There are no advanced conferences (and never will be)

EASFAA 2008 Conference photos

I’ll play devil’s advocate on CC Chapman’s excellent post recently asking where the advanced conferences are.

There aren’t any. And I mean that in all seriousness. The more advanced you become in any field, the less general information is going to help you, because you’ve learned it. The more advanced you become in any field, the more the challenges you face are yours alone or shared among a very small minority of practitioners.

That’s when you need fewer conferences and more teachers or mentors who can challenge you and your specific needs and weaknesses.

I liken it to the martial arts. Teaching white belts is easy. You teach the basics en masse, and everyone more or less starts at the same place. As people progress, many drop out, and those who remain have individual weaknesses manifest themselves. Some people become afraid of hitting the ground. Some people don’t do well with throws or joint locks or kicks. By the time you’re teaching black belts, you’ve got a roomful of people who are all very good at the basics, but have individual areas of focus they need to improve. Only a master teacher (like mine, for example, Sensei Mark Davis) is going to be able to help the students over their individual obstacles, and the reality is that both in the social media and martial arts worlds, there are very few legitimate master teachers.

Skipping from conference to conference can give you added perspective, as CC mentioned, but the risk there is the equivalent of earning 12 green belts but never getting a black belt in any one thing. When you train in the martial arts, you have to give your area of study a lot of focus and effort to get to black belt and beyond.

There’s an expression in Japanese, shu-ha-ri, which roughly translated means preserve the form, vary the form, transcend the form, and it describes our journey as students, both in social media and martial arts. Conferences give us the basics, the form, but then we have to take that knowledge on the road, test it out for ourselves, learn from our mistakes, and find qualified teachers and mentors to help guide us through our weaknesses. We take our knowledge and apply it to real world situations until we understand it thoroughly. In the end, we transcend conferences entirely and learn to explore and grow on our own, and then it’s us on the stages sharing what we learned with the beginners just putting on their marketing white belts for the first time.


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  • http://twitter.com/bobbiklein Bobbi Klein

    I fully agree. You have to go and search for the advanced specialists in your area and personally connect with them. A conference would not be the best place because everyone is at a variety of levels.

  • http://www.cc-chapman.com/ C.C. Chapman

    I completely agree with you that at the end of the day each of us must go out and really hone our skills in the end.

    I learn more these days directly from the mentors in my life. We talk, sit down together and that is where I learn.

    But, with all that being said, I do firmly believe there is a huge opportunity for event organizers to create events (maybe not conferences) where this advance learning can happen.

    Already I’ve started hearing about these since writing the post. They’ve been called retreats, workshops and lectures. The one consistant thing is that they are small and selective both in attendees and in speakers.

    • http://www.ChristopherSPenn.com Christopher S. Penn

      Exactly – tons of retreats and workshops. Those formats can’t become conferences without losing something at scale.

  • http://twitter.com/swoodruff Steve Woodruff

    The conference format does have severe limits for those who are advanced, and want to grow. I think the real market opening is for smaller, focused “retreats” that involve a concentration of skilled people doing more sharing and brainstorming than listening to presentations. I’d far rather meet more intensively with 40 really smart and diverse people than wander around SXSW hoping to find a gem or two.

  • http://www.businessesGROW.com/blog Mark W Schaefer

    I am going to burst your bubble. As you know I am the founder fo the Social Slam conference in Knoxville. I have heard over and over again the need for advanced, in-depth training at conferences and feel we are uniquely qualified to try to break the mold, and intend to do so April 4, 2013

    The main problem is, all of these conferences need to make money, which comes from sponsors. What sponsor would pony up dough for a workshop for 30 people?

    Our model is different. First, no company makes a dime off of our conference. It is the only 100% non-profit national social media event. So we can do whatever the hell we want : )
    We have partnered with the university of Tennessee, which is donating facilities, and leveraging speakers who will be attending the main event April 5 to do a series of in-dpeth workshops which will be available at a reasonable price to offset other costs.

    So for example Matt Ridings (@techguerrllia) is going to do a 3-hour, limited seating workshop on social media and organizational transformation. I’m doing on on content strategy and development.

    This is a bold experiment on the conference scene. Will it work? Don’t know but we’r at least giving the market what they asked for.

    We are also breaking the mold by making the ticket price for the main event $79. We are creating an inclusive and diverse conference that anybody can afford. We even have scholarships for students who can’t afford the $79. And for that, you get to see John Jantsch, Tom Webster, Gabrielle Laine Peters, John Morgan, Xan Pearson and dozens of other amazing speakers (plus breakfast, lunch, two parties and some free books).
    Is it working? Last year we had 600 attendees from 24 states and we are planning on 700 this year.

    If you agree with me that this is the kind of model we need to be seeking, I would invite you and your readers to support this experiment any way you can, including Twitter love and links. The Social Slam conference site is http://www.soslam.com
    And I hope to have you and CC as speakers some day soon!

    • http://www.cc-chapman.com/ C.C. Chapman

      Sounds like a killer event Mark!!!

    • http://www.ChristopherSPenn.com Christopher S. Penn

      I look forward to being there someday, Mark :)

  • http://www.RoninMarketeer.com John Wall

    The other factor is that as you become an expert you get paid accordingly and those salaries are far above event manager rates. The people that have the expertise to build expert level conferences are getting paid too well to take a pay cut to manage an event.