Scaling (down) the Summit

Next week, technical communicators from around the world will convene at the STC Summit in Anaheim, California.

summit16The last time the Summit was held in Anaheim, in 1998, it attracted more than 2,000 people — about 3 times the number that’s expected next week. (For that matter, STC’s total membership in 1998 was about 3 times what it is today.)

I’ve attended more than 20 Summits. I love seeing old friends and catching up on what’s happening in the profession.

Still, I can’t help noticing that the event has shrunk over the years. While the program still features some great speakers and great presentations, I no longer have the sense that in every time slot I’m forced to choose between 3 or 4 can’t-miss sessions.

I’d like to hear what you, my colleagues, think about the Summit and about conferences in general. Use the comments section to share your thoughts:

  • Will you be at the Summit this year? If so, why did you choose to attend? If not, why not?
  • Has the Summit, once the pre-eminent technical communication event in North America, been overtaken by other events? (In 1998, for example, there was
    no such thing as LavaCon— or any of the other events with “content strategy” on their marquees.)
  • Do special-interest or niche events, like DITA North America, draw people away from more general-interest events like the Summit?
  • Finally, when you look over the conference landscape and see how much it’s changed over the last 10 to 20 years, do you think things are better today? Worse? Or just different?
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30 thoughts on “Scaling (down) the Summit

  1. UGUR AKINCI

    Larry, even though I’d like to go every year I cannot since my company does not reimburse for any travel expenses and does not allow any time-off for the conference either. But just the other day I heard from another source about the declining attendance and it’s interesting that today I’ve read the same thing in your post. So I guess there is something there that deserves our attention.

    Reply
    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks, Ugur. My sense — though I don’t have empirical evidence to prove it — is that fewer people get reimbursement and/or time off to attend conferences, and that this trend has been going on for a long time. That said, I wonder whether “declining attendance” means that fewer people are attending conference or that the overall attendance is distributed across more conferences.

      Reply
      1. Chris Lyons

        Anaheim registration is above registration for last year’s Summit in Columbus and about 30 below Phoenix in 2014. We anticipate the 2017 Summit, in Washington DC where our largest chapter is, o have strong registration.

      2. Larry Kunz Post author

        Thanks, Chris, for posting that update. (For those who don’t know, Chris is the Executive Director of STC.) I’m looking forward to a great Summit.

  2. Tom Johnson (@tomjohnson)

    Also remember that the Write the Docs conference (http://www.writethedocs.org/conf/na/2016/), which attracts about 400 people and costs only $350, is the following week.

    When you consider Write the Docs, Information Development World, Lavacon, WritersUA, the TC Camp unconference, and more, you have to really decide whether the Summit is worth it.

    I think the Summit suffers from being too diverse. I want content that is more focused on developer documentation, and I don’t seem to find too much of it at the Summit. That said, I like the somewhat large draw of people at a conference.

    Reply
  3. Larry Kunz Post author

    Thanks, Tom. You raise a good point: conference-goers have to choose between focused content and a diverse group of attendees. There are, of course, benefits to both. In terms of getting support (reimbursement and/or time off), I imagine the former is easier to pitch to an employer than the latter.

    Reply
    1. UGUR AKINCI

      I also agree with Tom’s point about increasing specialization in our field and thus the increasing number of specialized conferences catering to a diverse group of professionals. However, I think it’s still a tough sell to convince the average employer about the need to attend a “content strategy” or DITA conference. I have a feeling most employers (if not all) still regard us as one undifferentiated group of “tech writers.”

      Reply
  4. Kelly Schrank

    I’ll be attending this year, because I value the connections and educational opportunities. I like the broader conference because it introduces me to new things that I am not necessarily doing…yet. I’ve learned many things at regional and the national conference that were not in my job description but that I was later able to take on because I had more knowledge than anyone else in our organization. I work in a small company, so I can take these types of opportunities and run with them.

    As for my company providing reimbursement or time off, they do give me professional leave, but they rarely pay for the conference (which is one of the more expensive conferences I attend). My thought on this: this is my career, not theirs. If they will pay, great. If not, then I will put aside the money to pay myself. I think the decreased attendance is due to all of the circumstances discussed above: fewer members, more conferences to choose from, and less support from companies.

