tecosystems

In Defense of Small Conferences

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When RedMonk hosted the first Monktoberfest, we had never organized an event before. We had co-hosted events a few times and run countless informal developer meetups over beers, but never been the sole organizer responsible for everything from attendance to logistics. Between that fact and the overall complexity of running events of any real size, we intentionally capped attendance at one hundred attendees.

We didn’t discuss this at the time, for obvious reasons, but the strategy behind that decision was damage control. In the event that the conference proved to be a disaster, which seemed like a real possibility, a small disaster would be preferable to a large one.

Fortunately for everyone involved, the event was not a disaster, and we’ve been lucky enough to follow the original up with six more events with an eighth scheduled this fall. Having had some small success with the events, we get asked every year about the capacity: specifically, when we’re going to scale them up, make them bigger. In truth, the event today is bigger than it was that first time, but at a maximum headcount of 150 by any measure the Monktoberfest remains a tiny conference. Because some of the attendees seem to enjoy the experience, they ask us why that is.

There are many answers to that question, the most obvious being logistics. We’re an industry analyst firm with no ambitions to be an event production company. The events that we run are very much labors of love, labors that we undertake on top of our day jobs on behalf of our community. Running dramatically larger events would alter that dynamic, inevitably.

But that’s not the real answer. The truth is that the Monktoberfest is not much larger today because of a conversation I had in the wake of the first, deliberately small event. In discussing the experience, one of the attendees told me that he’d met more people at the Monktoberfest than at any event he’d previously attended, ever. And he meant it.

Which floored me, frankly. How could that even be possible, given the tiny population? Next to the largest conferences in our industry, the Monktobefest’s attendance numbers are a rounding error, the kind of ticket allotment that a Platinum sponsor might get to a larger event by itself. At an OpenStack Summit several years back, HP sent five times as many employees to that event as we admitted in total to our own conference.

But what gradually became clear that was that for certain populations, and certain personalities and roles, a smaller event offered a fundamentally better experience than a larger one.

  • It made it possible, for example, for someone at the show to speak to every other attendee at least in passing – something that would be impossible to do at a larger event.
  • It made it possible to actually navigate the event and the city around it. Not only can it be difficult simply to get from point A to point B at large events, it’s virtually impossible to meet at a coffee shop, bar or restaurant anywhere near the venue because they’re typically either full or booked for private events.
  • It made it much less likely that large groups of attendees (we do not permit large group purchases) would form cliques with their coworkers and not interact with those they didn’t already know.
  • It made companies be much more selective about who they would send, about who would represent the company best.
  • Further, with so few attendees the only viable format is a single track show, which means that everyone attending the conference is in the exact same room seeing the exact same talks, which providers fertile ground for conversation for people who’ve never met each other before.
  • And the small size is also critical in our case, because many of the craft elements we believe offer a premium experience cannot be scaled up. The Alchemist brewery in Vermont has been a great friend to the show every year, for example, but while they can help us make sure that a hundred plus people that attend the Monktoberfest have a chance to enjoy the very rare and difficult to get Heady Topper, they just don’t brew enough to get us enough for three or four hundred people.

The relevance of all of this is because we’re beginning to see event organizers and sponsors think critically about the purpose and value of events. A month ago, for example, HackerOne CEO Mårten Mickos pointed to this LinkedIn piece by Mike Johnson, the CISO of Lyft. Basically, it was a frank appraisal of the value – or arguably, lackthereof – of one the security industry’s largest annual events, the RSA conference. One of the primary observations: how difficult that show had become to navigate.

In similar fashion, last week’s recap in this space of this year’s North American OpenStack Summit included thoughts on why a smaller event could deliver an improved experience, particularly for developers – thoughts that triggered some lively discussion on Twitter of other, larger events. As Alexis Richardson summed it up:

The point here isn’t that every conference needs to be small, nor that the Monktoberfest’s definition of small should be everyone’s definition. But in an environment that has historically not questioned the assumptions that successful events must continually grow and that bigger means better, it’s worth asking the question: is that true? Or is it possible that smaller events might be a different tool for a different job, an essential complement to larger alternatives whose limitations double as strengths? Conversely, can some of the strengths of larger shows – huge crowds, for example – become liabilities?

It is commonly understood that larger events enjoy significant advantages over their smaller counterparts: this is both why organizers are able to keep prices high and why attendance figures become synonymous with quality. What is less appreciated, however, is the fact that smaller events can offer experiences that even the largest events cannot.

One of the conversations we often have with new RedMonk clients concerns conference engagement strategies. For many, this consists of targeting a few large events to maximize their exposure. If their goals include reaching and actually engaging with developers, however, that’s not likely to be sufficient.

If you want an outsized return with your developer engagement, you just might need to downsize the conferences you attend.

One comment

  1. I’ve never made it to Monktoberfest, but I’ve loved all of the other RedMonk events I’ve been to (all of the Monkigras, and a few ThingMonks).

    For me another key feature (helped by the small size) is that speakers come to the whole event rather than swooping in to do their talk and disappearing. This leads to a much greater sense of inclusivity rather than a ‘them and us’ that so frequently happens elsewhere when speakers are elevated away from other attendees.

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