Next in Tech Conference, is $40 too much to pay for a social media event?

May 12, 2009

In the world of technology and social media events, we’ve gotten complacent about entry and registration fees. The community has come to realize that content can vary greatly and that a for-fee model doesn’t always guarantee quality.

In fact, some of the functions I’ve attended that offered the best intelligence and networking were entirely free and even included beverages and food. The caveat is that these ‘free’ events are usually underwritten by a sponsor who sees some value in bringing the social media community together.

They also get a list of attendees – nothing to sneeze at in an era where lead-generation efforts can cost firms up to $500 per qualified lead. And they also get a bump in SEO and link juice because people like me tweet, blog and podcast about my experiences and connections facilitated by this free event.

Poking around online, I found that Twitter folks had strong opinions…

Stuart Foster said, “I think it’s totally cool as long as the fees are clearly outlined and the reason for charging them is also outlined.”

Don Martelli said, “I dont mind the reg fees just as long as 1. thr will be real SM uses explained that I cn learn from 2. attendee list is solid. It’s a no brainer. just lk twttr & other SM nets, it’s all abt the content & the ppl. otherwise, it’s just a lot of yappin.”

Rachel Levy said, “I think it’s perfectly fine. If people don’t want to pay, they won’t attend, and it will probably limit attendance.”

Mike Shea rounded out the group saying, “I would love to see more free ones, but charging fees usually makes a better event, so it makes sense to. But as a college student, the fees have stopped me from attending.”

Gaining such a perspective helps me understand and schedule my tour of events. I love to swing by a TweetUp and pop in on a TechTuesday or MobileMonday session. But I also see some value in organized events being a little financially exclusive.

If you want access to a musical artist, you pay money for their concert. If you want to see a movie, you pay a fee to be entertained. Why should being informed be any different?

We pay for college classes, we pay for continuing education, we pay to learn a language when we’re going to another country. Is delving into the minds of the social media leadership that different?

Clearly, I’m straddling the fence. I want free drinks and food. I want people who can spark my imagination and fulfill my need for knowledge. But I also want to keep money in my wallet.

What’s created this sudden angst after five years in the social media space? Just the steady increase in paid events on my calendar.

It used to be that you could go to Podcamp for free. The unconference model – a contradiction – was that the conference would form itself based on the desires and needs of the attendees. I’m pretty certain that the attendees didn’t need to start paying $50 to attend what was once a free gathering of podcasting enthusiasts. But it happened.

Social Media Breakfasts started out free and now incorporate a symbolic charge of about $8 to ensure attendance and an accurate headcount (I think podcamp could have done the same thing – people are loathe to part with much more than $5 so an $8 fee would have cemented an audience).

One Web/social media entrepreneur has become an artist at pimping a social event and then turning it into a paid conference. The key there is to get on the speaker list so you can attend for free or to linger around the Web and see if the content is shared via live tweets, Web streaming or archived info.

And some of the larger learning sessions have gone the way of the traditional tradeshow. They’re now called summits and labs and camps, but they’re finally focusing on making some money from the increasing participation in the social media space.

Just this week I signed up for an event – What’s Next in Tech – and was surprised to see a $40 pricetag on it. The attendee and speaker list was similar to the crowd I see at WBUR TweetUps and around town at other free events. For $40 attendees weren’t even getting open bar – a pleasant perk and numerous free Boston events.

As a journalist, I played that card and am attending as a member of the media. But what is the driver for someone else to register and part with $40?

I asked that of Shayne Gilbert, one of the organizers for What’s Next in Tech: Exploring the Growth Opportunities of 2009 and Beyond. *You can find conference details HERE.

**Gilbert reminded me after I first posted this that they are offering scholarships to the event – just see the event site link above for details.**

I told Shayne I had gotten a few comments already from people who wanted to know what their $40 would buy at this ‘next in tech’ event. Here’s our conversation…

JC: Who is this event best suited for?

SG: People currently looking for their next career opportunity, starting companies, or investing in start-ups. Also, recently graduated students. We want to have a conversation that’s focused on the future of technology here in Massachusetts.

JC: How will job seekers benefit by attending?

SG: Our goal is to provide a picture — with help from our speakers and attendees — of where the growth opportunities are in tech right now.

JC: What level of tech knowledge should an attendee possess?

SG: There’s no pre-requisite here. The conversation will be accessible to anyone.

JC: How will questions for the panels be taken?

SG: Live, from people in attendance.

JC: What is provided (food/drink/facilities/materials)?

SG: Light appetizers & cash bar.

JC: What new tech outlets will be present?

SG: Several local bloggers, ZDNet, Boston Globe.

JC: What should someone hope to get out of this?

SG: Ideas and inspiration about where the tech industry in New England is heading.

JC: Would an iPhone app developer benefit as much as a venture capitalist or a CMO of a local company?

SG: Hmmm… inclined to say yes. But the event isn’t really designed for CMOs.

JC: How was this event developed?

SG: We put together a number of local conferences like the annual Nantucket Conference on Entrepreneurship & Innovation, and the Future Forward Executive Retreat. But we hadn’t really done any events that were open to everyone, relatively inexpensive, and focused on what happens right now. Hopefully, it will be useful both to people looking for their next gig, and people starting their next company.

I’m not really sure if the knowledge is worth it, but I’ll be there sharing my experiences via Twitter if you don’t have the cash to plunk down. Shayne did tell me that the $40 is a discounted price only available until this Friday, May 15. Then it goes up.

Ultimately, I’m still going to see where I can save money as I sail my social media ship through all the events I can find. But the way I’ve started to think about things is in possible ROI. If I meet one person that hires me to work 20 minutes for them, I’ve made my money back.

Or if I can get in as a member of the media AND sell the article, I’ll be way ahead of the game.

You’re going to have to decide if $8, $40, $50 or $1000’s are your limit when trying to make more connections in the social media world.

Maybe I should just start tweeting to my friend Ashton and ask him to hire me to write his biography. I’d get to spend some time in California and I’m pretty sure he’d pay me more than $40.

Keep reading…