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Software Versus Physical: Why Go to Conferences?

Networking, Not in the IT Sense

Networking, Not in the IT Sense

By Guest contributor Chris Garrett

With all the buzz and hype around social media, you might wonder why someone would go to a physical rather than virtual conference. What are the advantages of a conference over staying at home?

As someone who is an advocate of all things digital, and also someone who has been involved in his own fair share of webinars, teleconferences and online summits, it might seem strange that I am coming to you singing the praises of meeting in “meatspace”.

Yes, software is coming on leaps and bounds, there are actual usable video conferencing tools that anyone can use like Skype, there are Webinars that allow hundreds of participants, and even three dimensional virtual reality environments, but in fact there are some things that online can not yet offer.

I have mentioned before how even geeks like me prefer to meet in real life given the chance over at the Cogniview blog, but I should explain now my thoughts in detail.

Five Reasons I Go to Live Conferences

  1. Authority – If you know anything about me then you might know that one of my “things” is Authority, that is, using blogs to gather an audience that knows, likes and trusts you. Speaking at conferences and meeting people in the flesh is a great way to build this authority without attempting to convince people that you are an expert. By being seen and networking at these gatherings you build a personal brand, especially if you give a talk.
  2. Human connection – Meeting in person builds and deepens relationships much faster than online. Many people say the good stuff at conferences happens in the halls, and this is true very often. Connections I made in the early 2000’s are still surprisingly paying off today. At the time I thought I had done myself a disservice and that I had wasted an opportunity not being more forward, being as I am a complete introvert. In fact I must have made a small impression as opportunities came out of that nobody would have predicted. It’s not just me either, one of the fellow shy friends I already kind of knew but really enjoyed talking to in a quiet corner is now super successful in the SEO space. Don’t get me wrong, online offers cool things – after all I have still yet to meet in person my friend and Problogger book co-author but putting faces and voices to names makes you and the people you meet much more memorable and you feel a much stronger bond.
  3. Knowledge and ideas – When you immerse yourself in learning your mind seems to open up and absorb much more. Your ideas are sparked in a way that I just haven’t found from books and the web. Each person you talk to is a potential mine of new facts, thoughts and ideas. Choose the sessions you attend well and you can come away with a ton of new business boosting action items.
  4. Experience – One of the things I love about my “job” is attending conferences. They really are like a working holiday for me. Yeah, I complain about travel, getting up early, and did I mention how shy I am? But I always come back buzzing and loving the experience of meeting new people in new places, and catching up with friends who I rarely get to see. Blogworld is going to be crammed with people who I want to connect with in a city I have never been to before. And my business is paying! How cool is that?
  5. Escape – Following from the previous thought, sometimes it is good for our brains and our health to get away from the desk and expand our horizons. I love my family to bits, and I try to bring them along whenever I can, but even when I can’t I think it is good for me to go and do things outside of my comfort zone, to get away from the daily stresses, and to dedicate my mind to something other than my ever-growing to-do list!

What do you think? Why do you (or not) go to live events and conferences? Please let me know in the comments …


  • Geoff Cain

    I work in the community college system and conferences are pretty much seen as a luxury. I have always been for online conferences for reasons pretty much the opposite of what you are giving:

    1. Authority – I find it ironic that you are “using blogs to gather an audience that knows, likes and trusts you” and yet you have to meet face to face in order to find validation.

    2. I don’t get why an expert on blogging and social media can’t make the human connection online. The “geeks” should be the ones promoting the community created by social networks. As an online teacher, I found that I knew more about my students than in a face-to-face class. The students gave more information and were more thoughtful about their replies to questions. I would expect an expert to be knowledgeable not just in software and tools, but in techniques for making the experience online a human one.

    3. There are people who I know almost entirely from email and social networks that I feel that I have gained a lot of knowledge from – I am thinking here for instance of George Siemen’s online class Connectivism and Connective Knowledge. I have made valuable friends through that class that I continue to work with.

    4. & 5. I worked with state elearning people whose only reason for meeting face-to-face was that it was their “vacation” time. While I can fully appreciate the need for a vacation, it is unconscionable while classes are being cut, faculty and staff are being laid off, and basic infrastructure is being lost that admins and faculty insist on meeting face-to-face; never mind the carbon footprint issues.

    In short, I think face-to-face has its value, I will probably go to a conference or two myself over the next couple of years, but I would like to see more participation in online conferences and I hope that “experts” and “geeks” will be the first to push these events.

  • Chris

    @Geoff – I do encourage people to use the online tools – as I say, I am an advocate of social media and most of my projects, business ventures, education and networking have all been online. As I mention above, I co-authored the problogger book with someone I never met in person, but in fact my other three books were done the same way.

    I run an online course, I think out of all the students that have enrolled I have met two of them in the flesh.

    All of this is why people ask “if social media is so cool why are you jetting all over the place?” 🙂

    At no point did I say I or anyone else CAN’T use online tools effectively to grow relationships and connections, what I was saying is I believe that face to face meetings grow deeper relationships faster. You might get more data online about a person but I feel, and call it irrational if you like, a better overall experience meeting face to face.

  • Alicia Hicks

    Attending conferences are powerful networking, marketing, relationship building and educational sources that can’t be replicated with virtual meetings or teleconferences. It’s just a good idea to prioritize which events are worth the trip, and maximize every moment you do invest once you get there.

    Nothing beats a face meeting.

  • Anita Cohen-Williams

    Attending conferences in person is a heady, wonderful experience. You get to meet those people you have been talking to for months on Twitter, FriendFeed, etc., and network with new people. Besides the networking, I always find conferences to be uplifting and a way to get inspired all over again.

    Virtual conferences do have their place, and I understand that a lot of us do not have the money or time to travel to all of them. That is why I pick the ones I want to attend carefully. BlogWorld Expo is one because of the amount of information I get from both the talks, the networking, and the exhibitors.

  • Milan Davidovic

    Perhaps we could express this as “Five questions to ask yourself before signing up for that live conference”, but I’ve boiled it down to three:

    1. Do I need to be seen “live” by the people there?
    2. Do I need to see people who will be there “live”?
    3. Do I have questions that I’m having a tough question getting answers to online?

    Or perhaps I could simplify these further into one question: “This online thing, how’s it working out for me?”

    I agree that we should be making as much use as possible of the online channel; there may, however, be certain things that face-to-face interaction may accomplish more swiftly and effectively. I’m not familiar with research into the relative merits of face-to-face vs computer-mediated interaction, but I’m sure it would be useful to look at.

  • social software

    Bad word-of-mouth on social bookmarking sites is just like bad word-of-mouth out there in the real world; too much of it can destroy a business.

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