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Money Talks – the Dark Secret of the Sustainability Event Circuit

“...almost all fortunes are made out of the capital and labour of other men than those who realise them.” - Lysander Spooner

Do you have to pay to play?

If you are a sustainability practitioner and attend events on the topic – do you know the approach those events take to recruiting speakers, and do speakers have to pay to play? Do you know which experts are onstage because of their marketing budgets and which are there on merit?

If you don’t, I suggest you try and find out. A number of events have a policy of giving speakers slots based upon direct payment, or for associated sponsorship. The speakers at such events have paid for the privilege of sharing their wisdom.

Is there really a correlation between the size of marketing budgets and intelligence and experience? If there is, it would rather fly in the face of logic and common sense.

Here is an anonymised and wilfully exaggeratedexchange I had recently with a conference salesperson:

Organizer: “Hi Joss, we’d love to get your feedback on our fantastic event - see below for details.” [Below were included details of an entirely average and predictable lineup of corporate names and representatives with little or no track record of innovation or the merest hint of interest in their sustainability practice]. We still have some speaker slots, sponsorship opportunities and other things [with dubious and unprovable Return on Investment] - we are sure you will be as excited about it as us!”

Me: “Thanks for your message - we do quite a bit of work in the area and would love to contribute. If you want an insight into our thinking here is an example of some our analysis we published free earlier in the year as an example. However, we don’t pay to speak.”

Organiser: “Sorry, we are only looking for speakers as part of sponsorship packages at present.”

Me (publicly): “Thanks for the clarification, goodbye and good luck.”

Me (privately): “##@}****^%!!!” [Starts to write this piece].

The above example is a relatively transparent one. Another instance occurred after a topic and slot had been discussed and many emails exchanged to secure my input at a conference, when it then transpired that I was expected to pay a fee for the privilege (through paying registration). I felt this was underhand. I refused to pay and in the end managed to contribute at zero spend (though not zero cost).

Are pay-to-play events good for the audience?

I can’t really see how they could be. Why would your best chance to getting access to useful information and expertise be by going to events that are based upon the willingness of the speakers to pay for the chance to share their knowledge? Why would the best insights correlate with the ability to pay?

Or have we forgotten that wisdom and wealth aren’t inextricably linked?

Money talks – there are a number of mainstream, recognised sustainability event organisations whose business model includes paid-for speaker slots. Just to clarify, the speaker pays the organizer - not, as the naïve among us might have thought, that the organiser would [gasp] pay the speaker for sharing their expertise.

Are they valuable for the speaker?

The economics of a speaking gig for the likes of me can be tenuous at best, even when there is no money exchanged in any direction. The complex ROI (Return on Investment) calculation for a would-be speaker (paid or unpaid) consists of the following questions:

  • Any good presentation takes time to write and rehearse, let alone deliver. Is there value for me to invest time and effort to speak at an event?
  • Can I spare the time?
  • Will it build or undermine my reputation?
  • Will there be anyone in the audience likely to think I am worth talking to if I deliver good input?
  • Opportunity cost – do I have something else to do that does pay (better)?

It is one thing to be asked to put in time, inspiration and expenses towards someone else’s event if you feel it is on balance worthwhile. Pay-to-play is quite another. It seems iniquitous to be asked to pay to speak if the event is made worthwhile because of the range of expertise and insight it gives access to.

Conference organisers tend not to bother to prove an investment case when they are trying to get you to pay to play – they just talk nebulously about X hundred delegates, space on a website or conference publication, etc. There is no evidence supplied about conversion rates for speakers, increased business or increased profile. Of course, speaking at conferences can be directly valuable – people can come up to you and start talking about working together. It’s just that most often speaking slots are a long-term game – brand-building rather than sales-building. With a shaky ROI for merely speaking for free, it is yet more marginal if you have to pay to do so.

In the last few years it has become very rare, unless you are one of the few truly global sustainability superstars, for speaking to actually pay you money. The bottom has dropped out of the market for expertise, yet the sustainability conference market appears to be booming – causation or correlation?

Some sustainability events do not take the play-to-play route. Though actual payment (for input) is rare, some give speakers free access to multi-day events as part of their contribution. Not all sustainability events are the same.

