How Much Value Do Keynote Speakers Bring to Your Conference?

Now that you’ve dealt with upheavals, pivots (argh!), and unending change, you’re in prime shape to reexamine your association’s sacred cows. You know the ones: “best” practices, traditions, and the way you’ve always done it. Pick one, say, scheduling keynote speakers for your conference. Why keep doing it? Is it really worth doing? Is there a better option?

Assessing the worthiness of your association’s sacred cows is not for the faint of heart—and, in this case, won’t make you any friends on the speaker circuit. You can expect pushback because conferences are supposed to have keynote speakers, right? Who says? Who’s making these rules?

How keynote speaker selection often works

In his book, Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love, Adrian Segar says a keynote is appropriate “when you can snag a dynamic, engaging, and knowledgeable speaker on a relevant topic that a clear majority of your attendees will find interesting.” But is that how keynotes are usually chosen? Or is it more like this?

You have a budget of $8,000 for the two keynote slots in your upcoming conference, so you:

•    Check the running list you keep of speakers who look interesting.
•    Ask your committee for suggestions.
•    Go on ASAE Collaborate and ask for recommendations.
•    Look again at last year’s also-runs.  

You fall into what Segar calls “the keynote trap.” That’s when members or staff in charge of the program decide to look for a speaker instead of figuring out what attendees want or need to hear about that they can’t get from their peers. He says, “Keynotes are often unnaturally grafted onto a conference, creating a kind of Frankenstein mutant that roars around with great sound and fury, but is forgotten by all quickly soon after the conference is over.” Isn’t that the truth. So why spend the money?

keynote speakers

What value do keynote speakers bring to your conference?

It’s a fair question to ask, but first, I want to be clear that this post is purposely being contrarian as an exercise in analyzing assumptions and traditional practices. So why pick on speakers? I simply couldn’t bear to ignore an insightful comment on a LinkedIn post about conference speaker compensation—a post my speaker friends will appreciate.

The commenter said, “I have never attended a show or conference because of the keynote no matter how big the name is… So are shows paying huge money for the speakers and not really getting any additional attendees or ROI? …As an attendee I typically get far more value from the small room speakers than the keynotes.”

Boom, there it is. How many of the keynote speakers you’ve heard at conferences made a substantial contribution to the value you took away from the conference? I’ve heard some great ones, as I’m sure you have too, but the majority were forgettable.

Let’s review why conferences have keynote speakers.

•    Catalyst: You want to start off strong, raise the energy level, create a warm community glow in attendees’ hearts, and get them in the right mindset for learning and networking. But is a keynote speaker the only way?

•    Self-help: Many people love motivational speakers, but just as many roll their eyes because excellent ones are rare. Besides, how long does this motivation or inspiration last? Beyond lunch?

•    Wonks: This type of speaker brings expertise and stories to your crowd. Entertainment value is variable, but they share interesting, valuable information on the economy, politics, technology, or other trends and developments from inside or outside the industry.

•    Non-fiction authors: These skilled speakers bring fascinated findings from their latest book that apply to the attendees’ work or lives.

•    Celebrities: The big names deliver Instagrammable moments: “Look who’s speaking at my meeting!” which really means “Look who my association spent a ton of money on because we’re so special.” Aren’t there better ways to spend registration and sponsorship money?

How much do keynotes influence the decision to attend?

The better question might be: How much do they affect the value an attendee takes away from your conference? You can’t rely on anecdotal evidence like the LinkedIn commenter when deciding if $8,000 for keynotes is worth it. Do your own research.

Find out how much weight keynote sessions in general and these particular keynote speakers have on the decision to register. A few months after your conference—the best time to determine value—find out which elements, including the keynote sessions, delivered a ROI for attendees. Find out how they’re applying what they learned or benefiting from whom they met. This information will help you design better programming and promote future conferences with attendee testimonials.

keynote speakers

How else could you spend that money?

Instead of spending several thousand dollars on keynotes, you could compensate some of your session speakers. As the LinkedIn post illustrated, speaker compensation is a hot topic for good reason. You might attract a new set of presenters if you compensate them for their time and talent or at least pay for their hotel and travel.
Consider allocating the budget to registration and/or hotel/travel scholarships for members who otherwise wouldn’t be able to attend. You could subsidize registration for volunteers trained to facilitate small group discussions.

You could spend the money on a high-quality virtual conference held shortly after your in-person conference. Sadly, many associations decided not to host virtual conferences once they could meet in person again, effectively kissing off a large audience. Or dedicate resources to building a year-round conference community.

Take the speaker budget and use it for mandatory presenter training on adult learning and session design. Or use the money to hire experts where you need them: conference design, technology selection consultation, or hotel/venue site selection and contract negotiation. Invest money where you make money—and experiences.

What to offer in place of the traditional keynote?

Why offer anything? Just get to the meat: interactive sessions or workshops where people learn with and from each other.

But if you feel you need something special in the keynote’s place, think about the emotions or behavior you want to elicit from your attendees. What would contribute to a meaningful, valuable, and memorable experience? What do you want them to do, experience, hear, or learn about?

If you hire keynote speakers who definitely contribute to the attendee experience in a meaningful, valuable, and memorable way, then keep at it. But if you typically are just filling a slot, think long and hard about why you should continue doing that—your attendees deserve better.

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