Understanding conferences & trade shows (thoughts post-BlogHer, part 2)

by Susan Getgood on September 7, 2010

in BlogHer, Conferences

Originally I was going to address the somewhat self-serving BlogWorld Expo post comparing BlogWord Expo and BlogHer, but it’s been a month, and pretty much everything that can be, has been  said, argued, analyzed, attacked and defended.

I thought it would be far more productive to talk a little about trade shows and conferences. What can we expect to get from attending an event? And how do we decide which one is the right one for us?

First, we have to step into the WABAC Machine and get a little historical perspective.

Trade shows started as a way for manufacturers in various industries to display their wares to  “the trade” or industry — essentially a focused copy of the village market. That could mean everything from component parts and machinery for  industrial buyers to  finished good manufacturers exhibiting clothing and housewares for the department store buyers. And everything in between. Every industry has its major shows, both in the US and across the globe.

Trade shows are business events. There is an industry trade show for just about everything. Often they are restricted to adults 18 and over. With the addition of a conference portion, they also serve as educational opportunities (of varying quality) within industries. Many industries also have educational and professional conferences that do not have an expo component or a blend of both.

Consumer shows also have their inspiration in the village market, but instead of an industry focus, they are constructed around consumer goods – homes, boats, cars, jewelry, even crafts and hobbies, and exhibitors display finished goods or services in a category to consumer buyers. Home shows. Car shows. Boat shows. Flower shows. Where you might find only one or two industry trade shows in a country — or even the world– for a specific industry, consumer shows are often regional, even hyperlocal. Because they are largely viewed as family or leisure time events — for example, the family stepping out to dream about the boat they want to own or their dream house — typically there isn’t a conference component. Even if Mom and Dad would like to attend an educational presentation about the latest in boat technology, Junior probably doesn’t have the patience to sit through it.

Technology products respected this division between trade and consumer. Until the rise of personal technology. The best example of this is probably Macworld Expo, the first industry trade show (in my recollection) with clearly strong fan boy (and girl) components. More broadly, we have CES, the Consumer Electronics Show, a trade event that is a geek’s winter wet dream, and Comic-Con, the geek’s ultimate summer love. Both are industry events but they have acknowledged consumer audiences.

Another important characteristic of trade events, versus consumer events, is that networking and business connections are as  important as the conference and expo itself. Sometimes more. New business development. Connecting with colleagues from other regions. And yes, partying. Just think on the saying: What happens in Vega, stays in Vegas.

The personal and the professional

Blogging mixes the personal and professional. It’s no surprise that blogging conferences do as well. Making it difficult to class its shows and conferences as one or the other. However, I think it is critical to understand that the presence of the personal —  human connections, social aspects, even the swag bags — does not mean that a blogging conference is not professional. That is a false dichotomy.

We all have more than one identity and there is no reason we have to firewall one from the other when we are engaged in a professional endeavor. Like blogging. In fact, I’ll make it personal. If you know me professionally, there is no reason to treat me differently, or value me less, if you happen to encounter me when I am with my son.

If you do? Seriously, shame on you. I’m more than fine with asking people to check their egos at the door. But don’t ask them to check their identities. Especially at a blogging conference.

What blogging conferences should you attend?

Okay. Now that I have hopefully disposed of the idea that social and community aspects of conferences are less important than the content, and you are all on board with the idea that blogging conferences by definition MUST meld the personal with the professional, how do you decide which blogging conference is for you?

Here are some factors to consider:

  1. Don’t make your decision based on the expo floor. The expo is part of the revenue model, but it is far more like the consumer show than a top trade event like CES where the latest technology will be on display. You want tech, go to CES, not a Podcamp or BlogWorld Expo.
  2. If you are a newbie, do not go to any conference expecting to learn how to blog. Go to make friends and participate in the community of your choice, but you won’t get an adequate Blogging 101 at ANY conference. Because the best way to learn how to blog is to blog; if you want a step-by-step guide along the way, you will save a lot of money if you buy a book like Professional Blogging For Dummies (my book, affiliate link) or go to a local community college or VoTech hands-on class. If you want the teaching, save your conference dollars for when you are a little more advanced and can benefit from the trend and best practices sessions that tend to be the meatiest ones at conferences.
  3. Look at the conference holistically. It is the sessions plus the networking pus the social aspects plus the expo that make a conference experience. Some of the things to look at:
  • The speaker roster. Does it include people you want to learn from? Speaking on topics that appeal to you?
  • The experiences of attendees from previous years.
  • Networking opportunities.

And here’s my advice. If you are a member of the women’s blogging community, you should attend BlogHer at least once. It is the first and grand-mama of them all. Without BlogHer forging the way, it is highly unlikely that the smaller niche women’s blogging conference would exist: Blissdom, Type-A Mom, Blogalicious or Mom 2.0. Or even BlogWorld Expo. A little secret: the founders of ALL those conferences were at BlogHer this and previous years. Not an accident.

But don’t worry. If you don’t want to attend BlogHer, there are probably 5 women in the community to take your hypothetical seat. If you prefer smaller, stay home in August and attend one of the niche conferences instead. You’ll be more comfortable and get more out of your experience. Here’s a quick differentiation of some of the top ones —

  • Blissdom – for members of the Blissdom community founded by Alli Worthington
  • Type-A Mom – focuses on professional mom blogging
  • Blogalicious  – a community for women of color
  • Mom 2.0 – more focused on the relationships between bloggers and marketers. Some of the sessions are equaLLY aimed at marketers who want to reach mom bloggers.

If your interests lie more to the technology and mechanics of blogging, there’s  BlogWorld Expo, Gnomedex, Jeff Pulver’s 140 Twitter conferences, PodCamp, WordCamp. Camp Rock.

Oops sorry. Been watching too much Mouse with my kid.

Make your choice to attend based on your objectives and how well the conference seems to deliver to your needs. And if it doesn’t measure up afterward? Think long and hard about whether it’s the conference that didn’t deliver on its promises, or did you simply make the wrong choice?

Make a different one next year.

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