S3 Conference Producer Survey Results, Spring 2024

The Ever-Changing Conference Landscape

We are always speaking with conference producers to understand what events are on the horizon, but periodically we also survey a cross section of top tier conference producers to get a pulse on how conferences are changing from year to year. We recently reached out to many of the producers we work closely with including large media properties such as Bloomberg, The Economist, and Dow Jones as well as more focused conference producers like Web Summit, Aspen Institute, and MIT Technology Review’s EmTech. We asked them a series of questions about how conferences have recently changed, what audiences want to hear about, and how to increase chances of getting accepted as a speaker.

We found some of the responses we received truly intriguing.  Our hope is that understanding these changes can help you to become even more successful in getting your senior leaders placed to speak at the best conferences in the world.  Below is a summary of some of our most interesting findings.

Human interaction

A strong theme that producers frequently mentioned was the value of personal connection.  Conferences fill a deep need for attendees to get back into venues where they can interact directly with their peers. This ability to physically network and connect informally with others was missing from the strictly virtual conference world the pandemic brought on. To create even more networking opportunities, producers have added longer welcome days and more social opportunities to give attendees the opportunity to exchange ideas more informally.

“People prefer one-day conferences and on a smaller scale to allow for better networking and really focus on a specific theme for the day.”

Shorter & more discussion based

Conference formats have also changed.  For one, sessions continue to get shorter and 15-30 minute sessions have become the new normal, largely influenced by short form social media formats and waning attention spans.

“Talk formats have also shortened, allowing for quicker talks (15 – 20 min for a keynote) to keep the audience engaged and cover a wide range of topics succinctly. However, it’s crucial to find the balance to allow for more talk time on panel discussions with bigger brands and specific speakers that audiences are particularly keen to hear from. Fireside chats have emerged as the most popular format, offering a more intimate and engaging experience, followed by panels.”

Producers are staging more fireside chats and panels relative to the traditional stand-alone presentation that was the standard a few years ago.  Audiences not only find the dynamics of a lively discussion more interesting and simpler to digest, but these discussion-led formats tend to be easier for busy executives to prepare for over the more formal slide-driven keynote presentation.

“Bigger named speakers tend to do more fireside chats as they have little time to prepare a slide deck while younger companies and execs that are lower down the food chain want to focus more on presentations.”

And many stand-alone presentations are expanding their Q&A times to allow for more interaction with both live and on-line audiences.

Digital has its place

While the move back to in-person conferences is seen as very important, the digital component of conferences, accelerated by the pandemic, is not going away completely. Producers state that streaming allows them to reach a broader audience and be more inclusive with the conference content they produce.  Even though adding streamed content increases production costs, digital content adds enough value to audiences such that they will persist at most conferences.  That said, the pure virtual conference is pretty much dead.

“Our early Covid efforts were very highly attended, as time went on, Zoom fatigue set in. Our best event numbers were in the first 90 days of Covid, then they fell off significantly. Hybrid events have a different energy though, and we’ve had good luck with those.”

Both larger/broader and smaller/specialized

Producers are simultaneously going in two directions with the conferences they stage.  Many are growing their conference footprints as rapidly as they can, covering more subject matter and more sessions, while others are becoming more specialized and focused, creating smaller conferences that go deeper on specific sub-topics.  And some producers are doing both.

Dow Jones, for example, has gotten rid of some of their more focused conferences (like WSJ Women In and WSJ Sustainability) and are incorporating those themes into their larger conferences.  And while The Aspen Institute only produces 2-3 traditional conferences per year, they produce over 40 roundtables, salon dinners, discussion groups, and smaller group gatherings.

“Conferences that had 100 – 200 attendees now have 400 – 600 attendees.”

AI continues to be the hottest topic

As we’ve reported in previous blog posts, this is the time of AI. Virtually every conference producer, even those who don’t typically address technology, stated that you can’t produce a conference today without highlighting the impact of AI.  AI touches virtually every sub-category and audiences are desperate to learn how AI will affect their own functional areas and what they should be doing now to prepare for the impact of AI and how it will change the way they work.

Fortune and Reuters, for example, extended their AI conference series and are now producing several AI conferences across the globe this year.

“Everything comes back to AI, no matter the topic. Everyone is asking “How will AI affect my industry?”

Other important topics

Other major topics that are also highly featured include sustainability and climate, innovation, and new venture funding.  One producer emphasized an increased influence from the impending US election and increase of related trends like disinformation.

Advice for hopeful speakers from producers

One producer told us they only accept about 1% of speaking proposals via their call for speakers process.  Another said they almost exclusively go after the well-known speakers they want on their agendas directly. While this may seem daunting, producers had plenty of advice to give to prospective speakers looking for the ideal speaking opportunity.

  • Show Evidence. Conference producers want to see evidence of the speaker’s solid stage presence and style including video of the speaker in front of an audience.
  • Diversity Counts. Many conference organizers have diversity goals they’re committed to.
  • Get Published. Having a book, magazine article, well-followed blog or whitepaper is a good way to prove subject matter expertise.
  • Utilize LinkedIn. This is one of the first places a producer will look to gauge the speaker’s background, knowledge, and following. A professionally produced profile is a must, as are regular postings.
  • Unique POV. Speakers who have a unique perspective on a subject being addressed at the target conference can differentiate themselves.
  • Be Edgy. A perspective that everyone automatically agrees with is not very interesting. Sometimes an unexpected, perhaps even controversial, point of view can break through the noise.
  • Reach out. Connect directly to production teams and use whatever network is available to communicate with conference organizers.

Conferences are always evolving

While the world and our place in it is always evolving, we have certainly seen an accelerated pace of change over the last few years. Climate change, the pandemic, wars and the incredible new technologies, such as AI, are just a few drivers of this change.

The conference industry is no different and we at S3 have witnessed firsthand the accelerated pace of change, especially this year. We hit the ground running on the first of the year and haven’t stopped- ensuring that we have a pulse on all of the changes afoot! Many of the conferences that have been regularly produced in the past, for example, are now evolving or going away completely while brand new conferences are constantly being introduced. On top of that, fewer and fewer speaking submissions are being accepted and we are working diligently with our clients to ensure their messages convey thought leadership concepts that are differentiated and resonate with conference producers.

We hope this snapshot of conference producers’ thoughts on how they see their processes adapting will help you win the earned speaking opportunities you want for your speakers or yourselves.