The Case For & Against Attending Marketing Conferences

The Case For & Against Attending Marketing Conferences

It is absolutely true that if your employees attend them, there will be costs associated, and it's logical for businesses to seek a return on investment. But what they will learn is that tactic's existence, and a way to potentially invest in it. Over the years of my event participation, first as an attendee, and later as a speaker, I can measure my personal and Moz's professional benefits, and come up with some ballpark range. It's harder to do with my team members because I can't observe every benefit, but I can certainly see every cost in line-item format. Want to get great food for attendees? If you know yourself well enough to know that you'll benefit more (or less) by attending with others from your team, make the call. Which marketing conferences do I recommend? Mid-tier events with 1,000–1,500 attendee: MozCon by Moz (Seattle, WA 7/17–7/19) I'm obviously biased, but I also get to see the survey data from attendees. I personally learn more at Searchlove than any other show. And of course, if you'd like to chat in person about this and see how we're doing things at Moz, I hope you'll consider MozCon in just a few weeks in Seattle.

5 Signs Your Employer Brand Is in Trouble
Onboarding Checklist: A 90-Day Framework for Content Teams
How to Write a Social Media Policy for Your Company

I just finished reading Jan Schaumann’s short post on Why Companies Should Pay for Their Employees to Attend Conferences. I liked it. I generally agree with it. But I have more to add.

First off, I think it’s reasonable for managers and company leaders to be wary of conferences and events. It is absolutely true that if your employees attend them, there will be costs associated, and it’s logical for businesses to seek a return on investment.

What do you sacrifice when sending a team member to an event?

Let’s start by attempting to tally up the costs:

  • Lost productivity – Usually on the order of 1 to 4 days depending on the length of the event, travel distance, tiredness from travel, whether the team member does some work at the event or makes up with evenings/weekends, etc. Given marketing salaries ranging from $40K–$100K, this could be as little as $150 (~1 day’s cost at the lower end) to $1,900 (a week’s cost on the high end).
  • Cost of tickets – In the web marketing world, the range of events is fairly standard, between ~$1,000 and $2,000, with discounts of 20–50% off those prices for early registration (or with speaker codes). Some examples:
  • Cost of travel and lodging – Often between $1,000–$3,000/person depending on location, length, and flight+hotel costs.
  • Potential loss of employee through recruitment or networking – It’s a thorny one, but it has to be addressed. I know many employers who fear sending their staff to events because they worry that the great networking opportunities will yield a higher-paying or more exciting offer in the future. Let’s say that for every 30 employees you send (or every 30 events you send an employee to), you’ll lose one to an opportunity that otherwise wouldn’t have had them considering a departure. I think that’s way too high (not because marketers don’t leave their jobs but because they almost always leave for reasons other than an opportunity that came through a conference), but we’ll use it anyway. On the low end, that might cost you $10K (if you’ve lost a relatively junior person who can be replaced fairly quickly) and on the high end, might be as much as $100K (if you lose a senior person and have a long period without rehiring + training). We’ll divide that cost by 30 using our formula of one lost employee per thirty events.

Total: $4,630–$10,230

That’s no small barrier. For many small businesses or agencies, it’s a month or two of their marketing expenses or the salary for an employee. There needs to be significant return on those dollars to make it worthwhile. Thankfully, in all of my experiences over hundreds of marketing events the last 12 years, there is.

What do you gain by sending a team member to an event?

Nearly all the benefits of events come from three sources: the growth (in skills, relationships, exposure to ideas, etc) of the attendee(s), applicable tactics & strategies (including all the indirect ones that come from serendipitous touch points), and the extension of your organization’s brand and network.

