I'm usually an easy-going guy, but there are some things I really hate. For example, I hate the bait-and-switch: it makes me cranky when someone offers me something that looks appealing, only to later substitute something much less attractive. Along these same lines, I hate it when I pay upwards of $1000 to attend a technical conference only to find myself sitting in a presentation that is, essentially, an advertisement. Why should I pay good money to hear a company promote itself? I can probably get the same sales pitch any day, in the comfort of my own office—with a nice lunch thrown in, too. And don't get me started on keynote speakers who use the lectern to promote their companies, rather than offering an insightful perspective on the technology or the industry as a whole.
Of course, it's not surprising that conference presentations include some promotional content; from the presenting company's point of view, a key reason to participate is to get the word out about its products and services. I've got no problem with that. But there are several ways to accomplish this. The most direct approach, of course, is for the company to give a presentation about its products and services. This clearly doesn't belong at an attendee-paid conference. But a company can also give a presentation that teaches useful skills, incorporating the company's products and services into examples, without directly promoting those products and services. Where's the line, exactly, between a presentation that's sufficiently educational to warrant the price of admission, and one that's really an infomercial?
This question has been on my mind lately because I've been vetting presentation proposals for the Embedded Systems Conferences. Hundreds of them. In general, I think that a presentation doesn't belong in an attendee-paid program if the class is only useful to the presenter's customers. I also don't like to see people paying for information that's available elsewhere for free. But I've found it hard to develop a simple set of rules that work reliably.
Say a company is a start-up selling a brand-new processor. Say the start-up wants to give a presentation on how to program the new processor to achieve terrific performance in a target application. Does this qualify as something conference attendees should pay for, despite the fact that the same training is almost certainly available from the (customer-hungry) company for free? What if, instead of a start-up, the company is IBM, and the class is "The PowerPC Programming Model"?
My overriding concern is to make sure that conference attendees come away feeling like they've learned something that was worth their time and money. Though I'd be inclined to reject the PowerPC class on the basis that it's product-specific, this very class was quite well rated by past ESC attendees. Perhaps they're happy to have a convenient time or place to learn about the subject, even though they can probably get the same info for free elsewhere. And the fact is, there are many more people interested in learning about the PowerPC than about less widely used processors, unfair as that may seem to the start-ups. So should the accept/reject decision be made on the basis of whether the topic is of widespread applicability, regardless of promotional content?
I'd like to hear what you, the intrepid conference attendee, think about this topic. What rules would you apply to product-specific or promotional presentations in attendee-paid conferences? Drop me an email, at feedback AT bdti.com.