Updated: Apr 10, 2022
Can we stop with the pay-to-play conferences?
This is a trend that has grown exponentially in the past few years. Part of me gets it, particularly during the pandemic. The other part of me, though? Nah.
Here are the top 5 reasons why pay-to-play conferences are a problem and why attendees need to be asking more questions about how speakers are determined before forking over their registration fee.
1. Lack of transparency. Most conferences that are pay-to-play do not to disclose to attendees that the primary…and in some cases only…people they will be hearing speak have paid to be there. Basically, it’s part of a marketing campaign that the attendee has walked into (or zoomed into). If conferences are going to be pay-to-play, they should be 100% transparent to the attendees at the time of registration and on the agenda when attendees are determining which sessions to attend. I have yet to see this level of transparency and it should be standard practice, sort of like advertorials in magazines!
2. Undermines the value of the conference. Look at many of your functional or industry conferences. Given that many have become pay-to-play you will see the same companies, players, and brands. The ones who can afford to pay for their spot. The entire point of going to a conference is to learn new things, understand what others are doing that has worked (or not worked), and get a spark of inspiration for what might be possible. If attendees are only hearing from those who have paid to be there, it limits the perspectives and storytelling that can happen. Sometimes, we learn more from what didn’t work than did. But is any sponsor going to pay to share what didn’t work? I think not.
3. Credibility problem. If the only people who can speak at pay-to-play conferences are those with the deepest pockets, it poses a credibility problem. Only hearing from the biggest or best funded sponsors doesn’t necessarily allow for a healthy competition where the best ideas win. If the best ideas…or shoot, contrarian, rebellious, and the path-least-traveled ideas….. never have a chance to emerge and challenge our way of thinking, there’s a credibility problem.
4. Stifles innovation. If the only people who can speak at a conference are those who can pay to do so, it doesn’t give new, emerging, divergent perspectives a chance to be explored and considered. We don’t get to challenge the way things have always been done, or how we have always thought about a particular topic. We don’t get contrarian points of view. Tried-and-true wins. Heck, sometimes we don’t even get a point of view. Mediocrity wins as ideas that can be spread like peanut butter win out over distinct and compelling ideas or ideas that are not one-size-fits-all.
5. Hinders diverse company participation. Conferences have gotten better about diverse speaker representation. In pay-to-play conferences though, diverse representation of the businesses is underwhelming. Most businesses who pay to have speakers at these conferences are not BIPOC or women-owned businesses. If they are public companies (& many are), the Executive Leadership and Boards do not have equitable representation. With diversity being a top priority, we need to move beyond speaker representation and ensure that the suppliers we work with and the companies that participate are also diverse. And the unfortunate truth is with notably less access to capital and funding, there are not nearly as many BIPOC and women-owned businesses with the ability to fund participating in pay-to-play conferences. As a result, their ideas, products, and services don’t have the same access or opportunity to be thoughtfully considered.