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Brian Rinaldi
Brian Rinaldi

Posted on • Originally published at

The State of Developer Conferences

I ran my first developer conference back in 2007. It was called Flex Camp Boston and it was a 1-day, single track conference all about Adobe's Flex, which was growing in popularity at the time. I planned it in about 90 stressful days, but was fortunate that tickets were sold out weeks before the event.

Since 2007, I've run or been involved in running a lot of in-person developer conferences in Boston, Miami, New York, Orlando and even Sofia, Bulgaria. Some I ran independently while others I ran for my employer. I've been fortunate that, in all but one case, which was an event I ran in Orlando weeks before the pandemic shut down, they have all been successful, even if they didn't sell out capacity.

I've also been involved in running virtual events for developers since 2017 including a number of virtual conferences beginning in 2021. My most recent was just last week.

I share all this background because I hope that it lends some credibility when I tell you that I am concerned about the current state of developer conferences.

The pandemic (unsurprisingly) decimated developer events

As you know, events shut down worldwide during the height of the pandemic. Virtual conferences became a big deal during that time. I had been running virtual events for years already, but my attendance rose dramatically at this time.

In-person events slowly started to come back when restrictions began to lift but, understandably, many people were hesitant to return. Many events did not return, and those that did were often 40-50% of their prior attendance during their initial return.

Things in the broader economy have recovered, but unfortunately independently run, in-person developer conferences have, for the most part, not. Big corporate events like Re:Invent, for example, seem to be doing fine, with this year's audience nearly reaching pre-pandemic levels. But the "community" events run by independent developers or small companies formed for the purpose, still seem to be down about 40% from pre-pandemic levels.

To understand why this can be unsustainable, you have to understand how conferences make money.

How the developer conference business works

When you attend an event, it often feels flush with money. There's giveaways and drinks and flashy booths and attendee parties. Many attendees and speakers I've talked to over the years seem to think that this means the event organizers are making a killing. I'm sure that's true in some cases, but in most cases the looks are deceiving.

Unlike corporate conferences, which are typically money-losing marketing expenses, independent conferences have to make a profit to be sustainable. The two revenue streams for an event are sponsorships and ticket sales. In most cases, sponsorships are the majority of the revenue. In fact, sponsorship money typically defrays a lot of the cost of a ticket, which is almost always priced at less than the actual cost.

If you've paid hundreds of dollars for a ticket, you may wonder how this can be less than the cost. Well, think about the cost of the venue, speakers (who, at any decent conference, have their travel and lodging costs covered at the very least), food, A/V, swag, etc. If you're curious, the single biggest cost in their is typically food. This is especially true as an event grows and has to use conference centers and hotels that can manage the capacity. Your tiny, crappy cup of black coffee often costs the same as a latte at Starbucks at a conference venue. That doesn't even account for guaranteed room blocks (i.e. the venue requires I fill a minimum number of rooms) or guaranteed minimums for food/drink.

All of this means that the entirety of sponsorship revenue and a decent chunk of ticket revenue goes to covering costs. An organizer typically has to reach a minimum attendance before the event is profitable. Even a 10-20% drop in anticipated attendance can mean the difference between making money and loing a lot of it.

Where'd the audience go?

Which brings me back to my original point: independent, in-person developer conferences are hurting. Based on my own observation as well as talks with organizers and sponsors that I have come to know over the years, the average independent in-person event is still down 30-40% from pre-pandemic attendance levels. And often it seems to require massive discounts or even giveaways to get to this level.

Not only that, but many of these events that run at conference centers are still fulfilling multi-year contracts that they signed before the pandemic. These contracts usually allow the organizer to get lower costs and guarantees. Venues had been willing to renegotiate these to a degree when events were just coming back, but, based on what I am told, are now frequently unwilling to do so.

All of this means that many of these conferences are unable to be profitable while also finding it difficult to adjust to what appear to be new, lower attendance realities.

