Preponderances prior to the STC Summit

Like Tom Johnson I’m happy to embrace the recording and re-broadcasting of the STC Summit this year. To me, this makes the STC Summit much more like SXSWi where you go for the people instead of just the programming. My hope is that instead of being concerned with missing certain sessions, I can use my time in Atlanta to fill in the conversations I have on social networks (blog comments and Twitter) with real-time conversations and networking.

Content capture and release

Iโ€™m both professionally and personally curious about how or if this move affects attendance at the Society for Technical Communication annual conference. I’ve asked around at work (remember that I’m an association techie geek, or at least I work with some real association pros) about some of the trends in the association marketplace.

Update: I spoke to Lloyd Tucker this morning and got additional details about STC’s plans for the recordings. We geeked out about association management technology for a while and it was great. ๐Ÿ™‚ I should have practiced better citizen journalism and talked to him yesterday, and then published this post, so I apologize for the interruption in the post, but I’ll summarize some of the details here. The questions are in bold:

What’s the copyright or licensing agreement for the recorded content? The speaker agreement, which will be sent to all speakers, states that the speaker grants STC rights to a royalty-free license of the presentation. In exchange for presenting, speakers get full or partial registration compensation (depending on whether you are the sole presenter of a session). The speaker retains copyright of the presentation (slides and audio) and the speaker can use the material however they like. Now, because the synchronized slides/audio recording is on a website and can only be viewed there behind password protection, a speaker can’t download and redistrubute a synchronized recording, but speakers can download an MP3 recording of their session and give that away with their slideshow if they choose to. See next my question.

Are the recordings proprietary formats only or can people get MP3s to load onto portable devices? With a password to the recordings, you have the option to download any presentation as audio and take it with you to the gym or in your car, or if you are a speaker and hold the copyright to the content, you can upload it to your blog or website. You can also download a PDF of the slides from the password protected site, so you have the makings of portability of the content.

Is there any “right of refusal” built in if someone doesn’t want to be recorded for any reason (or certain reasons)? Lloyd really wants everyone to participate in the recordings, but would consider individual cases with special needs. If you don’t want to use the pre-configured capture laptop they’ll supply, you can install the recording software on your laptop. The recorder records everything displayed on the screen. There are certainly sessions that won’t be recorded because they are progressions or otherwise not a good match for recording. They do plan to have audience mics in some rooms to record audience questions, although speakers should also repeat the questions.

How can STC afford this previously unaffordable technology? Last year, STC’s home grown in-house conference management system (DOS-based) broke so badly that they decided that repairing it was not an option. The budget cycle and some timely action from the board of directors aligned just right with this need for an updated conference management system. The ease and flow of the web-based proposal management process gave them an immediate efficiency boost, and they are able to publish the preliminary program earlier than ever, plus output it to multiple formats allowing them to publish in STC Intercom easier than before.

And of course, what’s the price point? ๐Ÿ™‚ This is the main question that associations have to consider carefully. Lloyd says they haven’t set a price for access to the recordings yet. The vendor doesn’t have a way to “group” recordings so that you could buy only a certain track – it’s all or nothing. Lloyd currently thinks the price for recordings for non-attendees will be comparable to the full registration price. It is a ton of recordings, when I look at the program. While I didn’t ask him specifically, he didn’t say they were considering a fee difference for members and non-members to purchase access. He’s not sure if there will be a different pricing structure for individuals and groups (the scenario Mike gives in the comments). In case you were wondering, for the most part, associations haven’t found that offering recordings causes conference attendance to decline. Lloyd also said that he hasn’t thought of directly comparing proceedings to this new recording offering – because proceedings are usually either articles or academic papers, more of an archive or record of presentations, and the article may or may not reflect all the content of a session. I’d say it’s generally tough for STC to find pricing “comps” for their relative size. I did mention that I have to budget for about $950 to be there even with a compensated registration, so if one could buy the recordings for 15-25% off of the registration fee, it could be worth it even for a single working tech writer.

End of the update! Thanks for reading.

