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September 2, 2015

Are Conferences Still Worth the Effort?

Summary:

Are conferences in need of reinvention? Is the old format reaching the end of its useful life? Is there a better way?

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I am beginning to wonder more about insurance conferences.

Over the course of my career, I have attended and spoken at numerous external events, some good, some less so. I have presented in the English language and through simultaneous translation and had translators stand by my side and paraphrase what I have said. In reality, I have had no idea what they said, and if it made sense. Who knows?

Paul Carroll’s recent article about the insurance industry’s use of impenetrable language has never been more timely – occasionally I’ve had to explain technical insurance issues in layman’s terms, so that the translator could interpret what I had said. Hiding in jargon doesn’t work in this sort of multi-lingual environment.

But the main reason for writing is to comment about insurance conferences themselves. Are they in need of reinvention? Is the old format reaching the end of its useful life? I don’t mean vendor-organized events, which are explicitly in your face. You’re really in no doubt that this is a marketing vehicle. Big vendors can summon 20,000 people to hear what is new.

What I am talking about is the indirect “third party” event that lands in our in-box with amazing regularity. Attendance numbers on some of these events can be so small that when attendees on free passes have been stripped out (sponsors, exhibitors, speakers), the target audience can be very modest indeed.

Don’t get me wrong. I love standing in front of an audience and sharing my ideas and experience. If we are anything, Insurance Thought Leaders are evangelists, and we want to share what’s on our mind and engage with our audience. But even after 30 years of speaking, I still get nervous and have to go through a personal ritual of preparation. Want to know why? It’s because no one better knows their own business and the business of insurance than the people we speak to, and they are the toughest of audiences to work with.

What that means is that insurance conference audiences attend for one of three reasons: to learn, to reaffirm their thinking or to network. Let’s take these in order.

If you attend a conference to learn, what is it about your organization that it doesn’t provide an adequate training environment? If your focus is individual learning, is sitting in a room watching multiple presentations the most effective way? Won’t you learn more from personal discussion, from coffee with a mentor or from sites like this? (You are less likely to learn if you are checking your e-mails while the presentations are being made.)

If you attend to reaffirm your thinking – well, you are probably well-informed already, and I would be very surprised if what you learn at a conference makes you think too much differently.

And networking? Well, knowing what the competition is up to is always interesting, but how much are they really going to give away? And aren’t the really interesting things happening in other customer-facing industries, such as retail and telco? Customers are setting the insurance benchmark based on the service they are receiving in other verticals.

As the innovation exec of a major global insurer once said to me, “Tony, I know what my competitors are doing. I need to know what innovation is happening in other industries, and how I can take that into insurance.”

We have a new generation of buyers – well-informed, insightful, skeptical, more experienced. They remind me of when I moved from the vendor side to the client side more than 20 years ago and created internal capabilities for insurance carriers that helped transform their models and aspirations. Poacher turned gamekeeper. I wasn’t the first to cross that particular Rubicon, and I’m certainly not the last. (I’m not entirely sure that I have been forgiven by some professional colleagues.)

So – back to conferences. Insurance marketers are increasingly questioning the return on investment for sponsorship. Are they getting to the right audience? Has the audience changed? Do speakers need to be better? Is the presentation format adequate for today’s informed environment?

Aren’t attendees entitled to ask the same questions?

Are some of today’s conferences increasingly mainly for the benefit of the organizers, not the industry?

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About the Author

Tony Boobier is a former worldwide insurance executive at IBM focusing on analytics and is now operating as an independent writer and consultant. He entered the insurance industry 30 years ago. After working for carriers and intermediaries in customer-facing operational roles, he crossed over to the world of technology in 2006.

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