Meetings of the Future: Content, Context, and Connections

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After perusing a recent post by Jeff Hurt on the excellent Midcourse Corrections blog, I find myself for I think the first time disagreeing, or at least not wholeheartedly agreeing, with one of his tenets. Heresy, I know! In this post, he lists five trends to watch for meetings in 2013.

The first—a rise in the need for more participatory events—I mainly agree with, though I could quibble a bit. I know lots of people who actually dread participating actively, people who will get up and walk out the door when the facilitator asks people to break up into small-group discussions. Though they likely won’t learn as much, many really, really want to sit back and absorb passively (or nap, or catch up on e-mail, or do anything but actively get engaged with the material they’re there to learn). But he’s right, this is the way meetings need to go to be more effective. As Adrian Segar points out in the comments, “We need to give them safe ways to discover the improved connections and learning that occur when we integrate appropriate participation into our conference sessions.”

As for Trend 2, like  it or not, people will be tweeting, Facebooking, Google+ing, etc., at your meetings. Get used to it. The Smobile Web (this mashup of social and mobile being another unfortunate catch-word I hope will not catch on), Trend 4, also is likely going to be more ubiquitous as people figure out cool things to do with stuff like near-field communication technology. And Trend 5, moving out of the old banners and booths and lanyard logos into finding ways to really connect sponsors and their target markets in real, meaningful ways, I hope is actually beginning to happen.

But Trend 3, well, I’m not so sure about that one. That’s where Jeff argues that “content could become your conference’s most valuable asset,” and that conference organizers need to not just get the latest and greatest for their conference, but to continue to provide “a continual stream of fresh, new influential content” on your conference Web site. Well, sure, everyone wants to be the provider of all things cool all the time, and he’s right that search algorithms are smart enough to tell the good stuff from the spam and will place your site accordingly in search results.

But my question is, now that information on pretty much everything is available everywhere on the Web, for the most part for free, is it really content that is going to drive attendee interest in your event? I know they’ll need to use the informational value to sell their attendance to their bosses, but is the content really what they value these days? According to a recent topic paper by the Meeting Professionals International Foundation that was released as part of its Future of Meetings project, they aren’t in it for the content. As the paper says, “But that doesn’t mean attendees will stop paying for meetings; it’s just that these days they’re paying for 'context' and 'connections' rather than content.” I think that's right on.

So yes, it’s important for SEO and indexing to have great content on your Web site, but I would concentrate more on what your attendees really are coming for—finding ways to put that content into real-life scenarios and putting people together, probably in ways they wouldn’t get together on their own, to figure out how to shape all that great content into something that will improve their work and their lives.

Which brings us back to Trend 1 in a nice, if frustrating, circle. People zone out through the pure content-distribution sessions (lectures) because they’re not engaged with the material or each other, and are perfectly happy being passive absorbers, thank you very much. But they also don’t want to do the work of being engaged with either, and often spend breaks where traditionally that important work got done checking e-mail instead of talking about what they learned and figuring out how to make it click for them.

So the trend and challenge, I posit, is to find really compelling ways to create context and connections between participants and the content so they can translate it into usable, actionable, real-world help, and not just an iPad full of notes that will never be looked at again, or a Web site full of great stuff no one knows quite how to use for their specific challenges. Content for content's sake, which we all know is difficult enough to nail, isn't enough anymore.

Good luck!

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