The thing is, these missing in-person attendees are not boosting virtual attendance, which, based on my experience, is also down around 40% from pandemic peaks.

Basically a chunk of the audience seems to have disappeared altogether, which is hurting the viability of both in-person and virtual events. I've already seen a handful of events call in quits in recent months.

I have a theory

So, I have a theory on what happened to the audience. I've shared it with a lot of organizers, who all seem to think there's some truth in it.

Pre-pandemic there were two noticably different segments of the audience: people who came for networking first and content second and people who came almost exclusively for content. As an organizer you could see these groups. The former group would be the folks who attended the social events and parties. In the past, this was typically only 50-60% of of the audience. The latter group would be those people who were often the first ones sitting in the session, well before the presentation started. They might sit by themselves or with a colleague or two that they came with, but, once the content was done, they'd leave, without participating in the social events.

Behavior seems to have changed at in-person events though. The audience, while smaller, seems more social. There's less need as an organizer to encourage people to socialize because they seem to do so much more naturally and participation rates in social portions seems higher. However, that second segment, the ones in their seat waiting for the session content, appear to be absent.

My hypothesis is that we've bifurcated the audience somewhat. The folks that were there almost exclusively for the content have decided that they can do so more cheaply and efficiently online via virtual conferences or recordings. The folks that went for the networking as a primary driver, on the other hand, are largely eschewing online events as not fulfilling their needs. This may also explain a behavior change I've noticed for online events where the audience that consumes the recordings has increased while the live audience (the ones that participate in the limited social aspects like chat or Q&A) has decreased.

So ultimately what we are left with is a lower in-person audience and a lower virtual audience. I've been giving a lot of thought to how we can adjust (while also personally avoiding the huge financial risks of running in-person events right now). In my opinion, it's clear that both in-person and online developer conferences need to adjust to new realities that no longer seem transitory due to the pandemic but what isn't clear is how they can do that.

Cover Photo by Harrison Haines:

Top comments (14)

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remotesynth profile image
Brian Rinaldi

Thanks. I agree completely though I can see why that is unclear in my post. I am not worried about declining conferences because I worry about the business so much as I think they are great opportunities for developers and I worry there will be fewer of these opportunities in the future. Conferences (both speaking and attending) played a big role in my career development and I want others to have those opportunities as well.

cookieduster_n profile image
Nebojsa Radakovic

Cool insights. A lot to unwrap and cover but in genera agree with you. 3 things if I may. People who come for content in most cases are coming on behalf of their companies. Like education benefit. What pandemic showed to the companies is they can go without conferences = monney saved.
Expectations from the audience are leaning to entertainment more than education. I blame gazillion of free content and influencers because they are making the waves and setting the trends.
Finally, in todays climate, one burdened with recession, the problem for keeping conferences is only gonna get bigger.

remotesynth profile image
Brian Rinaldi

Thanks. Totally agree with your insights.

One note to add regarding virtual conferences (i.e. going for the content only). Our registration was down 30% this year but actual live attendees was identical (meaning a much higher participation rate). It's one data point but interesting.

codenameone profile image
Shai Almog

Well said.

I tried to get a conference going just before the downturn but it imploded mostly due to contractual disagreements between my would be partners. The costs are indeed extreme and the finances are difficult.

I do a lot of conference speaking and I do tend to agree. There are also some other things that might be related:

  • Slowed hiring - a huge motivation in sponsoring and attending conferences is hiring and poaching. This is no longer a driver for many conferences

  • Better ROI - I can write several articles and produce multiple videos for the cost of a single conference (in terms of time spent). Their lifetime value is easier to measure. Thanks to the pandemic a lot of developers who used to attend these conferences learned how to hone these skills better

The last one correlates to your observation. The people who attend are the people that need the human connection.

remotesynth profile image
Brian Rinaldi

Agree with your take. I think the overall slowdown in the industry and in hiring in general is definitely impacting conferences, which were hurting already. And, as a frequent speaker, I struggle with the ROI as well. If I spend a week developing a session, then a flight, hotel, food, etc., only to speak to a handful of people because the conference was poorly attended, it's definitely not worthwhile. And that is something I have little control over or even insight into until I show up.

