I know I have written a lot about the human connections that can happen on digital platforms and social media. Having run more projects than most people in this emerging socio-cultural-technological space, I fully believe in the power of online communities of interest to connect great people around great ideas. Despite this long-held belief in the power of online networking, I can categorically say that there's still no substitute for in real life (IRL) connections for learning and growth.
We all know that conferences have become more expensive every year. However, event marketing is no different than making/marketing a product in that the team need to manufacture value that outstrips the perceived cost of attending (plus the opportunity cost that is accrued from missed work). In that light, conferences are a significant investment; on the other hand, enormous value can be gained by each individual attendee to themselves, and to their companies, provided they are diligent in planning and networking prior to, during, and after the IRL experience.
The good thing about the pervasiveness of social media is, the "return" part of the ROI argument is growing easier to make every day. For instance, many tradeshow veterans have learned to multi-track by monitoring either tradeshow-specific or topic-specific hashtags on social channels concurrent to hearing speakers and panels dispense their wisdom. The resulting 360 degree, crowdsourced view can be like a crash course in the sweet spot of the event's core curriculum. This stream of group consciousness is also often available either concurrently via digital platforms (for example, Social Media Week uses Livestream to catch and cache all speaker/panel videos from their global events) or after the fact (I've recently taken my Google Glass to a few networking events to test POV-style reportage -- you can see some #throughglass video and photos of the recent #3DPrintShow here in NYC as an example). If the conferernce host is a media company, then teams of trained journalists will be scouring the event for knowledge and post/publish both "in the moment" and "after the fact" recaps (witness our own IndustryWeeek Best Plants conference coverage for a great example.)
So I'm a believer; on that note, I'm headed to the SouthBySouthwest conference in Austin again this year -- among many other must-see events, a 3D Printing documentary called Print The Legend is debuting there -- and say whatever you will about the cattle call-level overcrowding of SXSW (because it's true) but the overlapping Interactive, Film, Music and now Gaming conferences means an incredible amount of creativity and brainpower congregates in one Texas city at once, supercharging networking, learning and growth. I've made many a connection at the events (and in the past few years, even more at the long lines.
Meanwhile, my adopted hometown of New York City is itself the home of thousands of global corporate headquarters and a steady hub of innovation, with hundreds of tradeshows and conferences every year. I was recently having a discussion with another journalist/strategist hybrid and midwestern transplant (Aaron Aders, columnist at Inc. Magazine and one of the leaders at influence shop Digital Relevance) about best practices in developing social/mobile/local strategies; we discovered that we're both planning to attend the Digital Strategy Innovation Summit here in New York on March 19-20. If you work in product or channel marketing for a global manufacturer, then this one's an especially good bet for both personal and company ROI -- speakers include GE Healthcare's Global Digital Leader Bob Rinderle (presenting a "how to" on finding focus and avoiding digital distractions that lead to bad strategy); Chad Mitchell, Senior Director of Communications at Wal-Mart (sharing how an analytical and data-driven approach built smarter strategies and deeper customer relationships on social media); and Johnna Marcus, Director of Mobile & Digital Store Marketing at Sephora (sharing experiences on bridging digital and store experiences on mobile and digital channels).
The best conferences aren't just about inspiring keynote presentations of glorious success -- business decision-makers also want and need ugly examples, tales from the trenches and even horror stories of decisions and projects gone terribly wrong. And because these conferences offer industry peers an opportunity to openly present (and to honestly vent) about lessons learned and battles won and lost, the level and utility of the knowledge shared in person (for example, during the "speak easy" free food/open bar sessions) is significantly higher than anyone shares in their everyday, workaday roles.
In sum, even here in the Twitter Age, an "IRL" strategy is crucial to any other strategic process -- find one that hits the crosshairs of your company or team's needs and your career track and go beyond the hashtag - and many happy returns on that investment.