The Future of Single-Discipline User Group Conferences

It’s just my opinion, but I think the days of the single discipline user group conference are numbered…

The big company flagship conferences will still happen, as they are more about hype and marketing, but I’m not sure what the future holds for regular user groups that want to stay with a single focus.

I don’t know many people who work on a single technology anymore. I certainly don’t know many people who would be allowed to go to a separate conference per technology they work on. That means they need to pick a subset of events, or not get involved. Either way they are being sold short.

I’m starting to think multi-discipline events like Riga Dev Days make a lot more sense. Even Oracle have gone this route with the Oracle Code events, which are multi-discipline, with an Oracle spin of course. These types of events are not without their issues too, as there has to be a limit on the content for each discipline and there can be scheduling clashes, but I think it makes it a lot easier for people to cover their bases with less conference visits per year.

There are some really strong user groups out there, but for those that are struggling, I wonder if widening the net would help? This could affect the enthusiasm of some sponsors, but it may open new opportunities too.

What do you think?

Cheers

Tim…

Update: As per comments and twitter discussion, people have cited successful “single-discipline” conferences. There will always be winners and losers, and I think many of these probably do have quite a diverse range of material, with a common thread running through them. This is how I think of Oracle Code, a diverse collection of subjects loosely woven together by an Oracle thread.

If someone has hit upon a winning formula that is still specialist, I’m not suggesting they change what is currently working for them. For those that are struggling, maybe now is the time for something different?

Author: Tim...

DBA, Developer, Author, Trainer.

8 thoughts on “The Future of Single-Discipline User Group Conferences”

  1. Been saying this for years! Tried to guide the user groups to widen the development collaboration but there is a certain amount of protectionism that goes one – hey ho, what can you do.

  2. It’s an interesting question, Tim. You are right of course, very few people work with a single technology and being able to go to one event where you can learn about several product sets relevant to you is great. Riga Dev Days certainly has a much broader, diverse set of streams than most conferences.

    There are certain challenges to moving in that direction, as I have found out having been involved in the UKOUG conferences for many years.

    One is deciding which other areas to include and ensuring there is enough, good content to appeal to people. Either you are trying to appeal to people who use both areas of technology and so can swap streams, or provide enough in each stream to keep someone happy who is focused on that area. As an example, at UKOUG we tried including MySQL (even before Oracle acquired that tech) and it sort-of worked one year, but the low audience numbers were even lower the second year and we struggled to get more in-depth content. It was not providing enough value to the delegates for the effort so we stopped. I think the more areas you cover, the harder this balance can be.

    Another is losing the support of that core vendor. Talking to other user groups, this is not such an issue when your conference is small and/or you have a good relationship with the vendor people in your country. But if you are a large user group then being seen to support other, competing technologies is very much what your delegates want but you risk the ire of the core vendor. If you start losing their input, that is content a lot of your user group members want.

    A third issue is getting the content on other tech initially. If your established set of presenters and delegates are focused on one tech, finding enough people amongst them to talk about another tech can be hard. Simply going to the other vendor is not enough as user groups want end-user stories, real-world experience including the bad as well as the good. Vendors are poor at doing that, they want to give only an upbeat marketing message.

    There was the YODB meetings, covering all flavours of database, but it ended up being rather Oracle-focused and then slowly died.

    It’s a hard thing to do but we are trying to be more inclusive at UKOUG. At the next conference there is more devops and systems content – not the multi vendor content you probably want but we are coming from a very vendor-focused past (and we *really* cover the whole Oracle area, tech and apps).

    It would probably be easier to start up a multi-vendor conference from scratch than transform, but doing so would be hard work, costly, and very risky to whoever bankrolls it. But it would be nice to see more of them.

    Sorry, rather a long reply!

  3. Martin: When the comment is longer than the post… 🙂

    Yes, I agree it is really tough situation. I think the way Oracle have done it with Oracle Code is quite a good compromise though, as it is still and “Oracle event”, but contains more diverse content. Over time it can move to be more diverse if there is desire…

    I think with all these things they’ve got to exist for a number of years for people to get used to the new format. The Oracle Code events had it easy in that they were free and open events, so they didn’t have some of the constraints a user group would have. A user group would probably see low attendance for the non-core content for some time until it gets a reputation for the change in direction…

    Cheers

    Tim…

  4. There will always be a space for conferences/events that are focused and those that have a wider spectrum. I do not think at all that the days of single focus conferences are past. And I believe it has nothing to do with vendor support, although that might swing the vote a little.

