Gini Dietrich

Are Conferences A Dying Breed?

By: Gini Dietrich | May 18, 2010 | 

The fourth edition of Inside PR is in the can and this week we discuss the pros and cons of attending conferences. A bit tongue in cheek (big surprise, I know), I said the reason I attend conferences is to ride my bike in locations other than Chicago. I do, in fact, like to rent a bike wherever I’m traveling not only to get in my miles, but to see something other than the inside of a conference room. But Martin, Joe, and I discuss real reasons to attend, or not attend, conferences. You can listen to it here and let us know what you think.

But what I’d like to discuss here today, as part of the podcast, is the idea that sponsorships, conferences, trade shows, and events are a dying breed. A few weeks ago, MillerCoors announced they are dropping the sponsorship of the NFL. And FedEx dropped their sponsorship of the Orange Bowl. Here in Chicago, sponsorships of Wrigley Field are unheard of (mostly because we want to maintain the integrity of the park). But not just sponsorships are going away. Events and trade shows still have people attend, but fewer and fewer companies are buying booths and, if we really want content from conferences, all we have to do is read blogs of those attending or watch the tweet stream. It’s no longer pertinent that we attend conferences to gain wisdom and knowledge.

When I ran the BayerCropScience PR account at Rhea & Kaiser, we had the idea to bring together farmers across the country via satellite for best practice sharing. This was right before 9/11 and I remember sitting in a meeting with the client and the producers, talking about the fact that very soon everyone would have to replace their televisions for this new-fangled thing called HD.  To prepare people for what was new in broadcast we would have a satellite conference…and we set to work on it. It flopped (I think we were just ahead of our time), but the idea that we need to meet at conferences, events, and trade shows in person is dead, dead, dead.

I don’t yet have an answer for what is going to happen to sponsorships and conferences, but I do think 10 years from now we’ll laugh at the idea that we spent a zillion dollars for a logo on a race car or to attend a trade show or conference. What do you think?

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • I agree with you. Yesterday I didn’t attend the ere conference in Minneapolis. I did however spend the entire day, at home, in front of my computer, watching the conference stream. There was a chat room where I met quite a few new people, and chatted with others whom I have known for a while. We in the chat room were ignored by the conference as they never checked the stream for questions, but instead relied on the #socialrecruiting, which was fine. I followed the hashtag on twitter too.

    I was told the cost to attend was $495, and though I would have gotten to meet some great people, I am not sure I would have enjoyed myself much more than I did. It was a good conference, the content was fair, the fun was in talking with the people in the chat room. I have 25 new twitter friends now.

    Which brings me to another interesting point. I am bad with names. However I seem to be good with remembering written names and I can look through my twitter stream today and recognize all the people I met yesterday. I can zip them a little tweet and continue to build the relationship. If I had met them in person I would likely still have a stack of business cards which I need to go through.

    So I think my not attending attendance was best for me. Which if more people start to go that route will, kill the conferences, for a while at least.

  • Brian! The idea that you don’t have to go through a zillion business cards, send notes or LinkedIn invites, and try to reconnect is BRILLIANT! I’m like you – I’d MUCH rather begin the conversations online, further them online, and then find reason later to take them offline.

  • Totally agree with Brian; the trend for many reasons is to attend events virtually. Reasons might include: budget constraints, time constraints, companies concentrating on reducing their carbon footprint.

    Many industries are starting to catch on to this trend, I’m hoping the franchise industry will follow suit soon. They can find more information at .

  • Ooooh, I LOVE this topic!

    Sponsorships seem to be primarily about brand awareness, or about affiliating a brand with an issue. But the companies that can afford to sponsor events probably already have a high level of brand awareness.

    Sure, there are other perks for sponsors: Speaking platforms, free attendance, mixers. But how much value is added? Those “sponsorship value” numbers are made-up, anyway.

    I don’t think conferences will die anytime soon, but a lot of us have realized it’s more efficient (and maybe more effective) to achieve the benefits of attending a conference by taking full advantage of human networks.

  • I disagree.

