Irina Litchfield: It’s about time some conferences took agendas off the agenda

"Imagine if you were able to attend with an ad-blocker. Some would have a lot of interesting content, and just the expo floor blacked out, but some would be 100% empty if stripped of their ads"

Who is the product? In commentary and criticism of the state of our society, one often comes across the idea of “if you are not paying for a service, you are the product”.

This is commonly lobbied at organisations like Facebook, Twitter, and Google, where we use their services in exchange for giving them your data, for giving them your attention, and for letting them target advertise to you.

These people suggest that we make very conscious choices about the currency we are paying for services provided to us. Are you paying for that cloud photo storage with a few dollars a month on your credit card? Or are you paying for it by allowing the most advanced AI systems the world has ever built to mine the photos for clues on how to emotionally manipulate you?

In general, we tolerate these trade-offs pretty well. Google mining my free gmail account in order to serve me “relevant ads” is fine, and paying their business G-Suite services that provide that same exact service without the advertising is fine. But Google here – ( – very clearly states that they will not use the contents of your paid email services for advertising.

Breach of contract?

We’re making decisions about how to pay for services with transparency and understanding. And that’s wonderful that we can do that. And if I find out that Google is using information from my paid email services to target me with ads, I can sue them for breach of contract.

Now, it is probably not Google’s goodwill and generally charitable nature that causes them to not “double-dip” in mining your paid data programmes for advertising information. Almost certainly they tested it and people were outraged. Why should we pay them twice – with both our money and our data? So they went back to single-dipping in response to their customer reactions.

In the tech industry at large we have something similar in the form of conferences. There are a number of these kinds of conferences. Ones where people pay a lot of money to come see ‘Very Interesting People’ speaking, or ones where investors will pay a substantial amount of money to see very curated startups pitching their new companies. There are also a lot of events and conferences that are 100% free to attend, with the costs being covered by sponsorships – businesses paying for your attention by giving you something to come to.

However, I’m seeing a growing problem in how most organisers approach what they call ‘thought leadership speakers’. For the most part, one can easily hold speaking engagements if he/she is willing to pay about $15k and up, or bring some projects to sponsor the event. They are charging the attendees of the conference a lot of money to attend, and they are charging all the speakers, even the ones that are not “sponsored content”, or forcing them to become sponsored content. This the double-dipping that consumers tend to hate since it violates the deal.

I see huge problem with that – the incentives are not aligned. If a speaker has knowledge to share, he/she would need to also try to sell something to attendees while presenting on stage. The presenter will then also not be motivated to prepare the latest, most relevant presentation to stimulate your minds and will just recycle what’s been told during previous conferences.

This misalignment of interests is a huge issue as we see vast amounts of money spent on roadshows and thought leaders sold to the public. But when the public arrives, they leave disappointed, and with a slight bad taste in their mouths. In my opinion that is a big reason why we’re seeing a huge decline in attendance.

I think the essence is “it’s 100% fine at the conference to have people that are paying to speak”.  This happens all the time – the big sponsors at any tech conference, no matter how pure, will get a speaking slot. Usually by some kind of obvious corporate shill, and the crowd understands and accepts this.

Taking advantage…

But what we definitely don’t want, as a community, is for ALL of the speaking slots to be “sponsored content” and not clearly labelled as such. Perhaps they should take a page from the publishing industries and label the presentations by sponsoring speakers as “Sponsored Content”.  This would make the whole system much more transparent, and hopefully encourage the conferences to provide genuinely better content that their audience appreciates more. And the audience won’t feel taken advantage of – having been presented a false bill of sale.

Imagine if you were able to attend a majority of these conferences with an ad-blocker. Some would have a lot of interesting content, and just the expo floor would be all blacked out. But some would be 100% empty if stripped of their ads. I hope that more conferences will think about this, and try to present a wide variety of invited speakers, panellists, and attendees that do not have an explicit agenda.

From the beginning of my transition from private life to public presence I declared that I would only be involved with those who stay true to the ethos of providing true leadership through support of thought leadership. Most importantly I am pleased to know that there are many others who share this principle.

Your opinion counts…

I still believe that one of the best way to learn about this fast-paced industry is by attending high quality conferences. Please make sure that you research speakers first before you spend your hard-earned money on the tickets. And remember, if you have questions about what you heard on stage, please ask them. I can, with confidence, say that those who provide thought leadership for a vast majority are going to be happy to stop and talk to you. Your opinion and questions are their highest reward.

As a consumer, you should only attend conferences that support the ‘non-sponsored’ speakers by compensating them at least for their travel and time (it takes 10-40 hours to research, prepare, practice, get feedback, and refine a new talk) plus time spent at the conference before, during and after the talk. Let’s vote with our dollars, and help make the conference world, and subsequently the blockchain world, better.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author should not be considered as financial advice. We do not give advice on financial products.

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