This post is based on my experiences speaking at 40+ conferences in the last couple of years, and how my thoughts have developed. This isn’t in reference to one particular conference, but a summation of my general thoughts.

Conferences are expensive things. They’re expensive to put on and expensive to attend. They require an investment in time and money from a group of people putting them on that’s scary, especially when you’re doing it without relying on an existing conference brand.

There seems to be an easy way to mitigate some of this risk: broaden your customer base. Don’t narrow the focus of your conference too much, make it appealing to the greatest number of people possible. The more people that want to buy tickets the better, right?

When it comes to ‘web’ focused conferences, that tends to mean one thing: combining design and engineering topics into one cohesive agenda.

On the face of it, this is a great idea. Not only do you potentially derisk your ticket sales, but you ‘bring people together’ to talk about the future of the web! What’s not to love?

But there is a problem, and it’s a problem that leaves people unsatisfied.

The purpose of tech conferences

In my experience there are two types of tech conferences: broad and deep. Broad conferences are those that have lots of ‘101 in this thing’, ‘intro to this other thing’, whereas deep conferences are (exactly what they sound like) deep dives on narrow subjects.

The first are places where people can be introduced to a broad number of concepts that are not quite on the bleeding edge of the field, the second is a place where people at that edge can talk and push the communities knowledge even further.

My personal preferences are for the later, but I am the first to recognise the value of the former, people new to the ‘web’ ecosystem need a place where they can learn and grow their knowledge and these types of conferences are a great place for it! Now, I think it’s a really expensive place for them to learn about it, but that’s neither here nor there.

Why we shouldn’t mix the two

The problem I highlighted in the first paragraph’s occur because design + engineering conferences tend to mix the two types of conferences. I’ll illustrate this with a fictitious conference schedule:

Attendee Intro to tech 1 Intro to design 1 Deep dive of tech 2 Deep dive on design 2
Experienced designer Interested Bored Can’t follow Interested
Newbie designer Interested Interested Can’t follow Can’t follow
Experienced engineer Border Interested Interested Can’t follow
Newbie engineer Interested Interested Can’t follow Can’t follow

From this table, which reflects a lot of the experiences I’ve seen people having at these types of conferences, you can see that nobody is taking value from more than 50% of the program!

Considering how expensive these conferences can be, only really enjoying less than 50% of the program is not conducive to building a strong conference brand, or a good experience for your customers.

Chasing unicorns

But Joe, what about all those awesome designer/developer switch-hitters?!

People who are great engineers are incredibly hard to find, people who are great designers are equally hard to find. People that do both well? Those are the unicorns you’re chasing. There are not enough of them to fill a conference.

There are people that do both, but I’ve rarely met people (there are some exceptions!) who do both any better than average. So the broad conferences make a lot of sense for these people. They have to cover so much content to do both well that the broad conferences make a lot of sense for them keeping track of current trends.

So what should I do? Cancel my conference?!

Of course not, but there are a couple things you should do:

  • Be honest with your potential attendees, tell them of the type of program your building before they buy. This means having a reasonable idea as to your schedule before most people buy tickets.
  • Don’t try and do to much. You want to build an awesome design conference? Do that! Don’t shoehorn in some 101 technical topics just to try and sell some tickets.

The first conference you put on is going to be hard, building a brand and an audience is even harder (the number of one-off conferences can attest to that) but both get easier when you leave a smaller number of people incredibly satisfied than a broader group feeling a little disappointed.