Is There Any Need For Social Media Conferences?

In the world of marketing, Social Media feels a bit like the spoiled youngest child. We have conferences and events solely focused on talking about it. We have dedicated agency specialist teams and even entire agencies tasked with working on Social Media projects alone. And we have job titles, from ‘Social Media Director’ right down to ‘Community Manager,’ which segment a marketer into thinking primarily about engaging people on their social channels.

It begs the question – are we paying it too much attention?


Social Media Week just finished, and as marketing conferences go, it was a busy, engaging and useful week. But having seen the goings-on at FutureFest this weekend – a conference put on by Nesta, an innovation charity that works closely with the government – it seems that marketers might be missing a trick.

For those new to FutureFest, it’s a reasonably-priced conference put on for the public to talk about the future. It takes place over a weekend – 2 very full days of content – and it tackles subjects like ‘what is the future of politics?’, ‘citizen engagement in public services’, ‘inspiring future women leaders’ and ‘the future of education’.

And it was totally packed. From university students working out what they should do after their studies, and parents navigating the world their kids will grow up in, to entrepreneurs seeking out insights for the market they’re selling into and generally curious minds keen to see what’s next – the audience was broad. Every session had too little time for the multiple questions the audience had, the breakout areas were loud with discussion and strangers were engaging in conversation at every possible opportunity.


Social Media Week was, of course, a B2B conference – and so the attendees were primarily agencies, brands and freelancers working in the social space. The sort of questions people wanted answered were along the lines of ‘how do I engage my audience?’, ‘how do people like to use social media?’ and ‘how have other brands gone about it successfully?’. You could argue though that by asking these very specific questions, that we’re actually missing the bigger picture when it comes to engaging an audience.

Maybe instead of asking about how best to use a channel, we should be asking how do people behave, what do people care about, and what do people want. It seems that FutureFest would’ve been a perfect place for a brand marketer to observe what talks people were flocking to, ask attendees about why they are there, take note of the types of questions people are asking…and maybe even be inspired by some of the amazing ideas being showcased by some of the world’s most influential people.

Of course, we don’t just go to channel-specific conferences – we have focus groups and we have industry festivals of ideas like SXSW, Cannes Lions and CES. But what about the events put on for the public (also known as ‘consumers’)? Are we really paying attention to what questions they are asking about the world and what stuff inspires them?

At FutureFest, Mustafa Suleyman of Google Deepmind was one of the Keynote speakers. He had the floor of the largest room and he spoke openly and candidly about their future plans. At the same time, Caroline Lucas was on a panel about the future of politics. Taking a look at Twitter, you can see that the politics panel had way more engagement than that of Suleyman – which I’m sure would surprise those who regularly attend tech and marketing conferences.

It sounds obvious, but people really do care about the issues that are facing them right now and that are personal to them. If we sit in expensive plenary theatres listening to brands and agencies talk about social media strategies instead of turning up at cheap weekend festivals open to all, we’re going to miss some of the much more impactful ideas and insights which – ironically – would be way more telling of what would engage our audiences online.

We don’t need to treat Social Media so specially any more. Instead, we need to broaden our research and find insights from outside the industry to inform what we create. If brands and agencies want to know how to engage their audience, then maybe it’s time we stop listening to each other talk about how we do it, and instead get out into the world and ask our audiences ourselves.

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