There are lots of reasons to go to a conference. As a conference-goer, it pays to be explicit about what you expect to get out of your conference experience — and to be aware of how that matches up with the reasons the conference exists and the goals of the conference producer.
Great conferences have a very clear reason for being, and organizers of great conferences will be transparent about the purpose of the conference and help you determine if the conference is a good fit for you.
Innovation & problem-solving
Talking about “innovation” is not the same as doing innovation, aka figuring things out. How does that happen? Most of us are more creative in collaboration. If you really want to work on solving problems, make sure the conference format provides both structured and unstructured opportunities for you to meet and work with your peers in small groups, and that there is enough time on the agenda to allow for this to happen.
Best practices come after innovation and before standards (see below) — they come from problems having been solved a few times, in different but similar situations. In my experience, best practices emerge most often from facilitated discussion amongst direct peers in a trusted environment. As with any meaningful conversation, it helps to document the conversation.
Standards and policy
As an industry starts to mature, best practices themselves are tested and refined, and quite often it starts to make sense to agree upon some formal standards, and to think about regulation and legal frameworks. Standards always come after best practices, which of course come after a whole lot of innovation (both successful and otherwise). Trying to set standards too early is usually highly frustrating, and fruitless.
Standards and policy typically emerge through a democratic process, and democracy is slow. For that reason, among others, standards-setting and innovation don’t play all that well together. If you’re in the big leagues and want to be part of the standards and policy processes in your industry, those conversations will probably take place at a conference hosted by a trade association with some significant buy-in from the major players in your industry.
Buying and selling
Many conferences exist for the primary purpose of providing a showcase for products and solutions. Often this is what defines a “trade show” — the tools of the trade are on display, so to speak. While this focus might seem like the ideal format for sellers (and perhaps for buyers/solution seekers), a vast sea of vendors is quickly overwhelming and often lacks context. Still, it can be a very useful component of the conference experience, especially in combination with discussion, analysis, collaboration, and non-sales-oriented information.
All conferences provide some opportunity for networking, but this varies widely. If the schedule is jam-packed with sessions, you may not have enough time to get to know your fellow participants. Even more importantly, there is rarely a way to meet the people that you should know, but you don’t know you should know. Ask the conference organizer what they do to connect participants, and don’t settle for a cocktail party.
TED popularized the edutainment model to the point of virality, so we all know what it looks like now: a charismatic speaker with a dramatic story of their hero’s journey, ideally culminating in the funding of their innovative startup. In my experience, people say that they want to “be inspired” by “great speakers” and then often complain afterwards that they didn’t get enough out of those sessions. A great speaker will conjure up some “wow” moments, but the wow often wears off quickly. We have a limited ability to learn by listening, even from a charismatic “rock star” — interactive sessions with peers are usually much more productive.
Work shouldn’t suck, and a great conference can be a lot of fun and a great way to reward yourself or someone else on your team. On the other hand, most conferences suck, so if having a good time is your primary motivation, make sure you like chicken dinners and cheap wine. Seriously — a conference isn’t going to be fun if you feel like you’re wasting your time. Make sure that you will be able to accomplish some other goals first, and that the organizers have something more in mind than a booze cruise and some tired team building exercises. Cool is free, but real fun amongst strangers takes some doing. One of the most solid bets is to get outside and do something active and authentic. Simple tip: ask a local for a recommendation, take a run and explore the area!
Putting it all together
Of course, most conferences combine several or all of the above aspects. To make the best use of your precious time, make sure that you are clear about your own reasons for going to a conference – and make sure that the conference has a clear reason for being, and that it’s structured so that there’s a good chance you’ll get what you’re looking for.