Windows Insider

Microsoft Ignite: The Corporate White Paper of Conferences?

With Microsoft's focus shifting away from the educational portion of its past conferences, the company's next big event may be all flash and no substance.

In recent years, a struggling publishing industry has found a way to finance itself through the use of not-quite-editorial-but-not-quite-advertising content in its everyday delivery. These pieces in the old days were advertorials, an homage to the two halves of what they really are. Today they're referred to as native advertising or sponsored content.

Odds are good you've read such content. Whether a classic white paper or one of the new inline "Sponsored By" pieces, that work wasn't written with independent intent. It was commissioned by a company with an agenda.

These same tactics are no longer constrained to the publishing industry, where most respected players draw a line of demarcation between sponsored and independent content. It's now appearing in some IT conferences, as well.

The IT Education Conference
A most recent culprit is Microsoft with its newly rebranded Microsoft Ignite conference, to be held in Chicago this May. A consolidation of many conferences into one, Microsoft Ignite at first blush seems the one to rule them all.

Then I dug further, and became concerned with what I found. It began with the conference's call for content Web page. Almost universal to IT conferences, the call for content is usually an open invitation. It's an opportunity for the everyman to submit a session idea and trade effort for a conference pass.

Speakers whose submissions are chosen get stage time and an open mic to profess their stories. The submission process is egalitarian -- anyone can do it -- even if the selection process is a bit more opaque. You never really know if yours is selected, until you learn it is.

I found a very different, and curiously disturbing, process in the Ignite call for content. It read, "Microsoft Ignite does not issue an open Call for Content or Speakers. An invitation to submit topics will be sent to Microsoft employees and MVPs, MCMs and Alumni Presenters. After this we will open a Call for Speakers to a select group of trusted speakers."

As a Microsoft MVP, I could click further into the site and learn more. While the page with details is no longer available, fellow Redmond columnist Don Jones paraphrased what he saw in a recent blog post:

Rather than submitting a session idea], now you're allowed to propose yourself for up to three "topics." "IT Pro" and "Admin" are no longer audience descriptors; now we're "IT Influencers" and "Implementers." And there's no place for you to actually propose a session -- presumably, you'll be contacted with "suggestions" on what you should present. It says they'll "work with the speakers and content managers to create the best session possible.

In short, the new policy eschews the independently conceived session ideas you're used to seeing. Replacing that approach is one where interested speakers are ranked and selected, "by product knowledge and past event presentation history," according to Microsoft. The session a selected speaker will ultimately present is one "suggested" by Microsoft. Keep on message, independent speakers.

A Week of Marketing: $2,220
I'd been wondering why the newly rebranded Ignite removed the Ed in TechEd. Now, I think I know why. The conference industry runs on dollars just like the publishing industry, and inefficient spend on independently written education no longer pays the bills. We've entered the age of the conference as white paper.

I mourn the change in part selfishly. I'll miss the thrill of dreaming up session ideas and waiting expectantly to learn if I'd been selected. I'll miss the long hours of building the perfect PowerPoint deck to amaze and inspire the masses. And, I'll miss the look in attendees' eyes when I know I've manifested that perfect "a-ha" moment.

I mourn the change even more for the conference attendee. A tightly controlled and on-message event is a brilliant spectacle, but at the same time disingenuous. Select groups of trusted speakers make for a perfectly executed storyline, but at the cost of introducing new souls and their thoughts into the process.

This said, I'm not advising a boycott of this altogether new experience -- I will be in Chicago. But I do urge caution. There's a chance you're paying good money for a weeklong commercial. We'll see what transpires.

About the Author

Greg Shields is Author Evangelist with PluralSight, and is a globally-recognized expert on systems management, virtualization, and cloud technologies. A multiple-year recipient of the Microsoft MVP, VMware vExpert, and Citrix CTP awards, Greg is a contributing editor for Redmond Magazine and Virtualization Review Magazine, and is a frequent speaker at IT conferences worldwide. Reach him on Twitter at @concentratedgreg.

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