The Conference Compression Factor

20 Mar

There’s a lot of attention these days focused on improving the conference experience. The widespread availability of all types of information on the internet has eliminated the advantage that conferences once had as the prime sources of specialized content. And the rise of social media has created numerous other venues for professional networking. On the whole, I would say that these competitive pressures are healthy. They are forcing associations to devote a lot of effort to improving the outcomes that conferences deliver. Take a look at Jeff Hurt’s blog for a wide variety of ideas on improving conferences.

Sometimes though, the urge to increase value leads to an attempt to increase the quantity of information delivered. I call this the conference compression factor; more sessions, more speakers, shorter time slots, and anything else that can help squeeze things in. Not only is this not helpful, it’s not necessary either. Conferences are typically 2 or 3 days long. That represents less than 1% of your attendees time during a year. What are they doing for the other 99%? Are there no opportunities for learning or networking on an ongoing basis?

Of course there are. In fact, the same technological trends that have put pressure on associations to improve conference experiences can be harnessed by the association to provide educational and social opportunities year round. I think that warrants the same degree of focus and effort that is currently being applied to conferences. This is yet another instance of the “blended socialization” that I’ve raised in other blog posts.

What does this mean in real terms for associations? Many associations have Facebook pages already, or participate regularly on Twitter. But my intuition is that these platforms don’t really have the right set of features to sustain an online community focused on the collaborative development of knowledge and ongoing professional development. Almost all of the public social media platforms are geared towards more ephemeral interactions; what is happening now, what is interesting today. They’re a great way to share news and updates. But have you ever tried to work collaboratively on a document in either system? They’re just not built for it.

Obviously I am biased. I work at a company that develops an online community platform designed specifically for associations. But I really do believe that the traditional strengths of associations mesh perfectly with the capabilities that online communities provide. I see an online community as a powerful way to deliver value to members, potentially even more valuable than an association’s annual conference. So, while I encourage association leaders to continue to strive for the best in their conferences, I encourage you to consider what your members are doing during the rest of the year and how you can strive to make the best of that as well.


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