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OPINION2 February 2015

The changing face of conferences

Opinion

It’s not all meeting your mates and collecting interesting freebies, market research conferences can be a platform for all aspects of your business says Ben Hogg.

I’ve lost count of how many research conferences I’ve attended over the past 15 years, but going on an average of six per year, I’d estimate that we’re talking at least 90. I’d envisage that I’ve exhibited at approximately 40 of these. If each conference, as a rule of thumb, has lasted for two days, this also means that I’ve consumed approximately 360 Nurofen Plus, four tubes of Berocca, and three bottles of eye drops; and that I’ve experienced 180 awkward buffet style lunches whereby I’ve attempted to eat soup with one hand while holding a glass of water with the other, desperately searching for a chair or table to afford me some dignity.

Starting in 2003, research agencies began to exclude exhibiting at, and attending, conferences from their sales and marketing plans due to the lack of end clients. I encourage you to take a look around at the next research conference you attend – you will note that most of the stands are manned by suppliers to agencies, eagerly looking out for potential clients to market to with often obscure giveaways.

In terms of direct ROI, attending conferences suddenly became prohibitively expensive for research agencies. Though employees could take part in a great networking opportunity that potentially allowed them to learn about new methodologies and innovation, and walk away with a sack of business cards (and so, indirect ROI), direct sales are limited.

This then begs the question, ‘why is the market for research conferences so lively?’ The market has been shaken up recently with the arrival of new kids on the conference block, such as MRMW, the Market Research Summit and IIeX. Others are changing format but what’s the driving force?

In my view, it’s not only about the knees up (though that is a factor, and who can resist the sight of researchers cutting shapes on the dance floor?); conferences are still one of the best ways to get your name out there. Securing an opportunity to present to a room filled with conference attendees is very clearly the biggest win, but simply being there and engaging with the zeitgeist makes you visible, and can often result in increased social and trade media coverage.

Finally, our industry is changing rapidly; small specialists spring up with expertise in new areas all the time. With this dynamism, it is not solely about meeting end clients – many specialists can work together beneficially. Agency to agency and supplier to supplier relationships are equally important and productive. 

Munich’s Research and Results claims to be Europe’s largest market research event and I think it’ll continue to grow. My initial impression from last year’s event was that it had a professional and targeted delegate list – with everyone open to on-the-fly meetings and collaboration.

As I look ahead at my own personal conference calendar for 2015, I have a combination of very large, global ‘broad brush’ conferences (including major players like MRS and Esomar to increase my knowledge about the industry and catch up with old friends) and some specialist one day events (focused on topics such as retail, finance, mobile and healthcare to learn about specific developments and make new friends).

What would encourage you to dust off your conference attire and join the circuit in 2015? Would it be free passes to end clients? Heavily subsidised tickets for young researchers to encourage new blood into the events? A sliding scale of charges for smaller to larger companies (based on number of employees)? Or would you be persuaded by shorter, fresher session formats, moving away from the typical agency/client case study?

Ben Hogg is managing director EMEA – portfolio businesses at Research Now.

10 Comments

4 years ago

Ben, There is a lot of truth in what you share - both the negatives and the positives. I really enjoyed the vendor exhibits early in my career - there were so many nice people there to help me! Give me ideas, business cards, and advice. But that was over 20 years ago and now the challenge for them and for us is that there are still more of them and the barriers to entry are higher. It is more difficult for clients to fund conference attendance - budgets are tight and there is a lot of competition so we have to be choiceful. Due to procurement guidelines, we can't simply award a project because we like a new agency or an idea and none of us walk around with RFPs in our bags. That said, we go to conferences for ideas, for learning, for growth. Our newer team members enjoy the same learning that I did years ago, our more seasoned professionals are looking to take it to the next level. What is new? What will make us more effective in our roles? I would suggest that the conference is not the end in and of itself, but the beginning of a potentially beautiful relationship (and continuation of many others).

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4 years ago

Thank you Beb. I have been struggling with this thought for some time...as you said time to dust off your conference attire??

