A Shadow Falls on Search Related Conferences

January 27, 2009

I had a couple of conversations yesterday with conference organizers telling me that I was completely wrong in my opinion piece “Conference Spam or Conference Prime Rib” here. I enjoy a lively debate. I like intense discussions even more when I have no interest whatsoever in the trials and tribulations of conference organizers. My point remains valid; that is, in a lousy economy conferences that don’t deliver value will be big losers. Forget the monetary side of the show.


With conferences struggling to survive and some big outfits allegedly cutting back in fuzzy-wuzzy business sectors like content management, the caption “When your best just isn’t good enough” is apt in my opinion. Image source: http://aviationweek.typepad.com/photos/uncategorized/2007/05/21/failure.gif

I received this thoughtful post as well:

I’m also curious how my own touting of the SIGIR Industry Track fares vis a vis your spam filter. I’m personally excited to be involved with an event that is not beholden to any vendor or analyst, but rather to the world’s most reputable organization in the area of information retrieval: the Association for Computing Machinery Special Interest Group on Information Retrieval (SIGIR).

More details about the event are forthcoming, but let me share an important one: none of the speakers or their employers are paying to be on the agenda. Rather, the agenda consists of invited talks and panels, vetted by the SIGIR Organizing Committee (http://www.sigir2009.org/about/organizers). The model for the event is last year’s CIKM Industry Event (http://www.cikm2008.org/industry_event.php), but I’ll be so bold as to say we’re stepping it up a notch.

This isn’t a vendor user conference like Endeca Discover or FASTForward, nor is it a “vendor-neutral” conference in name only where vendors, analysts, and consultants are paying for air time. And, while it won’t be free, it is being run by a non-profit organization whose goal is to serve the community, not to line its pockets.I hope that you and others will support this welcome change.

When people run conferences that don’t have magnetism, the real losers are the attendees who spend money and invest time to hear lousy speakers or sales pitches advertised as original, substantive talks. The other losers are exhibitors who can spend $10,000 on a minimal exhibit and get zero sales leads. In fact, there are negatives to lousy shows; to wit:

  • Attendees don’t learn anything useful or attendees hear speakers who simply don’t know of what they speak. That’s okay when the presenter is a luminary like Steve Ballmer or Werner Vogels. But for a session on “Tips to Reduce the Cost of Enterprise Search” and the solution is a rehash of how “easy” and “economical” a Google Search Appliance is, I leave the session. It’s baloney. Attendees don’t learn anything from these talks, but there is often desperation among the organizing committee to find someone who will show up and do a basic talk. The notion of “quality” is often secondary to thoughts about the speaker’s turning up on the podium.
  • Exhibitors don’t make sales. Enough said.
  • Exhibitors find themselves either [a] talking to competitors because there’s no traffic in the exhibit hall or [b] watching their employees talk with other companies’ senior management and maybe landing a new job. Either of these situations is one that will make a vendor pull out of a trade show.
  • Media who actually show up and attend a session don’t find a story. The trade show is, therefore, a media non event. I can name one big, confused show in Boston that suffers this ignominy. What began as a show about microfilm now tries to embrace everything from photocopying to enterprise content management to business intelligence. Crazy. No one knows what the show is about so the media avoid it. Heck, I avoid it.

What must conferences do to avoid this problem?

There is no easy solution. One conference organizer has a formula and keeps turning out conferences that are a bit like Twinkies. The package looks good but the contents get old fast. Nothing is worse than a stale Twinkie. But companies like the big organizers have a tough time switching gears. Once I talked with a senior manager at what used to be Reed Exhibitions. I recall her pointing out that the show almost ran itself. Staff just filled slots. The trade show was like a freight train.

