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Dreamforce 2012

It’s been a rough few years for conferences. With continuing economic strain, there’s been more pressure on companies to sponsor and on employees to attend, while inside companies, there’s been more pressure to reduce costs and cut out perceived frivolities. Amidst all of this, it’s worth asking what the value of conferences truly is in an age when you can Google for just about anything.

So what is the value? There are four parts that make a conference valuable. Let’s see how replaceable these are.

Content. All conferences except basic trade shows are built on content, and you could make the argument that seeing the Billy Mays/Vince Offer guy do his shtick at a basic trade show is content, too. Content is the justification we give our rational mind and our boss for attending an event, yet it’s often the weakest part of a conference. Just the other day, a colleague was telling me that at a local digital marketing event, an SEO “expert” was handing out 5 year old advice. Still, there’s value in the content, especially for people new to the industry.

Conversation. Conversation is what more advanced professionals look for at events. A conference can put you in touch, face to face, with people who might have answers to your burning questions. If you can get face time, you can have the conversations you need to either move your business ahead or get your questions answered. Of the events I truly look forward to, I have a short list of people I want to talk to and a short list of burning questions that I need answers to.

Community. Community is where conferences start to truly shine. Less socially-skilled people call this “networking”, but they’re usually the folks who are always looking over your shoulder while introducing themselves in case someone more important is behind you. For normal people, community is about meeting new people and building a few new friendships or professional relationships at meal tables, at the refreshments, and “in the hallways”. It’s where you get to connect and reconnect with colleagues and friends.

Context. Context is probably the most overlooked, most important part of conferences. You won’t hear any conference planner or event organizer mention it explicitly, but I’d argue it’s the most important reason to go to a conference. When you attend an event – especially when you have to travel to get to it – you break your routine. You’re not in your office, you’re not eating the same food, sleeping in the same bed, attending the same meetings – none of your normal routine. This changes your context, which temporarily frees your mind to think in new and different ways. Ideas come more easily, especially when you’re hearing other people discussing other perspectives in content, conversation, and community. Even just the act of sitting in a bad session can inspire valuable new ideas (if only because your mind is actively arguing against the idiot at the podium). Most important, daily life and routine has a much harder time intruding and dragging your mind back into the mundane.

Tomorrow, a look at how to make conferences even more valuable to you with 4 simple things you can do.

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