    This will only be my 9th Summit, so I guess I don’t have the history to answer your last question. 🙂

    Reply
    1. Vinish Garg (@vingar)

      Kelly, I upvote your comment on paying from one’s own pocket. I have traveled to many conferences in India and none of my employers ever paid me. I travel because I see value in attending a conference.

      Particularly when the conference is in my own country, if my participation depends on whether my employer can sponsor my travel and conference tickets, then the value is not strong enough.

      Reply
  5. Mark Baker

    I won’t be going this year because of scheduled travel, which then got rescheduled to next year, so I won’t be going next year either. Not sure if I will attend after that.

    If the decline in attendance is proportional to the decline in society membership, then there really isn’t anything to explain as far as the summit goes. It is still getting the same proportion of members it always was. The more interesting question is why the membership in the society is declining in an age when more technical communication is happening than ever before.

    I can’t guess at other’s reasons for not joining, but to me, STC just seems old fashioned. The most striking example of this recently is the spam the society has been sending out listing ten different reasons to join STC. They are all about member benefits (many of them dubious, but that’s not the point). There was nothing about making tech comm better or making the world a better place through tech comm. It was very much a baby-boomer jobs-for-the-boys kind of approach that I just don’t think resonates with people today.

    When the Southwestern Ontario chapter started working with the Communitech organization here in Kitchener Waterloo, and switched our focus away from tech comm careers to the value of tech comm across in all fields of technology, attendance at our events tripled instantly. We are now attracting a much more diverse (and younger) audience. Most of them are not STC members, and as STC is currently constituted, I can’t see why they would be interested in becoming so.

    STC is trying to renew itself, of course. But most of that renewal seems to focus on doing the old stuff better. And it is doing the old stuff better. The problem is, it is still the old stuff. It is a preservation society, not a revolutionary society. The members of preservation societies get together to catch up with old friends as their numbers dwindle year by year. Members of revolutionary societies get together to change the world. Much as I enjoy catching up with old friends, I’d rather change the world.

    Reply
    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks, Mark. I always appreciate your ability to see the big picture. I suspect that professional societies, by their very nature, struggle to adapt to change — let alone lead the change. I wonder if the same thing can be said for conferences, and, if so, what can be done about it. (Notice my use of the passive voice. I can’t even say who the change agents would be.)

      Reply
      1. Mark Baker

        I’m no expert on conference marketing, but it seems to me that the ones that are obviously successful, like TED and SXSW, and, on a smaller scale, Intelligent Content, Lavacon, and Write the Docs, seem to be the ones that attract multiple disciplines with a shared interest in subject matter.

        There are many many people who have an interest in communicating better about technology. There are fewer and fewer, it seems, interested in a career writing manuals with the title “technical writer” on their business card. Our experience in the SWO chapter, as small a data point as it is, seems to indicate that targeting multiple disciplines with an intersecting interest in communicating successfully about technology draws a much bigger audience than focussing on career tech writers alone.

        I think there will always be career tech writers, but they will never represent the majority of the technical communication that takes place in the world or that affects the bottom line of business or the prosperity of the communities.

        I suspect that if we could recast the society and the summit as a place for everyone with an interest and a stake in successful communication about technology to come together, rather than as a place to foster a career as a “technical writer”, we would see a much higher level of interest, including from people whose career is “technical writer”. Let’s rebrand it the “Talk About Tech” conference, throw it open, and see who shows up.

  6. Meredith Kinder

    Larry, thanks for your insights. Your article makes me reflect on the summits I attended as well. At first, I attended in order to further enhance my skill sets, then after a few years, I attended in order to further my networks. Now that I have transitioned out of a technical communication role, I will miss those conferences.

    I do agree with some of the points that Mark makes. Refreshing the brand of STC would be a great idea. I surely hope STC will seize the opportunity to modernize itself and stay relevant to everyone in the profession, both newbies and veterans alike. Tech writers are traditionally risk adverse, but now is the time to make some changes, take some of those risks, and shake things up a bit!

    Reply
    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      It’s good to hear from you, Meredith. You make a great point: our reasons for attending conferences change as our careers evolve. A good conference offers something to everyone, from newbies to old hands. That audience diversity, in terms of experience level, creates a dynamic that I think is very important.