    I heard a debate on some talk radio station a few days ago (I forget which station and what they talked about) when one person mentioned NASCAR. Companies are flocking to stock car owners to advertise their identifiable logos on the cars. Not for fans to see when the drivers whiz around the raceway, but for the media to see when the driver crashes into the guardrail or into another car.

    Eyeballs sell products through word of mouth, and the takeaway of this radio bit was companies will continue to advertise — and continue to buy conference booths, sponsorships, etc — to reach that eyeball. And if the media takes a picture or a video shoot that includes the logo, BAM that’s tangible goods sold.

  • I don’t think the overkill of same speakers, same topics helps either, Gini. People can only take so much repetition for dollars – then they look elsewhere. Perhaps it’s time to put the onus on organizers to really offer value?

  • To me, sponsorships are a lot like billboards. Clients spend a lot of money on a tactic that’s extremely passive and meant merely to raise awareness (which is fine–just stating the obvious).

    Aren’t there better ways to spend your marketing/PR dollars? Forget about digital circles for a moment. What about good old-fashioned email marketing? What about traditional earned media in targeted outlets? What about an interactive event where your client gets one-on-one time with customers and potential customers? All of which can cost much less than costly sponsorships. And offer much more value (in my opinion).


  • I disagree that they are dying. I think they are evolving and being formed by the needs of the audiences that they are formed for. I do believe even more connecting is happening at conferences, but under totally different context than in the past. To improve each other, to strengthen our relationships and take the businesses we work for to the next level. Yes we like sponsorships but in an entirely different context too. We want to build and strengthen our relationships with these entities also!

    I think the days of high priced, exclusive, hoc our shit conferences are DEAD. They have been replaced by learning, sharing, meeting, and finding return on our $500 to $1000 investments. They are not dying they are evolving based on finally listening to the audiences. If your conference does not evolve yes it dies or if we don’t like it we can make our own now!

  • I don’t think they are dying, but they are definitely changing. I’ve found that conferences, large or small, are a great way to enhance the relationships made online. Virtual conferences may save time and money – and definitely serve a purpose – but nothing beats spending time with people face-to-face.


    While I will admit that the content at many of the conferences in my industry are not great- the networking opportunity of having so many ideal clients in the same place at the same time is awesome.

    I LOVE social media, I am crazy about this stuff. But the reality is that at least half of my clients come from conferences and trade shows. There is no substitute for face-to-face.

    Just think about it, more than 50% of communication is non-verbal. You miss most of the communication through online means. If you are speaking to someone in person you can easily build trust and rapport- this same rapport is much harder to come by online. Sure you can make friends and those friendships can become real- but it just isn’t the same.

    Conferences need to evolve if they are going to stay relevant, but to say they are dying? This is kind of like saying traditional marketing is dying. It still has a purpose, it just isn’t as powerful as it used to be.

  • Sponsorships of all kinds definitely seem to ebb and flow, largely with the economy but also as bursts of popularity dilute the results. To me, it seems the pattern is that a lot of companies jump onto an event or personality after several major sponsors have already become entrenched as the marquis supporters, then the newer arrivals are unimpressed with the results and pull their money within a year or two.

    The other tough part of the equation is activation. Sponsoring events is one thing, but making the most of that sponsorship is something else altogether. It takes a lot of energy and long-term commitment, not to mention imagination and flexibility. The companies that aren’t willing to put that much work into activating their sponsorships tend to be the ones leading the charge out the door.

  • “I’d MUCH rather begin the conversations online, further them online, and then find reason later to take them offline.” – Gini Dietrich

    This is a blog post right there!

  • I don’t agree. While I’m a fan of virtual events, I agree with Adrian that the networking opportunity — and, more specifically, the fuller picture we get from interacting in person — is too great for these events to die.

    What I see happening is the emergence of the “unconference”: events that aren’t centered around sponsorship or presenter-based content but focus more on group conversation and participant-raised topics. Whether those flourish (or maybe even take over the conference scene) remains to be seen. Bottom line, though: I just don’t think we can get the same richness of interaction and connectivity through a virtual event as we can through an in-person one.