Are they valuable for the attendees?

If you are thinking of attending an event – wouldn’t it be in your interest to find out how they get their speakers? Shouldn’t a responsible events organisation clearly disclose its speaker recruitment process? As a paying attendee, isn’t it your right to know and shouldn’t you be asking?

I would like to see every sustainability event have a clear, accessible statement of speaker recruitment approaches. In the future, this should perhaps be a sign of the integrity of the event itself.

Money talks, but does it say anything worthwhile?

Of course, many speakers, whether they pay to do so or not, have valuable things to share. However, those companies with the biggest marketing and communications budgets for sustainability can sometimes also be those whose practice is the least advanced, or have the most ground to make up. Is it really possible that speakers from such companies win their slots on merit? It’s possible, of course - just rather unlikely.

That doesn’t mean that all frequent speakers at sustainability events are promoting mediocre ambition or achievements. It’s just that if they were genuinely chosen on the merit of their expertise, achievement and organisational progress, then paying to play wouldn’t work because the availability of budgets for securing speaker slots will not necessarily correlate with the value of the speaker’s content.

A shift of value - from "experts" to aggregators

I believe that this issue is reflective of a wider societal trend - the shift of value from expertise and experience towards those places that aggregate and collect knowledge, flowing from the experts at a conference to the conference organisers and news sites themselves. So it is often possible to find sustainability news sites that spend a few years gathering together (using free contributions from experts) an impressive set of knowledge resources, selling their own services as being experts themselves. You could say ‘Good luck to them, that’s enterprising!’ Alternatively, you could say ‘What a con!’ I wouldn’t dream of venturing an opinion myself.

Nevertheless, it seems it is becoming less valuable to have original insight and experience and more worthy to be a curator of input. In this scenario it is the conference organisers rather than the content experts who have become the true value creators.

It’s not just me complaining

I am not the only one grumbling about such things. In a post last year, sustainability reporting expert Elaine Cohen wrote a fantastic blog piece on the related, troubling, though marginally less exploitative practice of being asked to contribute time and effort for free. In her blog Elaine mentions being approached to undertake a sustainability strategy for a company for free, because of the “exposure” it would give her and her business. I think that I will try that approach to get myself a free new Tesla Model S; surely Elon Musk would benefit from the exposure his company would get if I drove his cars!

It is also not just the sustainability world that is seeing this trend, it was also a topic on the blog of Gini Dietrich, a communications and marketing expert, a couple of years ago.

A manifesto for sustainability conference delegates

"Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance.” - George Bernard Shaw

This post is of course partial – I am feeling cheesed off at an industry trend that I don’t think favours my expertise or approach. However, I genuinely believe that there is a wider problem that should concern all of you who pay to attend events. Are you really getting the value that you pay for?

With this in mind, I suggest a series of questions that you should ask of any conference organiser whose event you are considering attending:

  • How do you source your speakers?
  • Are your speaker slots tied to sponsorship?
  • Do you sell your speaker slots directly?
  • (Where speakers have to pay) Why do you believe that speaker payment is the best way to serve my needs as a delegate?
  • (Where speakers have to pay) How do you justify your claims to offer the best expertise and experience when you are effectively discriminating against those experts without large promotional budgets?
  • Will you publish your speaker recruitment and remuneration policy in your event and booking materials?

Increasing the level of disclosure from conference organisers as to how they assemble the expertise at their events would be of benefit to prospective delegates, allowing them to make informed choices as to how and where to spend their money.

The sustainability of sustainability conferences depends upon the integrity and value of their content. I believe that pay-to-play makes a mockery of claims that a conference can be guaranteed to deliver value for delegates. It additionally undermines and skews the value of original, insightful and experienced expertise, just at the time when we need it most to undertake fundamental shifts to a sustainable world.

Most sustainability experts that I know are incredibly happy to give away stuff for free and are very happy to help other people whenever they can, often without charging a commercial rate. Why should this natural goodwill be further and pointlessly exploited? Can any sustainable good come of that?

This post first appeared on the Terrafiniti blog on August 26, 2015.


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