Marketing Leaders: Here’s How to Get the CON out of Conferences

Lisa Nirell

We’re in the busy season for conferences. Dreamforce, the mother of all business conferences, is right around the corner and has raised the bar for creating unforgettable learning experiences.

Unfortunately, some organizations put the “con” in conference ­­— they extract cash from innocent attendees and deliver very little value.

Going in to 2020, here are some things for your events team to keep in mind:

1. Beware of party planners

During a recent growth conference that I attended, the organizers committed a series of faux pas. I never attended one of their conferences before, but I previously participated in their local business networking parties.

When I checked into the conference, the welcome desk lacked any agenda or walking directions to the sessions. I needed to look up the agenda on my phone, which distracted me from the panels in a building in which it was easy to get lost.

It was apparent that the panelists had not been properly primed, either. One loved throwing F-bombs in his commentary, while another panelist — a university professor — unapologetically joked about sex.

I was $79 lighter and simply annoyed. That was the last “conference” I would ever attend under the auspices of that party-planning company.

2. Scrutinize the speaker lineup

Does the agenda cultivate diverse thinking or bolster “bromances”? No industries or professional communities are immune to this mistake and it is important to consider the implications of designing an all-male panel.

For most of the “growth” conference agendas I witnessed recently, the bromance was evident. Two of the three panels consisted entirely of men; seven of the nine were white and middle-aged. When questioned about the lack of women represented, a moderator responded, “We invited one woman and she cancelled at the last minute.”

The organizer hurriedly hosted one final, all female panel, in an effort to save face. The organizer announced the topic and then suggested that “everyone step out to refresh their coffee” before they began. Half the audience fled the room.

You cannot make this up. Yes, it’s 2019.

Even prestigious confabs at Harvard and Stanford Universities have been a part of the all-male panelist Hall of Shame. According to Undark columnist Lauren Whalley, “This is not about giving opportunities to people who are not men; it is about recognizing – and benefiting from – the intelligence and insights of a diverse group of people.”

Thankfully, organizations such as Gender Avenger are now working feverishly to foster diversity of thought.

3. Jettison slick sponsors

Now in its fifth year, our CMOs Leading Innovation Conference (CLIC) boasts a stellar lineup of participants and speakers. People of all genders, education, industry and ethnicity participate in this confab to accelerate marketing innovation, build new connections and advance our profession.

I consider this conference my crown jewel annual event. I never publish the attendee list externally. This creates a trusting, safe space for meaningful dialog. Some sponsors return every year, and new ones must apply to participate in this “pitch-free” zone.

Some sponsors are more dependable than others. After hearing me speak at a conference, one MarTech company CEO approached me and asked about CLIC. He immediately offered me a hefty sum to sponsor the event in exchange for a speaking opportunity. After he scheduled a planning call and approved the invoice, he changed his mind.

Days later, he kept texting me. He wanted to “vet our “show” and “just visit the conference for a few minutes to check it out.” After multiple persistent messages, I blocked him.

I dodged a bullet. This sponsor would have disrupted a carefully cultivated community that took eight years to build.

4. Think small

Only a few monolithic companies and associations can pull off a conference for thousands — or, in the case of Salesforce — over 100,000. Why compete with them? Find small-scale events that encourage groups of 25-30 decision-makers to share ideas, solve problems and learn from one another.

I have hosted over 60 CMO and CEO breakfasts. Everything we share is off the record. We eschew fancy multimedia presentations. Our goal is to ask questions that trigger deep thinking and community-building.

Since its inception, some marketing leaders have also volunteered to photograph our gatherings, welcome new participants and help with setup. This is the ultimate testament to the power of true connection.

Sloppy conference planning equates to gross negligence. Don’t let these missteps happen to you, nor your customers. Con artists always get caught.

Lisa Nirell is the Chief Energy Officer of EnergizeGrowth and founder of the Marketing Leaders of Atlanta and DC. Innovative companies such as Adobe, LinkedIn Learning, Google, and Hilton hire Lisa to gain fresh insights, formulate new strategies, and launch breakthrough marketing ideas. Download her latest CMO planning guides and book chapters at

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