What are conferences for?

 Posted by on October 30, 2012  Uncategorized  No Responses »
Oct 302012

I am in the midst of the September-November conference season. Having spent last week at the Australian Marketing Institute’s annual conference in Melbourne and being just about to attend the ESOMAR 3D event in Amsterdam and the MRSS annual conference in Singapore my mind turns to thinking about the purposes of conferences.

Several things seem to have changed about conferences over the last 20 years:

  1. There are a lot more of them
  2. A smaller proportion are category specific (20 years ago more of them focused on things like retail, or finance, or auto).
  3. A larger proportion tackle ‘fashionable’, generalised topics. In 2012 we have been deluged with mobile related conferences.
  4. Attendances for the larger conferences tend to be smaller than 20 years ago. For example, there are very few attracting over 800 delegates these days.
  5. Attendance fees appear to be paying for a smaller part of the cost of conferences, with sponsorship becoming ever more important – a pattern which is mirroring how a large part media has changed over the last 20 years.
  6. The key sponsors of conferences used to be research agencies. These days the key sponsors tend to be suppliers to the research industry, such as the big software companies and the online access panels.
  7. One of the main reasons to attend a conference 20 years ago was to hear the latest thinking, however most of the good stuff, these days, is broadcast on the web, available as downloads, or written-up by the ever improving trade press.

My feeling is that the current conference model is probably heading for a crash. I do not believe sponsors are getting sufficient value from the current conference format, so I would expect their support to start to dry up. I think the proliferation of very similar events is going to drive attendance numbers down, especially if attendance costs go up. If the quality of online materials keeps improving, then I think it will become ever harder for people to justify the cost of attending an event in terms of learning new things.

So, what do I think is the future of conferences? I think we will see a growth in the following:

  • Face-to-face training at conferences, for example, workshops the day before or afterwards.
  • Caucus events at conferences, for example, a morning where, say, all the marketing scientists or auto researchers can get together to tackle a specific project or topic.
  • Better and smarter networking and socialising. Some staff are audited on how many business cards they bring back from conferences, make it easy for them and they will recommend the event.
  • Lower cost, more convenient locations – with a growth in bar camps and hackathons.
  • More one day events, perhaps with workshops before and after.
  • More virtual events.

What do I think conferences are for? I think there are two main purposes in taking part in a conference:

  1. Developing a sustainable brand image. Perhaps the best image is that your organisation has a good number of bright people, applying good solutions, and delivering value. This makes your brand attractive to prospective employees, to clients, to thought shapers (e.g. journalists), and makes your staff feel good about themselves.
  2. Gathering, market intelligence, for example: who is seen as hot, whose performance is attracting attention, what are the rumours, who is struggling, who is looking to be acquired?

Are two genders enough?

 Posted by on October 19, 2012  Uncategorized  No Responses »
Oct 192012

A couple of times recently I have had a several discussions with research colleagues about whether simply asking Male/Female is adequate or even fair in this day and age. Before, discussing the number of options it may be best to clarify what is meant, at least by social scientists by gender versus sex.

Asking whether somebody’s sex is male or female is interpreted as referring to their biology. If they have a Y chromosome they are male, if they don’t they are female. This difference is of interest to some people, for example the Olympics testing committee, but of little relevance to marketers. Gender, by contrast, tends to be used to describe the way people express themselves through the way they live their lives. Live as a woman? Click female. Live as a man? Then click male. This definition is useful to marketers as is describes how people behave in the market.

Of course, in wording the question in the survey it is not necessary, or even desirable, to distinguish between sex and gender. My preferred question is to ask “Are you …” with the options Male and Female. With this question I tend to avoid using images, unless they are the fairly anodyne toilet door type symbols (as opposed to the more inscrutable toilet door symbols).

But, are two options enough? There are a large number of people in society for whom the term male and female is either too deterministic or problematic. (There is considerable debate about the percentage of society who are transgender, for example, but the number is definitely large in absolute terms). For these people, two options can be seen as both restrictive and dismissive. So, can we, and should we, extend the options available in our gender question?

One option, for extending the gender options, is simply to add other. However, when I have tried this option in face-to-face situations it has elicited considerable confusion amongst respondents. Faced with Male/Female/Other, most respondents query what other might be. In a face-to-face situation, a quick explanation about the alternatives quickly removes the confusion, but in an increasingly online world there is no interviewer to make things clear.

Another option is to put something like transgender as one of the options. Interestingly, every time I have seen this done it is listed third in the list, i.e. Male/Female/Transgender. One issue here, and one that the LGBT community has highlighted, is that transgender is not the only term that is used or understood, and it is a term whose meaning has changed over time. For a bit more insight into gender identity terms click here.

So, what should we do? Well, I don’t have a magic answer. One option might be to amend data collection software so that respondents could always add their own categories to any question (plenty of other questions are also ambiguous when you look closely at them, for example, where do you live, relationship status, family structure etc).

Maybe two useful ideas would be to either ask:

    A) ‘Which of the following best describes you . . . Male/Female’ – where we are implying by using the term ‘best’ we recognise there are other possibilities.
    B) ‘Are you . . . Male/Female/Other, e.g. transgender’ – where transgender is simply used as an example of the other possibilities.