The Death of Big Conferences?

    September 7, 2006

Why drag yourself out to a bar when you can sit all by yourself at your desk blogging with a Scotch in hand?

Robert Scoble has predicted the death of big conferences. Now, I like Robert and agree with most of what he says, but I have to take issue with this one. In his post, he points out that he told 15 people at a small blogger conference about his departure from Microsoft. Some of those folks blogged the news, leading to somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 million impressions. Says Robert:

So, why does anyone need to go to a big conference to hear the news again? Simple: you don’t. It’s not worth doing. Not when a CEO can write a blog, get more people to visit it in 36 hours than would probably visit his booth at the Detroit Auto Show. How do you get news out? Invite a blogger over for lunch. It doesn’t matter who the blogger is. If the news is interesting it’ll spread and spread fast.

I have no issue with Robert’s argument; it’s absolutely true. The problem is that conferences are about a whole lot more than disseminating news. I wouldn’t go to the Detroit Auto Show to hear a CEO make an announcement. I’d go to see and sit in the cars. Not a picture. Not a virtual car in Second Life. I want to see 3,000 pounds of metal, plastic, chrome and rubber. I want to sit in the front seat and wrap my hands around the steering wheel and inhale that new car smell.

I go to the IABC conference to interact with other people, both in sessions and in bars and restaurants. I know I can do that online, but there’s something a whole lot more satisfying about a face-to-face experience. That’s why so many of us (including Robert) host geek dinners when we’re traveling. There’ll be a big such dinner at the Podcast and Portable Media Expo where I’m looking forward to finally meeting people like Heidi Miller, John Wall, Terry Fallis, and a host of others (not to mention renewing friendships with people I’ve met before like C.C. Chapman and Rob Safuto).

I recall one communication conference at which the speaker urged the audience to not forsake face-to-face as a tool for communication, noting that we’re hardwired from prehistoric times to communicate that way. “Any communication that is not face-to-face,” he said, “is a corruption of face-to-face communication.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I think blogs and other social media rock and Robert is absolutely right about the way news can get out in this era of social computing. But in a blog posting you lose facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, and all those other non-verbal cues that drive most of our reaction to a message. That’s what the speaker meant about corruption of face-to-face communication. (Yes, a video can address a lot of that, but let’s face it, only a handful of the people with whom you’d want to interact will produce and post a video, and then it doesn’t allow for real-time engagement.)

Big conferences, then, will continue to thrive-so we can put hands on the products and services being touted there and so we can interact with real people in the physical world. Or, as Robert Bruce put it in a comment to Scoble’s blog, “Having no conferences will prevent me from having realtime conversations with people who I can’t get an email or blog response from because you are all too busy with your A, B or C lister rankings!”

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Shel Holtz is principal of Holtz Communication + Technology which focuses on helping organizations apply online communication capabilities to their strategic organizational communications.

As a professional communicator, Shel also writes the blog a shel of my former self.