First, conferences remain proven direct marketing channels for product and service vendors to promote their offerings — or “hawk their wares” to use an ancient phrase. Some turn out to be more valuable than others. For example, a young upstart all the way back in 2008 named LinkedIn dominated the landscape at what’s now known as Recruiting Trends, a conference with roots tracing back 40 years to Kennedy Information. Linkedin originally established presence by sheer willpower and visibility. Banners were everywhere, kiosks were large and free logo t-shirts were abundant. After all that’s what worked back before the economy fully collapsed.
Fast forward to today, the hyper-connected social media age when fewer spend the time or money to attend conferences for a host of reasons, including lack of perceived value. It’s a different formula now, one that must combine the best of the off line world with effective digital engagement to sustain interest. Or as the head of a D.C.-based advocacy group says, “you better have something that no one can get elsewhere if you want to get people in the same room for two days.” True that. Advantage goes back to the market leaders, such as LinkedIn, which now sponsors their own conferences that attract more than 3,000 attendees, according to a regular presenter. That’s not bad for a group that used to beg people to join their network.
Dipping down to the individual or company attendee level, it’s difficult to argue with the fact that conferences represent networking value. Access remains an issue, and it’s not clear whether organizers are fully committed to connecting buyers and sellers vs. simply getting attendees to show up to confirm registeration. Presenters, such as long-time recruiter Lou Adler and Fortune Magazine’s Geoff Colvin, enjoy an advantage via captive audiences despite the fact attention spans are split three different ways ’til Sunday.
While selling and promoting at conferences are obvious value points, the other side of the equation, professional development, often gets shorter shrift. The reasons why are numerous. As an independent executive recruiter puts it, there’s always been a “big difference between building the business vs. building the profession.” Granted that’s a little high and mighty, yet it’s important distinction that few seem willing to balance anymore. Professional development as investment has fallen completely out of the picture. Some industry organizations with a bent toward the executive level have tried to address this issue, such as the Association of Executive Search Consultants (AESC) that recently held their annual conference in New York: https://members.aesc.org/eweb/DynamicPage.aspx?webcode=EventInfo&Reg_evt_key=b51ca1b3-b4ea-43d2-a322-02d0d6d57699&RegPath=EventRegFees. Another group with aspirations is a U.K.-based outfit called search-consult.com, which will hold their version in Miami next month: http://events.search-consult.com/agenda2.aspx?evt=51&past=not.
But that’s only one slice of the recruiting market. The fact remains that very few top performers put any stock in attending venues that only speak to themselves. The need for clearer industry standards and certification continues to remain unmet. Until an organized, credible group impacts this missing dynamic, it’s difficult to see the value equation changing. That’s not to say it can’t be done. After all it only took LinkedIn six years to become a conference market leader. The first group who can combine commercial interests with professional development that makes a difference may be onto the next big AND valuable thing.
Disclosure: Based on previous participation, TGR was invited to attend “Recruiting Trends,” which was held this week in Alexandria, Va.