I did attend a bang up pair of trade shows in Europe this year. Here are the features that struck me:

  • A wide range of sessions. Some were three or four people talking. The organizers had a fancy name for this, but I found the flexibility interesting and useful.
  • A clean, simple method of organization; that is, the program was not a confused and crazy mess. In fact, the program fit on a single piece of paper that was folded to fit into a pocket. I think it is stressful to deal with a program that is multi colored, chopped up, and lacking an index of speakers’ names and locations. Who needs more stress today? Not me.
  • Interesting general sessions. The idea that a conference has to find a rock star is crazy. There are topics that warrant intelligent discussion. At one show, the main session featured a short, provocative talk and then open discussion led by the conference chair. The audience kept the discussion going for the scheduled hour and then through the break.

Why am I beating the conference drum? Easy. I just opened my mail and had spam for a 50 percent off registration, an appeal to sign up now for a search show in May 2009, a reminder to attend a library show next month, and an organizer asking me to submit a paper and then pay $600 to have the paper published in the conference proceedings.

I’m annoyed. Not at one organizer, but for the group of people who set up shows and then find that there is not an inherent magnetism for what’s on offer.

I have already made a commitment to support a tutorial in the UK in April for Janus Boye and to give a talk at his show in Philadelphia in May 2009. Click here for information.

I will post more details next week, but I want to make clear that when a conference is in trouble, the problem often is a result of a failure to innovate.

If anyone has confirmation that Gartner has nuked its content management show scheduled for this spring let me know. Gartner doesn’t write me. Like Google, the company wants this goose fricaseed.

Stephen Arnold, January 27, 2009


5 Responses to “A Shadow Falls on Search Related Conferences”

  1. Gartner Pulls Plug on Conferences : Beyond Search on January 27th, 2009 8:33 am

    […] off or if Gartner fired one third of a wizard. If you want some color about conferences, click here. Since search and content processing plays a part in the programs of these events, some vendors […]

  2. Brian on January 27th, 2009 9:30 am

    Shame you won’t be speaking at Enterprise Search Summit in NYC again this year, Stephen.. Last year’s was my first time at that show and man-oh-man, that was the most fascinating conference I’ve ever attended, with your closing keynote particularly interesting (you showed some very tantalizing secret Google screenshots).

    I’m nary more than a gosling in the professional world but I’ve attended several conferences and worked several more in ye olde vendor faire, and it seems that I don’t know which shows will be good until I attend them. Perhaps this is more apparent to people who are familiar with the speakers, some of whom, like yourself, continue to educate me for free via blogs and such. Perhaps you’re right that the true value of conferences is bringing these voices together in a live discussion panel, but how long until this is more effectively virtualized?

    Could 2009 be the year of the virtual online conference?

    By the way, regarding your Google screenshots last year, did that information become Google’s new and improved “ask a question” functionality? e.g., http://www.google.ca/search?q=how+tall+is+michael+jordan

  3. Search-Related Conferences: Where’s The Beef? | The Noisy Channel on January 27th, 2009 11:48 pm

    […] my delight, Arnold included the comment in a follow-up blog entry today. While I don’t take this as an explicit endorsement, I find his arguments very […]

  4. Stephen E. Arnold on January 28th, 2009 9:48 am


    I am an old dog. I have found a series of fora, including Harry Collier’s outstanding Boston Search Engine Meeting and a new venue organized by Janus Boye in Philadelphia. My hunch is that with the economies that the conference organizer is putting in place for some of its ventures, certain programs will be under severe pressure. I avoid pressure, preferring to go with outfits who respect old dogs and their pals. Check out my new series of articles that will leverage Harry Collier’s April show. I will mount a similar “what’s hot” effort to assist Janus Boye. Anyway, you have this Web log, which is not a dead tree publication and therefore somewhat insulated from the business processes and procedures that will sink a lot more conferences, not just the Gartner spring venues.

    Stephen Arnold, January 28, 2009

  5. Daniel Tunkelang on February 2nd, 2009 4:03 pm

    Official details about the SIGIR ’09 Industry Track are now available: http://www.sigir2009.org/program/industry — or you can read the unofficial announcement on my blog: http://thenoisychannel.com/2009/02/02/sigir-09-industry-track-the-details-youve-been-waiting-for/

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