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Blue Sky Factory User Conference 2010

One of the questions that crops up all the time in social media and new media events is, where are the advanced conferences? Where are the events tailored to the veteran practitioners, the folks who have been doing it forever and are already good at it, beyond the basics? The answer may surprise you: there aren’t any.


The answer comes back to teaching and learning, and how teaching evolves throughout your educational process. At the most basic levels of learning, a one-size-fits-all methodical approach works extremely well. Memorize this multiplication table. Learn the periodic table. Execute this set of procedures. Follow this recipe to make a cake. Move your hands like this and your feet like this.

After a certain point, however, you achieve proficiency in the basics. You know how to Tweet. You know how to post items on Facebook. You’ve sat through the same “How to build your brand” session at every conference. This is the point where most conferences stop, and understandably so. At this point in your education, you need to start experimenting.

Experimentation, testing, breaking things and seeing the results – this is the essence of more advanced education. There isn’t a single conference in the world that can give you this experience. You have to go out and do it. Test things, play around, vary stuff, until you find what works and what doesn’t work for you. The problem is, no one can teach you this in a conference session.

At this point, you need to be working with a mentor, a guide, someone who has gone before you and has made their own mistakes and learned from them. You might get a few ideas about new things to test or new tools to experiment with at a conference, but there is no substitution for the journeyman’s path at this point in your education. It’s up to your mentor to give you more advanced cases to learn the intricacies of your craft. For example, they might suggest building different kinds of Facebook pages to see which works better for you, a brand page or an organization page.

Once you’ve gained proficiency, once you’ve gained a certain degree of mastery, then conferences and events really become useless. At the most advanced levels, you and your teachers are simply explorers on the path together, sharing discoveries, learning and teaching each other. You’ve transcended the basics, transcended the need to have someone give you different scenarios to test, transcended the need for going to conferences entirely unless you’re there for the social aspect or to teach as a presenter.

Can you, as a veteran practitioner, still get value out of conferences? Absolutely, but it’s value you have to create for yourself. Here’s an unpleasant truth: most conference organizers in the social media space aren’t veteran practitioners of social media themselves, so they have no idea what would be of benefit to you. Find other veteran practitioners and go grab lunch or coffee while you trade ideas and your own research, so that you can get fellow explorers’ input on what you’re doing. Find the local coffee shop near the venue or the diner or other places where you can create meetings and brainstorming sessions for yourself.

If you’re a conference organizer, try to create as many open spaces as possible such as lounges and alcoves with open seating so that veterans can get together outside of sessions. One of my favorite facilities in this regard is the Microsoft NERD Center in Cambridge, where we hold PodCamp Boston 6. There are tons of little alcoves that are wired up with displays and pervasive Wi-Fi, so veterans can gather in impromptu meetings to share and discuss, some of which are out of line of sight to ensure a little more privacy.

The bottom line is this: once you no longer need to sit in conference sessions about the basics, the rest of your journey is largely your responsibility. Find mentors, find fellow explorers, and see what you can create together, but understand that there is not and likely never will be a conference for you.

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