On the state of developer conferences

Brian Rinaldi has an insightful post on his blog about the current state of developer conferences, where ‘current state’ means post-COVID pandemic. Brian is well-positioned to reason about this space as a long-time conference organizer. I appreciate that he also takes the time to explain how the developer conference business works. The core of his blog is about post-pandemic conference attendance, which has plunged.

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.

And he offers an interesting theory on why that is:

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. […] So ultimately what we are left with is a lower in-person audience and a lower virtual audience.

As a conference speaker and meetup organizer, I noticed that online events saw low attendance during the pandemic, and they still do today. When available, recordings partially compensate, but only in audience terms. The problem is online events are not conferences. ‘Conference’ originates from the late Latin “conferentia,” itself a derivative of “conferre,” a synonym for the collation of “bring together”1. A conference is a meeting to discuss some topics. The get-together element is missing in online events, and networking is next to impossible (live chats and ‘virtual after-parties’ are just poor palliatives.) In my book, hybrid events are even worse, as live streaming and recordings discourage live attendance (at the DevRomagna meetups, we often get asked if live streaming or recordings will be available, and the answer is no - either we do live streaming - and we sometimes do - or we do an in-person event, but never a mix of the two.)

Going back to Brian’s musings, I think I subscribe to them. I am not sure attendance will ever get back to old numbers. I am afraid a good portion of those who were regulars became disaffected, and gaining their attention back is a hard gamble. YouTube and Twitch, I think, are phenomenal competitors, and the pandemic hiatus threw a ton of fresh new viewers at them.

PS: Coincidentally, we’re running an in-person meetup at DevRomagna today.

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  1. According to Treccani [return]