Associations vary greatly in their membership guidelines, open or closed stances on sharing content, and in how they pay their bills to keep offering member servies (non-dues revenue is a big part of this equation.) In STC’s case, the tool they will be using is Live Learning Center to record all presentations and serve up the descriptions – the preliminary program is available online already. Iโ€™m presenting two sessions: Documentation with Wikis, Blogs, and Online Communities with Janet Swisher and another one about collaboration techniques where I’m still toying around with a title, description, and outline.

Overall, Iโ€™m really pleased theyโ€™ll be recording sessions (audio and screen only, not video), but not sure how other associations are handling this sort of content dissemination and how well itโ€™s working. What are good and bad outcomes from this shift towards offering asynchronous conference attendance? Here’s some of what I’ve learned.

Do printed proceedings and audio recordings represent the same value?

Proceedings have historically been sold by professional organizations. I learned that the heart of the issue is what do you charge, and do you charge members and non-members differently? Printed proceedings are the model they seem to be using though. With the upsurge of all this community-generated content, The answer varies widely because of the different cultures that each organization embodies. And associations are finding it harder and harder to justify any additional charges.

Some of the reason for this shift in expectations are other examples that are changing the way we think about conferences and availability for viewing sessions asynchronously: namely WebStock, SXSW Interactive, and TED. Many of their speakers are compensated at greater rates than any of us would be at STC conferences. Having a recording that you can then send people to as a “portfolio piece” makes sense when you are a paid speaker. You’re glad to have others have free access to it without having to incur the expense yourself of creating a recorded portfolio piece. I know I’d prefer it if I kept copyright of the content, but I haven’t seen the contract yet to know whether STC gets a one-time broadcast “license” to the content. Then again, the trade off there is that STC would be locked into proprietary broadcasting technology (which they probably are already).

I know that WebStock offers their recordings for free, but they have a group of volunteers (looks like about five people) who offer them as a labor of love (though I’m sure love doesn’t pay the bandwidth bills). For a conference with 500 or so attendees, that method is probably the only one that makes sense from a cost persepctive. They are also allowing refusal to be recorded for any reason – and don’t even expect you to give a reason. I’m learning this interpretation from this post to the WebStock blog. Associations don’t really adhere easily to this model, although an association that had members who were willing to labor that much would be a great association indeed.

SXSW Interactive has offered recordings for years now but they are also attended by over 6000 most years (I think it’s a slow year when it’s in the 3-4k range but feel free to check my numbers) and they even have an artist doing an artistic rendition of the session (see I’m not entirely sure how their cost structure works. It full well may have been done by volunteers in the early days. Heck, did their SXSWi demo for free last year and totally reaped the benefits (though they are looking for a sponsor for 2009’s SXSWi. Again, SXSW Interactive is not an association, does not have members, and is hardly comparable to an association’s annual conference.

And then there’s Technology, Entertainment, and Design – TED – I don’t know a lot about it, other than it’s 20 minute sessions and only last year opened up the recordings to the world. Their value proposition is inspiration, but they do have over 110,000 members in the community according to the website. They remain super elite and closed in the conference itself, but the content is open via video sharing. I can hardly compare a TED conference with a conference for a professional association, though, so I’ll stop with that.

There are neat examples out there of hybrid techniques, though again, not offered by an association. For example, the User Interface conference site has podcast interviews with presenters but also sells PDFs of their procedings at probably 10% of the price of the full conference. This method gives an audio experience for free, promoting speakers while still protecting the content that is specific to the conference.

How long will you be face-to-face?

I wonder how offering this audio will affect the number of days even registered attendees stay at the conference. As a mom, I know I try to keep my nights away to a minimum. Will my presentation schedule allow me to spend a few days in Atlanta and then somehow carve out time listening to sessions after my kids go to bed upon returning home? Or will I seriously make the time to close my office door, change my IM status to “watching recorded STC Summit sessions” and hunker down in front of my monitor with headphones on and attention fully watching and listening to sessions I missed?

