The summer months, for many of us, doesn’t just mark the beginning of a change in the weather. July marks the official end of what many of us in the industry have affectionately termed “spring conference season.” But never fear! It all starts again in September with “fall conference season”, which includes over 20 global, regional and local events in just three short months.
Let’s face it. There are a LOT of conferences in this industry and every year we add more, pushing into the once-off-limits summer months. Both existing and newly formed industry organisations seem to add another insights conference every year . There are now targeted conferences that focus on everything from client-side researchers to emerging research technologies.
I’m sure I speak for many of you when I say I am tapped out on the number of conferences I can attend. So much so that, when Leonard Murphy approached me about the launch of his Insight Innovation Exchange (IIEX), my gut reaction (albeit a visceral one…sorry Lenny) was HELL NO. For those of you who haven’t met Lenny, he’s one of the nicest and most connected folks in research. Telling him no is no small task. Which is why I ended up in Philadelphia a few weeks ago, chairing a speaking track for IIEX North America.
IIEX faces many of the same challenges as other industry events: a lack of unique subject matter (big data, oh please…not more big data!); overlap in conference content; lack of diversity in speakers; and use of the stage as a sales platform. Queue Lenny’s ability to put a unique spin on what can be the usual coma-inducing subject and speaker lineup … and enter IIEX’s Insight Innovation Competition which pitted startups and new research methods against each other in five minute pitches. What’s so cool about the competition? Well for one, you’re hearing from individuals who otherwise would have no platform to present new thinking to the industry. From “Pop Up CLT” to nano-survey technology, even the most jaded researcher got excited about these presenters. RawData (mobile metering and surveying) and RIWI (nano-survey technology) emerged as the victors.
If IIEX, with no previous track record in the conference space, can curate some of the most original content of the year (SoLoMo, for instance, or Futurist Workshop, anyone?) perhaps this should serve as a wakeup call for other conferences that are struggling to retain market share. This begs the question … how do we redesign the research conference? How do we present opportunities for cutting edge content and emerging methods? How do we curate a more diverse pool of speakers?
What isn’t working:
- Insulated planning. I’ve sat through more than a few conference planning meetings where content and speaker curation was determined solely by a small, generally not very diverse, group of committee members. The solution? A call for speakers is paramount to the planning process. Not enough submissions? Reach out to groups and lists that can help promote your call on their blogs and social media sites. Enlist help from contacts outside of the industry- they may know of individuals who can speak to relevant emerging research methods and technologies from a unique point of view.
- Pay to play. There are a growing number of conferences with the reputation of curating speakers based solely on two criteria: 1) Are you a client side researcher? 2) If the answer to 1 is no, will you pay to speak? If the answer to 1 and 2 is no, you can forget about presenting. This is a shame. Speaker curation should be based solely on content and speaking ability. Good content and dynamic speakers = happy, engaged attendees. By excluding researchers that either have chosen to make a career on the supplier side or can’t afford to pay thousands to present for 30 minutes, we’re quite possibly excluding the very types of presenters and companies that will move our industry forward (case in point, IIEX’s Insight Innovation Competition).
- Speaker curation. I continue to be, at times quite publicly, frustrated with the lack of diversity on conference speaking rosters. Every keynote publicised in a recent conference flier I received is a white male. White men make great speakers. But so do women and people of colour. A study conducted by MIT found that diversity leads to better products, services and industry performance. Conference hosts often attribute a lack of diversity to a “pipeline problem” – that there simply are not enough qualified women or people of colour who wanted (or were qualified) to participate. There’s a solution that addresses these issues, which has been outlined by the organisers of The Lean Startup Conference: meritocratic selection. Speakers are picked based on who has the best story and who is the most engaging presenter. Meritocratic selection is driven by a handful of principles including a transparent process, blind selection, proactive outreach and enlisting help. More on The Lean Startup’s approach to speaker selection can be found online.
- Presentation vetting. Conference organisers should be closely reviewing and pushing back on presentations that smack of overt sales pitches. Speakers, you are speaking to educate. By virtue of your presence on stage, you’re selling. Don’t push it. Focus your content on clear, actionable takeaways for session attendees. This is a teaching, not a selling, opportunity (unless, of course, you’re paying to speak….to which I say, go for it…..your sales pitch is paid for).
As we gear up for fall conference season (and summer now, apparently), I encourage you to examine the speaker lineup with a critical eye. Conferences provide an unmatched opportunity to learn and connect in our industry. Let’s all work together to make our collective voices heard, and make sure that our attendance at a growing number of events is truly pushing our industry forward. See you at an event this fall!