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4 years ago

Thanks for this Ben. I, too, am a war torn conference veteran. I always make a number of solid connections, no matter the conference and, as you say, make a presence for my company. I find that with the proliferation of the now infamous, online meeting, it is much easier to follow up with the "pitch" soon thereafter. Saving me to focus on the personal side of the first meeting, getting a better understanding of who each person "is" prior to any attempt to sell them. I prefer that sequence. Absolutely, the cost of attending is a huge issue. Conferences like The Marketing Research Event are a complete "gouge" to the pocketbook, without a representative ROI. I find the best value at Marketing Week Live and Research & Results where there is no cost to attend the event itself. I truly enjoy the MRS and conferences where there is a flow to the learning process. Where, a Corporate Researcher is teamed with their MR Agency in a short presentation, usually followed by a panel discussion. I feel that we need to "call out" the gouge events, possibly on the LinkedIn group - Market Research Conferences. Save us veterans the effort. See you out there!

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4 years ago

Ben, what are the 'must attend' conferences in your opinion, as a veteran? And may I also say, Ben, you look very good for your age.

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4 years ago

Lisa and Rudy - fully agree, conferences (for me) are all about learning new things and meeting new people. Establishing a relationship, and then following up post-conference to explore potential partnership opportunities. Dan, there are several "must attends" for me, too many different categories. Perhaps I should introduce my own Conference Awards - The Hoggies? And thank you for the complement, the secret is my new centre parting - it's taken years off me.

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4 years ago

I think the more 'traditional' events like MRS and ESOMAR really should do either free or heavily discounted client passes. Without a decent client representation the mood and focus of the event becomes very introspective and much less about business decision making.

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4 years ago

Some conferences need to change intrinsically. The industry moans and bangs on about creativity and positioning itself as just as important to brands as ad agencies etc. Client researchers take the stage at these events and challenge agencies to be creative and think differently, deliver differently, inspire and so on. We are on at the MRS conference coming up. We would love to immerse our audience in cultures, challenges, solutions and experiences. And yet the conference set up says 'there's your proscenium arch stage, one projector, send us your slides by this date.' I guess what I am saying is that it is a shame that the industry doesn't consider/embrace/whatever the opportunity really to let these stories and experiences have the maximum impact and inspire beyond a limited 2D 'show and tell' capability. But I guess that costs money. Hey ho.

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4 years ago

Someone has to pay the very high costs associated with events. Either you charge exhibitors and sponsors or you charge the attendee or some combination. If you charge the attendee you get fewer corporate/client-side researchers and fewer people overall. If instead you make an event free to attend, it seems the event is flooded with suppliers networking for free. This is really unfair to those that are paying to exhibit and sponsor. They are paying and supporting the event, but their competitors are networking for free. This model actually raises the price for the suppliers to exhibit (as the event will cost more to put on with the costs passed to the exhibitors) and lowers the ROI due to competition. I'm interested in seeing how The Quirks event in NYC plays out. The let client-side researchers in a a very low price but suppliers that did not-exhibit have to pay a much higher fee. The event sold out and the app lists 1000 attendees and the list of corporate researchers is huge.

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4 years ago

At last! A debate about research conferences, which is well overdue. Although I totally understand the concern over lack of clients in attendance I also think it is vital to go to conferences to engage in our industry, tap into the zeitgeist and network.Just worrying about if you are going to make a sale is a really myopic way of viewing a conference. We've certainly gained business from speaking and attending but almost never directly from the people there - more from the post conference buzz. If you don't take part, you get no benefit.

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4 years ago

If money were not an object, it would be great to simply network. However, with limited time and limited budget, I choose the events that deliver both networking and clients. Besides, I can simply go to Research Club if I want to network. And although suppliers might want to engage in our industry, that isn't what clients want. it is wishful thinking for suppliers to think most buyers really want to engage with you. in fact, they prefer to avoid suppliers and the heavy handed sales tactics I see employed.

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