Friday, December 1, 2017

Sustainability and Causes of Conferences

Tonight is one of those where I think I've created a monster. I created #PayToSpeak discussion, or better framed, brought the discussion that was already out there outside our testing bubble inside it and gave it a hashtag.

The reason why I think it is a monster is that most people pitching into the conversation have very limited experience in the problem that it is a part of.

My bias prior to experience

Before I started organizing European Testing Conference, I was a conference speaker and a local (free) conference organizer. I believed strongly that the speakers make the conference.

I discounted two things as I had no experience of then:

  1. Value of organizer work (in particular marketing) in bringing in the people
  2. Conference longevity / sustainability
Both of these things mean that the conference organizers need to make revenue to pay expenses while the conference itself is not ongoing. 

Choices in different conferences

My favorite pick on #PayToSpeak Conferences is EuroSTAR, so let's take a more detailed look at them.
  • A big commercial organization, paying salary of a full team throughout the year
  • Building a community for marketing purposes (and to benefit us all while at it) is core activity invested in
  • Pays honorarium + travel to keynote speakers
  • Pays nothing for a common speaker, but gives an entry ticket to the conference
  • Is able to accept speakers without considering where they are from as all common speakers cost the same
  • Significant money for a participant to get into the conference, lots of sponsors seeking contacts with the participants
I suspect but don't really know that they might still have revenue of the conference after using some of the income on running the organization for a full year. But I don't really know. I know their choice is not to invest in the common speaker and believe it lowers the quality of talks they are able to provide. 

Another example to pick on would be Tampere Goes Agile - an Agile conference in Finland I used to organize. 
  • A virtual project organization within a non-profit, set up for running each year
  • No activity outside the conference except planning & preparation of the conference
  • Pays travel to all speakers, can't pay special honorarium to keynote speakers
  • Runs on sponsors money and stops when no one sponsors
  • Is not able to get big established speaker names, as they don't pay the speakers
  • Requires almost zero marketing effort, straightforward to organize
  • Free to attend to all participants
Bottom line

PayToSpeak is not about conferences trying to rip us speakers off when they ask us to cover our expenses. Conferences make different choices on the ticket price (availability to participants with amount of sponsor activities) and investment / risk allocations.

Deciding to pay the speakers is a huge financial risk if paying people don't show up.
Paying speakers travel conditionally (if people show up) does not work out.
Big name keynote speakers expect typically 5-15k of guaranteed compensation in addition to their travel expenses being covered.

Conferences decide where they put their money: participants (low ticket prices), speakers (higher ticket prices with arguably better quality content), keynote speakers (who wouldn't show up without the money) or organizers (real work that deserves to be paid or will not continue long).

#PayToSpeak speaks from a speakers perspective. We can make choices of being able to afford particular conferences due to speaker-friendly choices they make.


If we understand that there are two problems #PayToSpeak mixes up, we may find ideas of how to improve the current state:

  1. Commonly appearing (but not famous) speakers need not to Pay to Speak to afford speaking.
  2. New voices with low financial possibilities need not to Pay to Speak to afford speaking. 
If some conference does relevant work for 2, as a representative of 1 I would consider paying to speak. But I would have to choose like one per year, because that is not out of my company's pocket, but my own. 

If some conference collects money for a cause in a transparent way, I again would consider paying to speak, capping the number I can do in a year. 

There are options to removing Pay to Speak:
  • Seek local speakers (build a local community that grows awesome speakers), and paying the expenses is not a blocker as the costs are small
  • Commit to paying speaker expenses, but actively invite companies they work for to pay if possible to support your cause. See what that does. 
  • Set one track to experiment with paying expenses and compare submission to that track to others, with e.g. attendee numbers and scores. 
  • Say you pay travel costs on request, and collect the info of who requests it with call for proposals
  • Team up with some non-profit on this cause and give them money for scholarships for some speakers. 
You can probably think some more. 

Conferences, none of them are inherently evil. Some of them are out of my reach as they are #PayToSpeak. And I'm not a consultant, nor work for a company that finds testers their marketing group. If I have to #PayToSpeak, I can't. I will remain local, and online. 

There's people like me, better than me, who have not started off by paying their dues of getting a little bit of name in some #PayToSpeak conference. I want to promote them the options of not having to #PayToSpeak.