Why Are Marketing Conferences Shrinking? And What Do Attendees Say They Want?

I go to a lot of conferences. They built my career, and I have a soft spot in my heart for them. But, best I can tell, 2023 had both the fewest marketing conferences and the fewest total attendees of any year in the past 15. Meanwhile, counterintuitively, there have never been more digital marketing professionals, nor a time when the average salaries were higher.

Something doesn’t add up. So I asked.

180 respondents answered 8 questions about their marketing event habits and preferences via an online survey from May 10-15, 2024. The first two questions tell a sobering story:

From 2015-19, an overwhelming majority of marketers (~72%) said they attended 2+ professional events each year. In 2023, that number drops massively (to ~44%). No wonder the marketing events world is contracting.

SMX in the United States no longer exists. Searchlove shut down last year. SES (for a decade the largest search marketing event in the world) shuttered years ago. CTAConference closed in 2021 and never returned. Folks who attended Dreamforce, INBOUND, Content Marketing World, eTail, Social Media Marketing World, Mozcon, and dozens of others told me that none have regained their pre-pandemic attendance numbers (and plenty were already shrinking in 2017-2019).

I’m not sure if the golden age of marketing conferences is over, but I have some theories about what’s going on:

  1. Event budgets were cut to zero during Covid lockdowns, and most companies haven’t restored them to their prior sizes. Given short tenures, many employees don’t even know to ask.
  2. Outsized inflation in the travel & hospitality industries means running an event costs dramatically more than 5 years ago. Which means tickets cost more than ever and profit margins in the event space were already razor-thin.
  3. A key value proposition conferences once offered—education and best practices content—is better delivered through YouTube, blog posts, and webinars than by speakers on stages. Most of those are free.
  4. It’s difficult to measure the value of going to an event. Sure, you get new ideas, make new friends/contacts, and (IMO the most underrated part) get excited about doing work again. None of that is attributable in the company budget, and it’s probably why #1 hasn’t reversed course.

There are other factors (like the emergence of small, regional, free events and a small but substantive percent of folks whose health concerns keep them away from group settings), but I suspect these four are the big ones.

So which events are still getting attendees?

The chart above includes all responses that received more than 4% of survey-takers mentions. Impressively, more than 75% had attended at least one of the 18 events listed. From those who filled out the “other” field, only three events were mentioned more than once: Web Summit, SXSW, and ShopTalk.

When asked about the value of attending marketing events, the respondents gave an average of 6.4. Interestingly, this is very close to the 6.7 given by respondents to a similar survey I ran in 2017 (exactly the same question phrasing, same sourcing methodology of respondents, same survey provider and layout).

If conferences were feeling less valuable in 2023 vs. 2017, it wasn’t by much!

I also asked about attributes attendees looked-for in events (above) and format/size they prefer (below).

My biggest takeaway: what people say and what they do are very different. The largest events feature celebrity speakers, expo halls, the promise of sales prospects and vendors. They do Q+A panels and fireside chats, and have thousands of attendees. All of those are attributes survey-takers put at the middle or bottom of their preferences list.

Yet, obviously, the largest conferences have the most attendees. They’re the most successful, resilient, and well-known events. With rare exception (the now-shuttered Searchlove series being one, the still-operating Digital Summit is another), very few event series attract larger total crowds by running multiple events/year in different cities to sum up to the size/influence of larger, singular events.

And yet…

I just toured a beautiful space in Seattle and put down a big ol’ deposit for SparkToro’s first ever in-person marketing event: SparkTogether. What?! Why?! Am I losing my marbles?!

415 Westlake in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood

😅 Hopefully not. My thinking (along with Amanda and Casey) is that innovation is still possible, and if done correctly, in-person events can be extraordinary in value without costing an arm and a leg. Here’s what I think that looks like:

  • The event must provide unique value available nowhere else.
    • That’s why SparkTogether isn’t going to invite speakers to share best practices or how-to content, but instead, turn off cameras, ask attendees to put down their phones, and invite speakers willing to share vulnerable, transparent stories of tactics that worked and those that failed with real numbers and real emotions.
    • We’ve done this twice before with the online SparkTogether events in 2022 and 2023 to astounding reviews. I think in-person, the energy will be electric.
  • The event must enable authentic connections between people who help each other get better.
    • 90%+ of attendees at the events I ran at my previous startup (Mozcon & Mozcation) told me the people they met and connections they formed were the most valuable part of the experience.
    • So, Amanda and I are piloting a moderated, introvert-friendly, marketers-helping-marketers process. I’ve done it before in small group sessions and it’s incredible. We think it can work here, too.
  • All the basics must exceed expectations: venue, food, quality and diversity of speakers, afterparty, swag, etc.
    • Thankfully, Charlene Ditch, who helped me build Mozcon into one of the best events of its era, is coordinating SparkTogether with us. I’m confident we’ll nail this.
  • Total costs, including flights, hotels, and a ticket can’t exceed $1,500 (or $2,500 for overseas attendees)
    • Tough one… But, with the right structure, it’s possible.
    • We’re holding the event on October 8th, when prices are lower than summer or holiday periods (according to Google Flights, most US cities have roundtrip tix to SEA <$300 that week, and 2 hotel nights is <$600).
    • SparkTogether tickets themselves are launching at $250 for the earliest folks on our waitlist, then rise to $350, and, finally, $500 after September 8

If we deliver on these, I believe we’ll build something special that can help careers, inspire remarkable work, and last for years to come. The inaugural SparkTogether Seattle is Oct. 8th, 2024—joining the waitlist is free. Tickets go on sale May 20th.

Casey, Amanda, and Rand at Seer Interactive‘s Philadelphia office for a recent event

If you’ve got feedback, suggestions, or other theories we should consider (or advice for other organizers who might be curious), please drop them in the comments. My hope is we’re not the only ones innovating, and that in the decade ahead, marketing events will rebound, provide new kinds of value, and let the next generation of marketers build the same connections and wisdom that helped my career so much.

Digital learning, social media, and remote interactions can provide remarkable value of their own, but I don’t think they’ll ever replace the excitement, engagement, and value of high-affinity, in-person connections with people you don’t know and couldn’t otherwise meet in your chosen industry. That’s something I’m willing to bet on, even if we lose money for the short-term.