Massive Conference

The Problem with Conferences


During media’s recent Decade of Disruption, ad-supported revenue models have stumbled and legacy brands have crumbled. But there’s been a bright spot: Events.

Including conferences, exhibitions and niche gatherings, the Events sector has grown steadily in the past 10 years. As we spend more of our lives staring at screens, flying somewhere to shake hands and chew overcooked chicken has become, oddly, more appealing. So the firms, media brands, and professional associations who organize events are happy to oblige.


However, there’s an inconvenient truth: Most conferences are a waste of time.

Before you brand me an events heretic, let me clarify: Many conferences deliver real value to attendees, such as new connections which lead to business and/or career transformation. However, most of the time spent at conferences is wasted.

Here’s why:

  • At networking events, you typically meet just a few people who are relevant to you and dozens who aren’t.
  • In sessions, you typically learn just a couple of important new things after hearing mostly what you already know or don’t care about.
  • On an exhibit floor, you typically wander the aisles avoiding eye contact with smiling, polo-shirt-wearing reps, and if you’re lucky, you’ll find one exhibitor who’s both new to you and worthy of a follow-up conversation.

Networking, attending sessions and walking the exhibit floor consume the majority of time spent at conferences—typically at least one workday, minimum. Yet only a tiny fraction of that time will prove to be well-spent. Which means that when you attend a conference, most of what you’re doing is wasting your time.

I’m neither a killjoy nor a grind; I realize that not every hour needs to be super-productive. I’m aware that reconnecting with industry friends and cutting loose with colleagues away from the office is beneficial in its own right. But part of what makes socializing with your people fun is that you know it’s time well-spent. You know those folks are relevant and important to you vs. the much larger number of people, sessions and exhibitors that only might be relevant and important.

The conference attendee’s challenge is to find out who and what is relevant. So I believe it’s the conference organizers’ job to help each attendee do that. But how?


As a guide to conference organizers, I’d offer the following rules to live by:

You’re Irrelevant Until Proven Otherwise. Organizing a conference is an act of creation that takes tremendous effort. Like other things we create (art, feasts, children), it’s natural to love our own creations simply because we brought them into existence. However, that sets us up to mistakenly assume that every single aspect of our conference—sessions, networking, exhibitions—is relevant to a large number of attendees. You cannot assume relevance; it must be validated.

Don’t Assume You Know Attendees’ Interests. Conference organizers are susceptible to the trap of assuming they know what’s on the minds of attendees, instead of asking. If organizers do ask attendees about their interests, it’s typically in the form of a post-conference survey, which is used to shape the agenda for the following year’s conference,12 months later. These days, it’s unforgivable not to ask attendees what they’re interested in, and it’s suboptimal to ask them a year in advance of the next conference. The world moves too quickly. You must assess their interests before and during the earliest stages of planning the conference agenda.

Assess Event Attendees’ Knowledge. If you’re a conference organizer, chances are good that you’re surveying attendees’ interests, however I’ll bet $5 you’re not assessing their knowledge. This is a critical step in delivering relevant content that nearly every conference organizer fails to do. Why does attendees’ knowledge matter? Because a significant reason people attend conferences is to learn. If the content of your sessions is either too easy or too hard for an attendee to understand, that content is irrelevant. We cannot know the relevance of something unless we understand it. So you want to assess attendees’ level of understanding of the topics of your sessions in order to deliver maximum relevance.

Give Conference Attendees Tools To Maximize Their Time. An agenda, printed or digitized, is of course required, but not enough. Nor is having a conference app enough, since most conference apps frankly leave a lot to be desired in terms of their usefulness and/or UX interface. To help your attendees absolutely maximize their time, give them hyper-personalized recommendations for sessions, networking events, and exhibitors based on their unique, individual needs. Instead of making them sift through all your agenda information, ask them a few questions and then short-list the most relevant aspects of your conference for them. They’ll love you for it.

Bottom Line: Even though conferences are a growing sector, with more shows and attendees than ever, that doesn’t mean organizers should be satisfied with the status quo. Take the steps above to improve and validate the relevance of your conference, to ensure it becomes—and/or remains—a must-attend annual event.


Find out how Reed Exhibitions used AI-enhanced content to drive event attendance and hyper-personalize the conference experience for their attendees. Read the Case Study


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