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Could microblogging and social media undermine the tech conference industry?

This week’s Mesh09 conference in Toronto was a fantastic success, by all accounts.  David Usher continued to move from music into the social media scene, though it couldn’t be resisted to ask “how does Nickelback influence you”.  His response?  “Chad’s a nice guy…”.  Of course, the Globe and Mail’s Mathew Ingram, a conference organizer, was also present and in his usual fine form, chiming in humorously on the Tropicana redesign fiasco in his recap panel with Mike Masnick.  But perhaps the highlight of the sessions was kiva.org’s Jessica Jackley who inspired the crowd with pearls like, “Don’t do it for me or because we’re begging you. Do it because you believe in it”.  Even the after parties  impressed.  From the Social Media Group’s affair at Mod Club on Tuesday night to the Edelman party at Proof Vodka bar on Wednesday.  It was an enjoyable experience all around… well, I guess I could’ve said that.  If I went.

Packed house at Mesh09.  Pity I couldnt be there....

Packed house at Mesh09. Pity I couldn't be there.... (photo credit: @erin_bury)

That’s right.  I didn’t attend Mesh09.  I witnessed no panels.  I attended no parties.  I received none of this info first hand.  I simply sat in the nitch* home/office, armed with my tweetdeck.  As time rolled along, flickr and facebook began to spring to life offering me visuals to go along with the tasty media snacks I’d been consuming all day long.  Of course, this doesn’t even take into account the audio and video podcasts already springing up from panels all across the net (and helpfully linked to on twitter).  So in the end, I was left with a fulfilling two day experience of insights from all the lovely Toronto tweeps religiously covering the event.  Heck, I even knew where in the room my friends were sitting and sometimes what they had for lunch.  This was a phenomenon I’d noticed originally during South By Southwest Interactive, but traveling to Austin and traveling to College Street are two very different things.  Nonetheless, I thought I’d give it a shot again.  And I was relatively pleased with the results.

So by not attending Mesh09, what did I really miss (other than the chance to pay almost $400 to receive info that’s piped into my laptop through the internets)?  I suppose you could say networking.  But as I’ve spoken about in this space before.  With great events like Third Tuesday Toronto, GenYTO, Wired Wednesday, interact and more, there’s plenty of inexpensive ways to shake some hands and make some contacts in this town.  If I was dead set on meeting Mesh09 attendees, I could’ve attended the SMG party at Mod Club for a $15 charitable donation, or the Edelman party for free!

It should be noted that I’m Dutch, and therefore genetically predisposed to frugality, but we’re in recessionary times here.  Times that teach people about the value of a dollar.  Truth be told, I absolutely LOVE tech conferences.  I love panels, I love meeting new people and I love networking.  So I definitely would’ve been at Mesh09 with bells on, but the conference was a luxury my business couldn’t afford right now.  How many other small businesses are in that situation though?  And how veterans are there in the industry that don’t need the networking a conference facilitates?

With all of the social media that these conferences are either providing, or facilitating the spread of through microblog hashtags, are they undermining their own business?  I’d like to think no.  But at a time when it’s clear that business models need to change across a number of sectors, could the tech conference be another victim?  I hope not.

  • http://www.markevanstech.com Mark Evans

    Glad you were able to enjoy mesh vicariously. :) You can check out mesh videos at media.meshconference.com or mesh TV.

    Hope to see you next year!

    cheers, Mark

  • http://www.nitch.ca Andrew Lane

    Thanks Mark! As an organizer of Mesh09, I’m not sure if this strengthens my point of concern or completely refutes it… In any case, congrats on the conference, as I said above, it was a great success by all accounts!

  • http://michaelocc.com Michael O’Connor Clarke

    “Could microblogging and social media undermine the tech conference industry?” – actually, I’m kind of inclined to think the exact opposite.

    I have a couple of good friends in the conference planning business and know from them that the more social and open conferences are pretty much the ONLY ones that are thriving right now.

    Events like mesh and SXSW – where the buzz and the conversation overflows out into the much, much broader global tech community: they continue to attract sponsors, advertisers and, yes, paying attendees. I think social media is one of the biggest driving factors here: that, plus the overall seismic shifts in attitudes towards marketing we’ve seen over the past 10 years or so.

    The old tech conferences were generally built on a heavily vendor-supported model: you pay for a huge chunk of floor space at our tradeshow, and we’ll let you pontificate at the conference next door.

    Two problems with this:

    1. People grew tired of listening to thinly-veiled canned vendor pitches, and;
    2. Vendors got tired of spending vast chunks of their marketing budgets on untargeted schmoozefests.

    The tech conference circuit had devolved into a sequinned meringue of high-cost/value-free content being pedalled by the clueless to the uninterested. Expense account schmooze FTW!

    This is particularly true in Canada. When I first arrived here from the UK, 13 years ago, there was a full complement of major tech conferences: many of them modelled on their bigger cousins to the south. We had a Comdex in Canada, plus ITWorldCanada and many, many other big conferences and exhibitions right across the country.

    Of course, if you’re a tech company in Canada, in many, many cases you’re far more interested in that giant market to the south – so why would you spend your limited marketing $$ to talk to the same old buddies every year at ComdexCanada, when you could be partying hard (er… *cough* “extending your market”) with the A-list in Vegas?

    I’m consciously leaving gaps in the argument here. Not because I want to, but because I’m in a hurry.

    In short: I believe phenomena such as mesh, the unconference scene, and social media in general have both already killed the tech conference industry at the same time as they’re resurrecting it.

    Conferences are being redefined and reinvented to create something much more useful and valuable. Both for those who participate live on-site AND those who enjoy the event vicariously through the ever-expanding sphere of conversation that emanates from the epicentre of any high-buzz event.

    I’ll let others weigh in on the “what did I miss” question. A lot, IMHO. A small thing, but you’d have realised that Calacanis was a no show, for starters. And that Masnick wasn’t involved in any Tropicana discussion – that was the Pepsico Social Media chief, Bonin Bough.

    But those sound like nitpicks on my part, and I didn’t come here to nitpick. I’m sorry we missed you at mesh. It is a fair chunk of change, I agree, but it’s also the single best Web event in Canada’s terrific and vibrant technology community, and I wouldn’t have missed this mesh – or any of the previous three years’ sessions – for anything.

  • http://www.nitch.ca Andrew Lane

    Michael – thanks for the great breakdown! Well put.
    As for your “nitpicks”, the Calacanis no-show I knew about but left it in to foreshadow to my non-attendance for those paying attention and the Tropicana comment was attributed to Mathew in a tweet from that panel. But like I said, I wasn’t able to attend so I really don’t deserve completely accurate info!
    Thanks for the feedback.

  • http://unhub.com/fnthawar Farhan Thawar

    Not sure why you wouldn’t at least crash the parties (which are free!)