Edward Appleton 

It’s Conference time. Again. CASRO. MRMW. IIEX. MRS. ESOMAR. TMRE.- the acronyms will be familiar to many.

Hardly a week goes by and we’re bombarded by invitations to a must-attend market research event. Tickets are selling fast, invariably. The attendance fees are considerable, as is – no doubt – the cost to be a sponsor.

Is the investment worth it?

Do suppliers measure the ROI – new contacts gained, hot-leads? Or is it more about awareness building, or simply not losing visibility versus the competition?

The client side view is even more complicated – justifying the time-out cost, together with out-of-pockets isn’t an easy sell.

Add to this that many of us will have emerged from a conference day feeling dazed, suffering from information overload, and having listened to presentations of very varying quality. Oh – and being a very obvious target for agency new business staff is something that puts many clients I know off.

So: why do we do it? And, what could conferences do better to ensure their ongoing relevance in a world of webinars? Having attended numerous MR conferences as a client side speaker over the past 12 months, here’s my take:

1. Fame Pulls
When evaluating whether to attend a conference that seems relevant content-wise, one key factor is who the speakers are. Are there some truly big names there? Major fmcg companies? P&G? Unilever? Reckitt Benckiser?

Fame may be a misleading concept, but if you have to take a risk, going to see a true MR rockstar, or a few A-list companies, has to be a better puller than someone, or a company, who may be brilliant, but unknown. This may be my own take on Andrew Ehrenberg’s double jeopardy effect, but I think it’s true.

Who would I personally love to see? OK – Dan Ariely. Byron Sharp. Gary Hamel. These people are at the top of their game, and are seriously moving the marketing world, our customers.

2. Location, location, location
The most difficult question for any conference attendee to answer is: why did you come?

I’ll take a System 1 approach: choose an attractive venue at an attractive time of year in a great location, and you’re helping System 2 finding the right arguments. The IIEX Amsterdam venue, the Beurs van Berlage, for example, was a stunner – a refurbished commodity exchange from the early 20th century.

3. Production Values Count.
The stand-out conference I attended over the past 12 months was the ESOMAR 2013 Qualitative Event in Valencia, Spain. Honestly.

Yes, it was a great location – but more importantly the whole thing was extremely professional, from start to finish. Five star stuff – technical support, lighting, staging, break-out sessions. Did that make me feel warmer about the quality of the speakers? Almost certainly – a win-win, in my view.

4. Global Has Frisson
All business is local – true. But going to local market research events can be frankly tedious – the same faces, the same topics, the same cultural assumptions.

Global breaks through all that – finding out how an agency in Brazil approaches mobile qualitative, for example. This is more than just inviting a keynote speaker from somewhere far-flung, it’s about thinking multi-culturally. May not be immediately relevant, but it’s inspirational, and can be filed for a future use.

5. Break the Mould!
Some of the worst Conferences I have participated in and attended – no names, sorry – were simply monologue driven, speaker talks for 25 minutes, audience claps. Next. Oh – coffee break. Please visit the sponsors.

The two Belgian Market Research societies Febelmar and BAQMaR both broke the mould – positively and memorably. BAQMaR had presenters on a catwalk; Febelmar had a comedian parodying the speakers after each session – terrifying for the speakers, but good for the paying audience.

6. Broadening the appeal.
Too often I look around me at a MR seminar, and all I see is researchers. So, you say, what? Well, it’s preaching to the converted. Mainly we agree, or split hairs – I exaggerate, but you get the drift.

What we really need is to get budget owners to engage – people from R&D, marketing. This is a big ask, demanding a total re-think of research conferences – it’s not about just inviting a keynote speaker, more about seriously fusing a MR with a marketing or innovation approach across a whole day.

7. Speakers who Can Speak
I’ve listened to so many 20 or 30 minute market research speakers at events and ended up retaining virtually nothing due to a mediocre, and occasionally lousy delivery.

Having great content is important – but you have to hone it so that it comes across well. Content needs to be made palatable, memorable, enjoyable.

Brain Juicer’s John Kearon is a brilliant presenter. He takes risks. ESOMAR works with its speakers prior to any event, rehearses them in multiple loops, not just to get length right – but work on focus, clarity, impact. It’s more work for everyone, but the value for the audience is immense.

There are other areas I’d love to touch on – overburdening a Conference with too many speakers not the least of them – but I’ll leave that for another blogging day.

In summary, I’d say that the decision about whether or not to attend a MR conference can start and end with the content – if it’s absolutely 100% relevant, new, leading edge, then you may well wish to sign up, the value is clear.

I think – with a nod to System 1 thinking – there’s more to it than that. conferences aren’t purely learning occasions – technology offers more efficient ways to get up to speed on a subject – they’re live events. They need to be crafted as experiences – content-rich, fun, memorable, energizing, emotionalized.

With the risk of appearing absurdly biased, I’d quote the ESOMAR Qualitative Valencia event  as an example of how to get it right – with just one detail. It kicked off with a flamenco act – a spectacular intro, 5 minutes of passionate dance created a sense of energy that no suave “intro-with-a-microphone” could hope to manage. Superfluous? I’d say not, having been there.

Is this impossible to replicate? I don’t think so – it’s more about imagination on the part of the organisers rather than funding issues. If conferences are to continue to remain attractive to clients and suppliers alike, there’s a  need to transform valuable but potentially dull MR content  into “memorable MR learning experiences”, whatever your cultural bias.

Curious, as ever, as to others’ views.

Edward Appleton is European Insights Manager at Avery Zweckform