Can a Virtual Conference Add Enough Value to Charge Attendees?

In the past couple of weeks, we’ve seen two of the bigger conferences in the legal tech and eDiscovery fields announce that they will be totally online this year.

Relativity Fest will be 100% virtual, and free to attend. Meanwhile ILTA’s annual conference will likewise be online, but cost members $350 for the week, or $99 per day. ($199 per day and $599 for the whole show for non-members)

Now, I don’t want to compare the two for one obvious reason, Relativity is a software/services company, their event is not where they make their money, whereas ILTA is a membership organization, and events are not only where some of their budget comes in, they are also one of the biggest benefits of membership in the first place. I don’t know the financials, but I’m betting not charging at all for ILTAON would make no sense at all.

But, what I want to talk about is, as an attendee, what would an online conference “day” have to include to get you to pay for it? Because really, the best thing about any conference is being in what I’ll refer to as the “conference bubble”. You are surrounded all day and night with other people in your industry, listening to similar speakers, comparing notes, networking, and learning from each other as much as you learn from the speakers. You are also away from your workplace, and everyone knows it.

To me, that’s one of the biggest challenges when it comes to paying for a virtual conference.

I’ve seen some articles recently talking about the things you should be including, or thinking about, going forward with online conferences, and these are all good.

2 Million Professionals Polled On How To Make Virtual Conferences Better— Here Are Their Top 10 Hacks

Converting on-site conferences to on-line conferences will never work without the right structure and technology. How to “solve” online events.

Again, there are a lot of good ideas in there, but none of them really solve the “hallway” problem. If much of the value of attending conferences comes from the random connections made in the hallway, how do we recreate that online?

That’s a difficult thing to answer. Even assuming we put some sort of social media or chat technology into the event, how do you get people to really interact personally with each other through that? I see two distinct challenges here, that are tied more to how we “attend” things online versus what the conference is offering.

  1. We are out of the “bubble”.
    We are not “out of the office” at a conference, we are sitting at our desks, whether those be in an office or at home. We are in the place we do work, probably doing work, and expected to do work. We are lucky if we get to actually pay attention to the speakers, let alone take part in any sort of networking between or during sessions. It’s difficult to spend money on an online conference that I may not actually get to pay attention to live, and then have to somehow find time to catch up on recordings after the fact. For organizations that want their people to take full advantage of an online conference, they are going to have to view that person sitting at their desk like they always are, as somehow out of touch for the day. Is that realistic?
  2. We don’t really know how to act online in the same way.
    I’ve done online training classes, I’ve sat in on online training classes, I’ve spent days online with the same small group of people. Generally speaking, they don’t interact with each other. We simply aren’t used to it. We are used to asking questions of a speaker, or a moderator, but reaching out saying hello to another attendee? That feels weird. Weird in a way that sitting down at a lunch table and saying hello, or bumping into someone at the coffee bar and asking what they do, or what they thought about that last speaker, doesn’t. How do you make that more natural? I don’t know.
  3. The competition for content is better.
    Since March of 2020, every vendor, software company, law firm, etc. in this industry has been inundating us with webinar content, because it’s the only way they can get in front of us. And while webinars are still generally pretty bad overall, many of these organizations have started to get better at them as they are forced to spend more time and energy getting it right, and we’ve gotten a bit more used to signing up for free webinars. Many of them have upped their content game, they have quality, educated, speakers and specific information on the given topic, and they’re everywhere. It’s a bit harder for a conference now to stand out when it comes to content alone.

Now, does all of this mean that no one should pay to attend a conference like ILTAON? I wouldn’t say that, especially with so many details about how the conference will be structured, or the educational content, still to come. I can’t really judge that, and since I’m not working for a member organization any longer, I probably wasn’t going to be there in person or online. I do think there are challenges though, some that will need to be addressed by the conference organizers, and some by the attendees and their organizations. I think the lowered prices reflect the fact that an online conference doesn’t bring as much value as an in-person one, and also costs less to put on, so that is fair.

The questions I keep coming back to though, are at what price point does registering become too much of a risk, (Of not really being able to attend live), and how much value do I need to derive from the day(s) to make it worth the price? I suspect that will look different for many of us.

Are you planning on paying for any online conferences this year? What went into your decision?


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