That being said, I haven't seen a shortage of speakers. Many organizers I talk to seem to be inundated with CFP proposals, perhaps more so than previously. This is despite there often being fewer speakers/sessions due to declining attendance. Perhaps this is because many speakers fall into the category of those who need that human connection (for example, I know many folks in DevRel who now refuse to do online events - only in person).

ingosteinke profile image
Ingo Steinke, web developer

What a coincidence you posted this when beyond tellerrand announced the early bird offer for the upcoming conference in Berlin in September 2023.

I still love conferences and meetups in real life, and I like to use online meetings for communication, but I am absolutely no fan of online events. Despite attempts to create online spaces in Gather, Wonder, or using Zoom breakout rooms, I find it much harder to have a casual conversation and I miss moving around when sitting at my desk or staring at my smartphone screen.

So I am mostly one of those eager to chat, make friends, and meet potential business partners at an actual event, otherwise registering for online events only to get a reminder of the screen recording.

But there is one exception.

The rise of online and hybrid events allowed me to attend meetups and conferences that I would otherwise never go to, invite speakers from overseas to my own online meetup (before finally stepping down as an organizer), and ask questions to experts without opening issues or writing messages in developer slack channels, no matter if it's at JS World Africa (I have never been to Kenya or Nigeria yet) or Switzerland where I could, at least in theory, have taken a train to the venue.

Thanks for sharing your experience, facts and data. So it's not only me, and the challenge remains, how to react as a sponsor or conference organizer. Hopefully there will be more hybrid events to save the opportunities and the atmosphere of in-person events while also connecting people from all over the world.

remotesynth profile image
Brian Rinaldi

Thanks for the comment. You're correct that online events are generally terrible for making connections. As someone who runs them, I tend to see them as being all about the content but also, as you mention, about making conferences accessible to folks around the world who might otherwise be unable to attend.

raviklog profile image

I may be wrong here.... but I attended few in-person conferences on technology, business...It's more of content driven and sometimes speeches...I feel the missing thing is...Attendees are there for some kind of opportunities that they envision... like jobs, investments, partnerships, projects (profit/nonprofit like permanent or side all this needs to be addressed...bcas online is doing that in different paths. No doubt networking and socializing is also quite important...but i see atleast some quite a percentage people are looking out for some help on newer opportunities. (100% could not be guaranteed...but let's say atleast some 50-60% people got what they aspired...then it's great for conferences)

remotesynth profile image
Brian Rinaldi

In my own career, conferences played a big role in my development. As with anything, there are no guarantees but I feel you get out what you put in. Then again, I was never uncomfortable socializing and meeting people at these events and I know that is much more difficult for many people, which may adversely affect what they get out of it (in this case, they may prefer the anonymity of virtual events). I do think we need to think about how to add more value to events but I am not sure what kind of changes would bring that about.

crwainstock profile image
Crystal Rose-Wainstock

It feels like the circumstances we're in today could be an opportunity to reimagine these types of events.

Maybe the traditional, large events are the way of the past, but there may be alternatives that people want to engage with.

Thanks for sharing your perspective.

remotesynth profile image
Brian Rinaldi

Agreed. I think we've reached the stage where we know we need to reimagine them, but actually doing that is difficult.

moopet profile image
Ben Sinclair

Speaking for myself, the pandemic has had a lot to do with it, but I just wasn't getting anything out of a conference that I couldn't have had from a couple of nice blog posts!

remotesynth profile image
Brian Rinaldi

I hear you and I think this speaks to my point about some folks deciding that they could watch virtual events, recordings/youtube videos or read articles and get the content. If they weren't there for the personal connections and networking, then going to a conference today might seem not worthwhile.