I have to say I’m always skeptical of big rooms for big fees. My last presentation with War Child & Hills+Knowlton @MaRS wasn’t even a presentation it was a conversation. Social media changes so fast and the application of the technology so varied it is really hard to get value without 101 interaction with someone experienced in both the good and the bad.

    ‘Big rooms’ should be reserved for logistics, policy and process discussion i.e. “Who should tweet”, “should we use an internal twitter”, “what content are we producing and for whom”. Information on the features and benefits (& caveats) of Social Media are well documented and free in text, video, slides, etc. A basic understanding/training of the internet is a far better use of any ‘staffers’ time it gives people the opportunity to learn, apply and teach others in the org.

    Most of the people I know would give you a ‘Social Media’ conference in 15min for a coffee on a laptop over a wifi connection. in fact I’m on twitter ask away: @ryantaylor 🙂

    Another alternative is to do what War Child, Unicef, Steven Lewis Fdn, Engineers w/o borders and I have done with (your) inter gov’t agencies: Create your own group (ours:) http://notaprofitthing.com/ invite people to a drink and get trained on what actually matters w/o the fluff.

    Great post love to see people asking these critical questions!


  6. A few thoughts:
    1) There is a value to conferences for attendees beyond the workshops. The fact that this conference offers a cheaper price for people who just want to show up speaks to that. Conferences are a chance to focus your attention on something that you might not have time to do on a regular day. It’s a chance to compare notes with other people

    2) It’s extremely hard to get in front of government people. They rarely attend meetups and un-camps and read wikis. So having a chance to get in front of government people and have them listen is a valuable opportunity.

    3) There’s a chance that the speakers are getting paid. Assuming that they are, then this is probably a good thing. At some point, even social media thinkers need to eat. Finding the right balance of free and paid work to get your message out and change the world but also be able continue your work is a daily struggle.

    4) There is an overwhelming amount of information out there. If you are someone with limited time then having an expert on the subject distill in a manner custom to your needs is extremely valuable. I gave a workshop on using social media tools to PSAC leadership last year. The information was entirely available for free, assuming they knew what to look for and where to look across dozens of sites, products and FAQs. They didn’t which is why they were willing to pay me to come help out.

    5) Your complaint that the price is exclusionary seems weird, given that, as you say, all this information is available for free for those willing to invest the time to find it.

    6) I guess ultimately, your question boils down to “are the taxpayers getting their money’s worth” by the prices involved in this conference. I have no idea what the answer is and no one else does either. This is part of why there is such a range of prices on this material. It’s one of the problems with government. If a private sector group spends too much money on conferences, they’ll presumably eventually fail. But with government, that can’t happen.

    1. Hi Tim,

      Thanks for the comments. Since you were kind enough to itemize them, I’ll respond in kind (that sounds sarcastic but I’m being sincere. I loves me an ordered list!)

      1) Agreed but I’d also say there are more and more opportunities to meet and compare notes that come a lot cheaper. GCPedia, for example. Or any of Social Media Breakfast, Third Tuesday, ChangeCamp etc. Getting out of the office and diving into a topic is a good exercise, to be sure. I’m just not sure it has to cost $2,700.

      2) Not sure I agree. There’s a small but passionate (and growing) community of public servants that are more and more engaged in social channels. If you’re talking decision makers, though, you might be right there. Not sure what the level breakdown is among those public servants. I won’t disagree with the value of the opportunity though. Any chance to share these ideas should be seized upon, even paid conferences.

      3) No qualms with people getting paid. From what I hear, some conferences pay and some don’t.

      4) No qualms with this one either, though if organizations aren’t willing to invest time in investigating tools for themselves I wonder about their appetite for long-term engagement in tools. Outsourcing some of the research and planning is fine; outsourcing the application of the tools probably isn’t, at least not in the long term. But I agree, having someone specialized (hate the term expert) distill the masses of information is useful. As with previous points, though, not sure you need to pay $2,700 to do it.

      5) Not sure what you’re saying here, actually. Yes, the price is exclusionary when the information (and the opportunity to have it distilled for you) is available elsewhere for free.

      6) My questions are more broad than just taxpayer dollars but since I raised the issue myself I suppose I can’t disagree with your assesment. And you’re right, the government doesn’t have a lot to lose by spending big on conferences. And as long as someone’s willing to pay, someone’s willing to collect. I just wonder why advocates of open and free sharing of information would perpetuate that.

      Thanks again, always nice to see new commenters around here, especiallly commenters willing to take the time to post in a thoughtful manner.

  7. Joe – I really wish I had something insightful to say, but given that I know exactly what you are talking about it makes it hard for me to offer up a constructive comment here.

    I will say that $2,700 is probably a ridiculous price for any conference… someone remind me what a semester at university costs this days?

    Furthermore, I can tell you that the cost is prohibitive from a training perspective for public servants (the audience!) because very few public servants have $2,700 allotted to their personal training budget, and if they did, how likely are they to spend it in a single sitting?

    Hypothetically, why would I agree to speak at such a venue? Well for starters I probably wouldn’t even check into the cost to register until after someone raises it as an issue. Furthermore, I generally agree to participate in pretty much anything because I am still in career build mode (can’t quite sit back and live of the dividends yet). Being in that mode means I probably need to say yes to opportunities because generally speaking in one place gets you an audience somewhere else … and thus begins the speaking requests…

    I wish I had something punchier to say (hell I would settle for a conclusion) but I don’t.

    I blame my staycation… children make me tired. ;o)

  8. Nick,

    Thanks for the thoughts – and whilst on vacation too!

    Interesting take on why someone would present. I guess it’s easy to forget that presenters are learning and building their careers too. We so often put these people on pedastals as experts; I don’t often think of it from their side – probably because I don’t get asked to speak at paid conferences 😉

    Now go play with your kids!

  9. Hi Joe,
    Great post – I completely agree with all your points and observations and appreciate the questions you ask about the speakers and the cost.

    The problem with learning about social media I’ve heard from many of my colleagues and fellow communications professionals is that they don’t have the time to look for that information online nor do they care to take time out of their days or evenings to attend the free networking events. They also don’t deem relatively low cost events as being credible, despite the fact that there are many, many excellent speakers at these events.

    As a result, when I brought back information and handouts from an expensive social media conference (I received a free pass – the cost would have blown my training budget), I was perceived as having more expertise and knowledge after the conference. Although I had given several presentations about topics covered at the conference over the past 2 years and have set up free sessions within government with the same speakers, coming back with materials from a $3K conference made it all legitimate.

    My thoughts are that with social media, the choice on how to learn about it is yours — you choose to consume as much information and attend as many events as you deem relevant. Making that choice is scary for most people so they would prefer participating in a more formal conference where there’s a preset agenda and topics. The expense validates their perception of the value of the experience as being worthwhile.

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