My Inbox overfloweth. I owe you all a compilation of the responses to my query about harvesting social media data (shooting for Thursday on that one and thanks to all who wrote) but boy oh boy did I get a lot of mail responding to my previous post. Agitated and passionate mail.
The question I posed was: How good is an e-discovery conference that allows paid speaker slots?
The answer was unanimous - not good at all. Colleague Mary Mack from Fios noted that it is a goal of hers not to be a part of this. Lynee Forristal of ggo encouraged me by saying "stay on that soap box!"
Brian See, a partner with Williams Mullen, wrote: "Paying for speaker slots? That's nothing. How about the conference organizers who hit you up with a massive fee just to ATTEND their "exclusive" conferences which are going to be attended by in-house counsel. It's "not available to the public" and "provides one-on-one opportunities". Even better yet, a few weeks ago I got called with an offer to pay $8k to be quoted in a magazine cover story.
I think the reality is that several big conferences regularly offer a panel sponsorship as part of the benefits of the conference sponsorship. Some do a better job of disclosing it than others -- in some places it is an explicit quid pro quo, while in others I've seen it more-or-less assumed that if you pony up the dollars for a conference sponsorship, in addition to getting your listings in the brochure, your table in the front, etc. you'll be able to put someone from your company up on a panel, someplace. The really big academic conferences and think-tanks don't have that "taint" but I think that's just the way the system works for the rest of the market."
The most striking e-mail I received came from a well-respected conference provider who wished to remain anonymous. Abiding by her wishes, I post below what I found to be a very powerful note:
You brought up a pet peeve of mine. I will ask you to post this anonymously because I am a conference provider and, well, I think the reason is obvious why I prefer to remain unknown.
I become upset when vendors try to push me into letting them speak at a session in exchange for money. I am not interested in back alley deals that put my reputation and the reputation of my organization on the line. The audience trusts me and my organization to provide solid education. They don't expect an advertisement during a session and I do everything I can to prevent one from occurring.
If I call a vendor and ask him/her to speak it is because that vendor is an expert; I have gotten good recommendations about the vendor from people I trust; the vendor and I have had the no commercial talk; and the vendor has made it clear s/he understands and agrees. The talk comes down to: do a commercial, the attendees will be mad, won't hire you, and I won't invite you back. Show the attendees how much of an expert you are through the information you provide, you will get clients and I will invite you back. If later after I have asked you and you have agreed to speak, you learn there are sponsorship opportunities and you want one, that's fine, because we have separated the opportunity to speak from the ability to be a sponsor. The session however still cannot be a commercial; it needs to be an unbiased educational lesson.
If a vendor wants to present a commercial s/he needs to say so from the start. Ask me if you can sponsor a reception where you get a few minutes to talk about your product or services and show off what you provide. The product/service needs to make sense for the conference and my organization and I will advertise it as a product/service session. The attendees get to choose whether they want to see what you have to offer. Now everything is on the up-and-up and no one is surprised or upset by being tricked into attending a commercial when s/he was expecting an educational opportunity. As it happens a vendor's money is better spent this way than by paying to speak during a session. If food is made available, attendees will come and listen. The attendees will also view the vendor as honest and won't be irritated by a sponsored event when they know its purpose before they attend. I assure you, the most scathing reviews I get are from times that a speaker has been too commercial during a session. I cannot use strong enough language to explain how much attendees deplore having education confused with advertising by a speaker. It is also important to note that attendees are especially sensitive to commercialism when a speaker is a vendor of any kind.
As someone who organizes conferences my first goal is to find the best most knowledgeable speakers who will provide unbiased, accurate information. My job is to provide education not commercials. Do I have to worry about finances? Yes I do, but never at the expense of the conference, never at the expense of my ethics, and definitely not at the expense of the attendees.
I thank the author for taking the time to write so thoughtfully.
I also note with a wry smile that I just received a note from LegalTech offering speaking opportunities to sponsors at prices ranging from $3500-$15,000. I'm not picking on LegalTech because they are far from alone in this practice, but I submit that the anonymous conference organizer quoted above has pegged just about every point I could wish to make. Bravo!
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