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Are Conferences Worth It?

BIO 2012 convention hallI don’t think I need to tell anyone just how readily reachable customers are these days. We have an incredible amount of channels and tools at our disposal to reach a target audience. Advertising opportunities get continually more targeted. Want someone’s contact information? You can certainly dig it up. Want to target senior scientists working in genomics labs in pharmaceutical companies? You could easily do that with LinkedIn, or if you prefer otherwise there are a ton of publishers and websites who can help you target such an audience via advertising, email, or just plain old print.

So is it really necessary that life science companies spend tens of thousands of dollars (or more) creating conference exhibits, then tens of thousands more any time they want to exhibit at a conference? The costs are genuinely enormous – conferences are often the single largest line item in B2B companies’ marketing budgets. A 2014 study from Forrester Research put the percentage of marketing budget going to in-person events at 20%; almost 50% more than the second largest category, which was all digital advertising combined. That same study, however, found that while overall B2B marketing budgets were increasing, more marketers were planning on decreasing spending for in-person events than increasing spending for them.

A 2013 study from InsideSales.com (summarized nicely here by MarketingProfs) found that conferences were rated as the 4th most effective method for lead generation as well as the 4th most effective method for driving brand awareness by B2B marketers and salespeople. Considering that they found lead generation quantity and quality to be the #1 and #2 top marketing challenge cited, with product and service awareness third, perhaps conferences are still worth the cost after all. (FYI – lead generation has ranked the top marketing challenge in study after study for a long time. Not to excavate the internet, but here’s an example from 2013 published by IDG Enterprise and another from 2011 by MarketingSherpa) To add some more recent sentiment on the effectiveness of in-person events, a 2015 study from Regalix (summarized here by MarketingCharts) asked CXOs what online and offline marketing tactics they found to be effective. The #1 answer, with 84% of respondents citing them as effective, was in-person events.

There is one question that different people in the life science industry seem to have different opinions on that we can settle using data: are conferences falling out of style? We took a basket of North American conferences and got attendance data for the last 5 years to see if we could spot any clear trends. Full disclosure for the nitpickers among us, unfortunately they’re not truly random – they’re just the ones we thought of first and could obtain attendance data for.

Conferece 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
American Association for Cancer Research 12,254 11,761 12,415 15,794 16,500
American Chemical Society* 17,455 15,178 17,396 14,353 18,754
American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) 7,440 5,606 7,484 5,138 5,758
American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) 8,430 8,484 8,376 7,502 7,259
Experimental Biology 13,376 14,956 13,263 13,558 11,970
PittCon 16,876 17,199 15,754 18,197 16,255
Neuroscience 31,250 30,469 28,574 32,357 31,975
Bio-IT World 1,865 2,160 2,528 2,576 3,021
TOTAL 108,946 105,813 105,790 109,475 111,492

*The American Chemical Society meetings are biannual. These numbers reflect a total attendance for both Spring and Fall meetings.

From this data, which admittedly is far from comprehensive, it seems that conference attendance is relatively steady, at least in recent years. Unfortunately that doesn’t help us answer our burning question: are conferences worth it?

None of those aforementioned studies say anything about ROI, they are all based on qualitative responses, and we all know something can be effective without being efficient. We’re also not just B2B. We’re life science. Maybe for us it’s different. Maybe the legendary scientific skepticism makes conferences not worth the cost?

We’re going to tap the collective knowledge of the market and see what you – life science marketers and salespeople – think. We’ll share the data we collect so we can see exactly what direction conferences are heading. Are they effective within our industry? Please take the survey. It has 23 questions and should take about 6 minutes. If we can get 100 respondents by the end of April we’ll create a resource listing scientific conferences with attendance, dates, costs, and location.

Are scientific conferences worth it? Take the survey.

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