Conferences, right? I know, super exciting. But I bet you’ve been to a lot of ’em, and only a few have been really great.

It’s a bit of a paradox that there is a conference for everything (I’ve been the a conference about, yes, conferences), and yet most people hear “conference” and roll their eyes. Conferences are boring, conferences kinda suck, conferences are just ok – but I just heard about this cool new conference about…

Why are some conferences great, and some not so great? One thing that makes a huge difference is who owns the conference. Most people don’t think much about it, but conferences are owned and produced in various ways, each of which has some pros and cons.

If you’ve never considered it before, ask yourself: how is the conference organizer making money? 

Vendors

Vendor-led conferences can be great, especially if you’re interested in learning more about what the vendor has to offer. Lots of vendors also put on great conferences with broader appeal. That said, it’s important to understand what vendors bring to the table.

Many conferences are produced by someone whose primary interest is selling you their product or services. Whether it’s obvious to the participants or not, it’s important to understand that conferences like this are marketing expenses for the host company. 

We all have something to sell, but the fact that the producer is using the conference as a way to get you interested in whatever their real product is means that the conference is not the real product, and that they have a vested interest in a particular point of view – one that results in increased sales of their product. It’s nearly impossible for a vendor to be agnostic about a problem they sell solutions for. 

Trade associations

A trade association is like a platypus – Awkward, slow, and evolved for a very specific evolutionary niche. Don’t get me wrong, trade associations serve an important purpose, representing an industry at large, helping to drive legislation and standards, and aiding collaboration amongst practitioners. Of course it follows that people in a particular field want to get together and talk about things, and it also follows that a trade association is well positioned to offer a conference as a natural outgrowth of the association’s work.

Here are a few fun facts:

First, trade associations are not agnostic – they represent their members. And they represent their dues-paying members most of all. Most often, the primary interest of members is to promote their own business growth. This means that the work of a trade association is usually, primarily, to increase the amount of money that member companies make. If you are one of those member companies, great! If not, or if you’re just a minor player, you may not be well served.

Secondly, trade associations often see conferences as cash cows they can use to fund their other activities. This is the converse of the problem that I cited above: the conference is not the real product. Many association-led conferences that I’ve been part of depend heavily on the fact that many the members of the association attend simply because they are already members of the association. There’s a built-in network that seems like everyone. This makes it relatively easy for the association to sell sponsorships to companies that want to reach their members at the conference, which in turn provides a good source of revenue for the association. But, since members are attending because they are members, and not because of the quality of the conference, the conference doesn’t have to be that good. And, often, it’s not.

Third, trade associations are about regulation and standards, which follow best practices, which follow innovation. If you are interested in regulation and standards, awesome! If you are more interested in cutting-edge best practices and collaborative innovation with your peers, you may be disappointed. Personally, I find association conferences pretty boring for this reason.

Academic Institutions

Conferences are a huge part of academic life, and academic conferences provide some good models for conference producers. Academic conferences are their own product, and the main goal of the conference is to exchange ideas and foster collaborative innovation. They are also fairly agnostic, although I suppose we could argue about that. If you get a chance to go to an academic conference covering a subject that you’re interested in, I highly recommend it.

Independent Producers

I must admit, I have a horse in this race. Well, I did, before I sold AdMonsters. In all my years of participating in and producing conferences, I’ve developed a strong preference for conferences hosted by independent producers.

Independently produced conferences are agnostic: the producer has no vested interest in a particular topic, nor in any particular product, service, or solution that might be discussed or advertised at the conference. 

Independently produced conferences are their own product. The producer is making money from the conference itself – and so the producer’s goal is to make the conference as awesome as possible. 

If you got this far, you might want to check out what else I’ve written about conferences. I’d also love to hear from you about your own conference experiences – what’s the best conference you’ve ever been to? The worst?