In the personal growth department, we see benefits like:

  • New skills, often gained through exposure at events and then followed up on through individual research and effort. It’s absolutely true that few attendees will learn enough at a 30-minute talk to excel at some new tactic. But what they will learn is that tactic’s existence, and a way to potentially invest in it.
  • Unique ideas, undiscoverable through solo work or in existing team structures. I’ve experienced this benefit myself many times, and I’ve seen it on Moz’s team countless times.
  • The courage, commitment, inspiration, or simply the catalyst for experimentation or investment. Sometimes it’s not even something new, or something you’ve never talked about as a team. You might even be frustrated to find that your coworker comes back from an event, puts their head down for a week, and shows you a brilliant new process or meaningful result that you’ve been trying to convince them to do for months. Months! The will to do new things strikes whenever and however it strikes. Events often deliver that strike. I’ve sat next to engineers whom I’ve tried to convince for years to make something happen in our tools, but when they see a presenter at MozCon show off another tool that does it or bemoan the manual process currently required, they suddenly set their minds to it and deliver. That inspiration and motivation are priceless.
  • New relationships that unlock additional skill growth, amplification opportunities, business development or partnership possibilities, references, testimonials, social networking, peer validation, and all the other myriad advancements that accompany human connections.
  • Upgrading the ability to learn, to process data and stories and turn them into useful takeaways.
  • Alongside that, upgraded abilities to interact with others, form connections, learn from people, and form or strengthen bonds with colleagues. We learn, even in adulthood, through observation and imitation, and events bring people together in ways that are more memorable, more imprinted, and more likely to resonate and be copied than our day-to-day office interactions.

A gentleman at SearchLove London 2016 gives me an excellent (though slightly blurry) thumbs up

In the applicable tactics & strategies, we get benefits like:

  • New tools or processes that can speed up work, or make the impossible possible.
  • Resources for advancing skills and information on a topic that’s important to one’s job or to a project in particular.
  • Actionable ideas to make an existing task, process, or result easier to achieve or more likely to produce improved results.
  • Bigger-picture concepts that spur an examination of existing direction and can improve broad, strategic approaches.
  • People & organizations who can help with all above, formally or informally, paid as consultants, or just happy to answer a couple questions over email or Twitter.

In the extension of organizational brand/network, we get benefits like:

  • Brand exposure to people you meet and interact with at conferences. Since we know the world of sales & marketing is multi-touch, this can have a big impact, especially if either your customers or your amplification targets include anyone in your professional field.
  • Contacts at other companies that can help you reach people or organizations (this benefit has grown massively thanks to the proliferation of professional social networks like those on LinkedIn and Twitter)
  • Potential media contacts, including the more traditional (journalists, news publications) and the emerging (bloggers, online publishers, powerful social amplifiers, etc)
  • A direct introduction point to speakers and organizers (e.g. if anyone emails me saying “I saw you speak at XYZ and wanted to follow up about…” the likelihood of an invested reply goes way up vs. purely online outreach)

But I said above that these three included “nearly all” the benefits, didn’t I? 🙂

It’s true. There are more intangible forms of value events provide. I think one of the biggest is the trust gained between a manager and their team or an employer and their employees. When organizations offer an events budget, especially when they offer it with relative freedom for the team member to choose how and where to spend it, a clear message is sent. The organization believes in its people. It trusts its people. It is willing to sacrifice short-term work for the long-term good of its people. The organization accepts that someone might be recruited away through the network they gain at an event, but is willing to make the trade-off for a more trusting, more valuable team. As the meme goes:

CFO: What if we invest in our people and they leave?
CEO: What if we don’t and they stay?

Total: $A Lot?

How do you measure the returns?

The challenge comes in because these are hard things for which to calculate ROI. In fact, any number I throw out for any of these above will absolutely be wrong for your particular situation and organization. The only true way to estimate value is through hindsight, and that means having faith that the future will look like the past (or rigorous, statistically sound models with large sample sizes, validated through years of controlled comparison… which only a handful of the world’s biggest and richest companies do).

It’s easy to see stories like “The biggest deals I’ve ever done, mostly…

COMMENTS

WORDPRESS: 0
DISQUS: 0