Value propositions

So is the only value proposition for holding a conference the face-to-face networking? Or is there also the value of the content at the sessions themselves? For some reason, I still want to argue the case of the work-a-day technical writer who needs to learn new things as the main reason for them to go to a conference. Plenty of people use the “train a trainer” justification and send one writer on a team of ten and ask that writer to bring back all that they’ve learned at the conference and teach others. But more and more people have convinced me that you don’t need to go to a conference to learn. Having written the “Embrace the un” article and experienced firsthand the value of in-person connections, I ought to know this one by now. Yet I’m still writing justifications that seem to back different value propositions.

From my perspective, which is limited by age, experience, and the narrow working-mom window in which I live, offering audio is the right direction for STC to take. When I offer content for free on this blog, it has paid me back not monetarily, but in opportunity, connectivity, and learning I never could have gathered through other means. Will the “giveaway” of my session content at the STC Summit pay back in similar ways? I’m willing to experiment to find out. What do you think?


  • February 4, 2009 - 6:56 am | Permalink

    As an STC officer and presenter, I too am very interested in this grand experiment. I see a couple of behavior changing scenarios. One would be where a member who could not afford to travel to a conference signs up to get access to the recorded sessions. That scenario is a net win all around unless you are a hotel or airline. Second is a company who would have sent multiple attendees but now sends only one and takes advantage of that employee’s access to the recordings to host “lunch and learns” for the whole team as they watch these sessions. Good for the company, STC takes an attendance/revenue hit. I have no idea how these numbers will play off against each other.

    But I APPLAUD this experiment as going to one of our strategic objectives: Globally improve the practice of technical communication. In the long run, anything we do that promotes that goal will promote the health of our profession and the value of our society. Oh brave new world that has such people in’t.

  • February 4, 2009 - 8:28 am | Permalink

    Being one of those people who likes detail ;-), I have a few questions about how STC might do this.

    * Who owns the copyright of the recording? It sounds like STC does, but it would be appropriate for the speaker to be able to use the recording any way they wish IN ADDITION to STC making it available for a fee. I think copyright/ownership is a BIG issue. A lot of people didn’t write for STC’s ‘Intercom’ because they signed away all rights to their own work – without being paid!

    * Even though STC is recording the presentations, is there anything to stop a speaker recording their own session with their own digital voice recorder? And if they do, who owns that copyright?

    * I think that if you attend the conference for the full 3 days you should get access to all the recordings for free. If you don’t attend, you should expect to pay some minimal amount for each recording, or a flat fee for access to all recordings or all recordings in a stem.

    * As someone who has to pay a lot just to get to a conference in the US, I think that making the recordings available to ALL STC members (even for a fee), is a great idea. Most international members can never attend the conferences — I’ve been fortunate that I have, but I can’t do more than one in the US a year, and with WritersUA and STC being a couple of months apart, it’s just not possible to attend both. Like other contractors/consultants I don’t get paid when I’m not working. For me a US conference is not 3-4 days away from billable time – it’s a good 1-2 weeks (more if I add in some vacation time).

    * One thing that I love about Webstock, SXSW, TED etc. is that I *can* download/listen to them at a time and date and place of *my* choosing. All for free. I tend to go for the podcast option so I can listen to them in the car, so I miss out on the PowerPoint slides that go with the presentation. It’s not usually an issue with SXSW or Webstock, though I prefer to watch the TED presentations. Will STC have a ‘voice only’ option for download? (When I lived in the city, my commute was 15 mins each way. I used to listen to podcasts while driving, and in a week, I’d get through a good hour or two – it was amazing how it added up! Now that I live out of the city, I bundle up my podcasts before a trip and listen for the 3 hour drive to the city. Again, I get through a lot this way all without impinging on my work or family/leisure time).

    * Will the downloads be in an open format (like MP3) that we can use on many devices, or will it be something proprietary that we can only view/listen to on our computers with special software installed? Or from a locked down website? I would be much less likely to pay for recordings if I have to go to the STC site to view/listen to them as versus download them to a device where I can listen to them at any time/any place (e.g. doing the gardening).

    * Has a pricing model been publicised? I mentioned a couple of models earlier (pick and choose individual sessions, stems/themes, or the lot). What if a session is really bad or not at all what you expected from the blurb – is there a refund option? Should there be?

