I saw a hosting advertisement yesterday pointing out that "WordCamp Season" had arrived. I though it was an interesting premise since, really, there seems to be a WordCamp just about every weekend these days.
Then I thought about the ongoing effort I've been on to find and catalog other upcoming conferences I'm interested in so I can either ad them to my own schedule or refer them to coworkers. In all of this research, I've discovered there are primarily two kinds of conferences.[ref]Actually, there are three but the third type would be "conferences I don't really care about and will not likely attend." I figured that wasn't really necessary to make my point.[/ref]
Often, conference attendance has little to no direct impact on you or your business. You attend, organize, sponsor, or direct staff to attend a conference that matters to your business - where having your name affixed to the conference in some way will translate to increased sales, market visibility, or recruiting proficiency.
The community is a rich place amongst which to sow seeds of goodwill. A few dollars on a sponsorship might not mean much to you, but enabling the community to support each other and grow is priceless (and enabled by you and your brand). Speaking at a conference raises your visibility as a leader in the community, meaning new members are more likely to look to you to influence the direction of future developments.
Merely having team members present helps establish your brand story in the community as well. Your logo becomes visible, as does the combined character of your organization, represented by the professionalism and personalities of the individuals you invite to attend. If you're trying to tell a particular brand story in the market, having representatives actually present and telling that story in the market is a huge business advantage.
There are some conferences you attend merely because you want to learn. There's a speaker or topic on the agenda that interests you, or you're thirsty for exactly the kind of knowledge for which the conference is known.
Attending a "return" conference is where you reap the return on your previous investments of time in the community, money on a ticket sale, or perhaps hours spent studying a concept. You get far more out of the conference than you originally put in, and that's OK.
The Bottom Line
Some conferences are broad enough that they (or at least parts of them) can fit into both categories. Perhaps you're a sponsor of a conference, and you're also attending it merely to hear a lecture on a specific topic that captures your imagination. Conferences that satisfy both the desire to invest in the community and reap a return on that investment are the best kind - but they're also extremely rare and take far more forethought to schedule than a pure investment or return conference.
Given the above categorizations, how would you classify the last conference you attended? How would you classify the next conference on your schedule? Does your schedule fall more into one category than the other (and is that intentional)?