    As a “customer” of conferences I enjoy attending something where I know there are all likeminded people that all cover a similar topic. So I can essentially talk with everybody.

    It also depends a lot how you define “single discipline”. Is something like Apex Connect a single discipline conference? I think it is. Yes there is a plsql and a javacript track, but that is because those two languages play an import role for each APEX developer. So those are core features of this tool called Apex.

    I also attended conferences like KScope where several of the streams where quite distinct. For example there was an EPM and a DATABASE track. One thing I noticed, was that most attendees from the distinct tracks didn’t mingle. Maybe except some hype sessions with topics like blockchain or VR. But in general we didn’t have enough common ground. This common ground might be an important thing to keep, if a conference wants to broaden their spectrum. Otherwise it is more like multiple conferences that share the same location but otherwise have not much to do with each other.

    The range of tracks might be more correlated to the number of attendees than to anything else.

    My impression about conference scales:

    Meetups/Small conferences (10-200 attendees) => 1 topic
    Medium sized conference (100-800 attendees) => 3-5 topics
    Large conference (several thousand attendees) => 3-10 topics
    Massive conferences, like OOW, gamescon, CeBit, Dreamforce (5000+ attendees) => unlimited number of topics, usually very consumer oriented conferences.

    A user group conference does not reach the massive scale. A user group conference has in general a specific field (the vendor). Each attendee wants to hear about things they don’t know already. Otherwise they wouldn’t go there. So either there are some news from the vendor (“Oracle DB 19a new features”), some interesting comparisons, often experience reports about certain features (“How we saved a test DB using EBR”) or an introduction to other but remotely related topics (“Tensorflow integration via nodejs”). Attendees also want to socialize and be entertained. But that is not the main selling point for most conferences. It is what might distinguish one UG conference from a similar other event. So in the “battle of conferences” those will survive that offer solid content and are either more entertaining or more affordable. Those that offer highly specialized content have a unique selling proposition and will survive too – at least as long as that special content still plays an important role.

  5. Sven: This is similar to a little Twitter exchange I just had about some Java conferences. A “single-discipline” conference on APEX or Java can still be “multi-discipline” depending on the content. these developer lead conferences tend to do this better as most developers end up needing crossover skills. I think those that put a lot of focus on infrastructure are probably less diverse, but I could be wrong. 🙂

  6. Tim,

    We should keep in mind that conferences themselves are not in total control of the content. Content is largely determined by attendance. What I mean by that is the user groups do and should follow demand. Speaking for ODTUG, we tried and ultimately dropped tracks around mySQL, ADF, Forms, even Professional Development….not by choice, but because the attendance could not justify them remaining in the conference. The removal of a dedicated Forms tracks was particularly tough for me, because everyone knows there is a considerable user base to draw upon. We just were not able to collect sufficient registrations.

    These user group conferences are in every way a business. They must focus on their bottom lines or they will cease to exist.

  7. Definitely this is a business. The goal – need? – of the conferences is bodies in seats – attendees. It is essential that low-attendance tracks get dropped in favor or high-attendance tracks. The trick is knowing what to roll on when an aging technology gets dropped. Particular to Oracle conferences, what related technologies to include – JavaScript, VMs/Docker, node.js and more – and what related non-Oracle products to include, how much, and how to draw attendees to such new content – be if full sessions, 20-min show-and-tell sessions or quick tips, vendor sessions, or whatever. All without offending the main vendor. Ideally, the aim would be to include sessions that showcase complementary uses of vendor A tools with Oracle DB or tools. To showcase Oracle *plus* … To do that successfully means successfully attracting vendors willing to do so and to attract new (preferably) and existing attendees who want to see such material. Challenges all around.

  8. tim i think you are right
    the future will be more diffrent technic
    so i believe that all the conference in emea will change

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