    I realise that you won’t know the answers to most/all of these questions, but in the spirit of adding to the discussion I thought I’d throw them out there anyway.

  • February 4, 2009 - 11:47 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the questions! I spoke with Lloyd on the phone this morning, and I’m updating the post with additional details that should answer our questions. Would that I had been a better citizen journalist and asked these questions of Lloyd in advance of publishing the post! ๐Ÿ™‚ Live and learn.

  • Cindy Pao
    February 4, 2009 - 1:34 pm | Permalink

    I am a huge fan of conferences and have been since my very first STC conference almost 14 years ago!

    I am also ecstatic that the sessions will be recorded and offered later. I almost always have to make choices between sessions at the conference. That being said, I’ll have to make a concerted effort to watch and listen to the broadcasts after the conference. Luckily, I can do that at work now.

    I hope that face-to-face conferences never go away. I have too much fun traveling and meeting new people! There are a lot of folks from Houston who don’t make it to our monthly meetings, but they attend the conference. When I can make those face-to-face connections, I get a chance to expand my professional horizons AND I might make the chapter a better place by signing up a new volunteer.

  • February 5, 2009 - 7:54 pm | Permalink

    Great discussion. Are you aware that podcasts can be password protected (yes, it’s possible to do that).

    Perhaps STC membership could include the ability to download these mp3s?

    Frankly, some talks are just as easy to hear on mp3 player as it is to see. (That’s why I usually avoid talks about copyright/privacy/etc at SXSWi). Other talks have demos which would be worth seeing in person.

    Knowing that someone will be recorded definitely changes the way people talk at these sessions. Questioners will always give their URL. Presenters won’t offer informal opinions. People need to become accustomed to the fact that things spoken in a semi-public gathering could make it all over the world.

  • February 5, 2009 - 7:56 pm | Permalink

    Sorry, I just wanted to add that I love Honoria Starbuck’s sketches. They capture things about the sessions that never would have hit me. Great fun! (She even put me in one of her sketches for last year’s SXSWi).

  • February 12, 2009 - 4:34 am | Permalink

    Hi, I’m one of the organisers of Webstock, and it’s nice to see Webstock mentioned in the same breath as TED and SxSW ๐Ÿ™‚

    Our recording policy is simple:

    – We record all presentations, except where a speaker doesn’t wish that
    – If a speaker doesn’t want their presentation recorded, no problem. There’s been a variety of reasons they might not want it recorded, but it really doesn’t matter to us, it’s their choice
    – We make all presentations available soon after the conference in a variety of video and audio formats

    There’s no charge or barrier for people wishing to view or download the presentations. We encourage people to do so and to spread word of them widely. We take the view that, frankly, it’s good “web citizenship”. There’s a lot of great stuff presented at Webstock and we love the idea that it can be available to a wider audience. We’re also very aware that a lot of what we’ve learned and know has resulted from others making material freely available, so in a sense we’re paying that back.

    We build all costs for filming and hosting the presentations into our conference budget. And as of 8 months ago Webstock is no longer a labour of love, but our jobs. Well, it’s *still* a labour of love, but it also needs to pay the mortgage!

    We don’t believe making the presentations available impacts on attendence at the conference. If anything, it probably helps by making Webstock more widely known.

    We also have the philosophy that Webstock is more like an experience, or a festival, than a conference. So while the presentations are excellent, Webstock is much more than that. It’s hanging out with friends; it’s making new connections and networks over drinks; it’s enjoying a chance to get inspired and refreshed. These are things that can’t be replicated outside of actually being there. And can often be the most valuable part of attending.

    In summary:

    – Make conference recordings available cos it’s a good thing to do!
    – Concentrate on making the conference experience so good that people want to be there in person.

  • February 13, 2009 - 1:19 am | Permalink

    Thanks Mike for stopping by! I especially like your final point about making the conference experience itself your main focus. Both participants/attendees and organizers can make that happen, and your labor of love is certainly admirable. I know I also appreciate all that you offer online for Webstock, so thanks for that.

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