  • I agree! With podcasts, webinars, and every other online resource there is, the need to meet in person is becoming less and less necessary. I think the face to face meetings will always be needed for some reasons, but going to a trade show or conference will become something of the past.

  • Ces

    Agree and Disagree!

    Agree that some types of employee and professional conferences will soon be extinct. But I disagree because other types will never be replaced. Trade shows, educational seminars, consumer events and promotional conferences will continue in perpetuity!

  • Mike Koehler

    Agreed. I hated going to conferences as I actually got nothing out of them. Most of the time, the information shared was fairly high level and only just skimmed the surface of what really needed to be discussed. Anything of importance was always pushed to offline conversations.

  • There will always be some place for sponsorships. I live in the South. NASCAR is big here. Every day people are walking around with “TIDE” emblazoned across their chests because it’s some driver’s “uniform.” What a deal. Does that dude actually buy Tide? Who knows, but I’m amazed at the concept.

    Sports attendance is up in nearly every market. There are eyeballs in those seats, so why wouldn’t be there be sponsors too?

    I agree with Teresa on the richness of personal interaction. However, I don’t really think I can justify the ROI on attending SXSW, one of the greatest meet and greets on the planet. I’m going to give up 3-4 days of billable hours plus expenses for … what? I am making connections in new ways and strengthening them either IRL or through phone contact as needed.

  • Gini, Just wanted to say how much I’ve enjoyed the Inside PR 2.0. Great discussions that amuse, entertain and educate as I wander around Stockholm.

  • It’s pretty interesting to see the discussion string here…on the one hand as many have said I agree that the relevance of events such as conferences for engagement has diminished somewhat not only post 9/11 but also as a result of Social Media’s emergence. On the other does this not cause a void in terms of taking a more “face to face” element out of the equation?

    Might be a moot point here as Social Media continues to create a multitude of possibilities for engagement whether for information gathering, education, relationship building or other. It will be interesting to see how sponsorships evolve or rather devolve in the coming years. Great post and definitely a worthwhile listen to your discussion on InsidePR…thanks Gini. Andy

  • Companies are looking for other outlets instead of sponsorships. Sure it’s great to sponsor the NFL, but at the end of the day, what sort of ‘giving back’ does that portray? Nowadays people just talk about ‘giving back’ and ‘community’ so corporations dollars are better spent elsewhere partnering with a NFP (as an example). They can talk about what they are doing with that NFP, how lives are being changed, and get more leverage out of that than anything else.

    As for conferences, ones that continue to be hands on will never go away. In my case, there are several large soccer conferences (NSCAA and SoCal being the biggest) and the records continue to rise each year in terms of attendees.

    Some people are finding that social media opens up the possibility to connect with people all over the world, but that often leads to lots of connections that are not deep.

  • Rusty

    If you agree that conferences are a great way to network in your field an that they are a source of original thought, then this is sad outcome. I get a lot out of leaving the office, going somewhere new free of distractions, and listening to new ideas. It’s inspiring to expand my mind in an environment full of creative energy. If they die off, the social benefit derived from these in-person interactions will be lost. Sad. Sad indeed.

  • Gini Dietrich

    I’ve been watching these comments from my phone, while I”m at Counselors Academy, a conference for PR agency leaders.

    A few things I agree with:
    * The same speakers at all of the conferences, the same topics, and sponsors getting to present their wares during keynotes must stop.
    * For introverts, meeting people online replaces the need to meet people offline and, in some cases, is more successful.
    * Hoc our shit conferences are dead (LOL, Keith!).
    * ALL marketing, advertising, and communication now can be measured to bottom line growth so if companies continue to sponsor events or attend trade shows, it’s because they found the monetary value.
    * We can’t get the same human interaction online that we can in person. I like Teresa’s point about unconferences.

    A few things I don’t agree with:
    * Traditional media is changing dramatically and journalists no longer have the luxury of writing about brands where they are exposed to them via sponsorships. Regardless, sponsorships do not sell more product. They may create higher brand awareness, but people do not buy because of them, nor do they trust advertising (sorry Ari – still love you, though!).

    P.S. Jon, thank you! We’re having fun with the podcast!

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