      Reply
  7. Jeff Coatsworth

    I have to agree with Mark – a few years ago my company asked if they should continue my STC membership & I just couldn’t come up with enough value for them to cover it. I’ve been a “floater” attending STC Toronto events when they fit my schedule & tried to participate in remote sessions of other chapters when they’ve got topics to interest me. Staying plugged in with reading a variety of blogs I think keeps me better informed as to trends and interesting news. Larry, you’re right up in there in my top number ;>)

    Reply
    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks for the compliment, Jeff, and welcome. You’re certainly not the first person I’ve met who participates in STC activities without joining. It’s a challenge for all professional societies, not just STC, to bolster membership numbers in a world where their biggest “products” — information and connection — are so readily available at such low cost.

      Reply
  8. Christina B Brunk

    I have attended many conferences in the past and have made valuable contacts, both personal and professional, along the way. It’s a bit sad to say but I think I chose STC (at least this year) because it is a known entity. I know (generally) what I will get – a little information about a lot of topics. I think that the premise of STC is becoming outdated as there can no longer be a professional organization that is all things to all people.

    Reply
    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks for your comment, Christina.

      “There can no longer be a professional organization that is all things to all people”: When I was involved in strategic planning for STC in the ’90s and ’00s, the leadership envisioned STC as a “big tent” that invited all kinds of technical communicators and advocated on their behalf. I don’t know if the leadership still feels that way (I doubt it). I’d like to hear from one of them, or from someone with knowledge of professional associations in general, on how they see this generalized-to-targeted trend playing out and whether the best strategy is to accommodate it or try to reverse it.

      Reply
  9. ferswriteshoe

    I am not attending, even though I am in San Diego and it would be quite convenient to travel there. What I’ve noticed over the last 4-5 years is that the STC Summit is the place where people seem to recycle other presentations — you see the same people present content they’ve presented before, or they’ve presented elsewhere. It’s not a place to present original research, ideas, case studies, etc. I think that one of the primary areas of focus in techcomm has been a desire for more quantitative (or at the least, original) research such as with a partnership between industry and academia, and it seems that the STC Summit would be the perfect venue for it, but it is not being realized. I think that the Summit has become just what you said, more of a social gathering than a place to learn and discuss the important topics in techcomm–the other, specific events throughout the year are making up that difference. A good example (to continue what Mark said) of new conferences and ideas is a local event held here in San Diego, a meetup for Content Strategy, which seemed to focus more on the “technology” that was mentioned in other comments, and that may be the differentiation we’re talking about.
    I’m still a member of the STC (reimbursed through work) and I do find value in that (whether that value is enough if I had to pay myself…hmm) but I definitely started looking elsewhere for conferences the past 3-4 years. Maybe it’s changed, but from the comments above, it doesn’t sound like it (as well as some informal chats with STC program people who see what topics are coming in).

    Reply
    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks for weighing in, Fer. I think the Summit program committee used to require submissions that were original. I’m surprised and disappointed if they’ve dropped that requirement. I wonder if someone on this year’s program committee can comment?

      Reply
    2. Anindita Bas

      I’ll have to agree with what Fer says here about recycled sessions (sometimes, the PPT doesn’t have even cosmetic changes). I’ve been a regular at the STC conferences in my country for the past few years, and am tired of the recycled stuff that gets peddled. It’s tempting to blame the program selection committees but (i) slots are reserved for sponsors (ii) remaining slots are largely a matter of how-well-I-know-you and is-that-proposal-from-my-manager. And, honestly, how many sessions on DITA or whatever can one sit through in a lifetime? Where is the newness, the research, the insights, …. the excitement of how to make the world bigger, better, stronger?

      Reply
  10. Rachel Houghton (@rjhoughton)

    I started attending the STC Summit in 1999, and I’ve only missed one Summit since then (2000, in Orlando).

    From 1999 – 2003, my employer paid my dues and conference attendance. Once I went freelance (then back to captive), I’ve only had the conference attendance paid one time by an employer (2014). I have paid for my own attendance (lodging, airfare, meals, registration) myself since 2004 (excepting 2014).

    I’ve had varying degrees of success on getting employers to not require me to take vacation time to attend the conference. My current employer is not requiring me to take vacation. As far as the Summit is concerned, I consider going as an investment in myself and my career. The bonus is that I get to see and spend time with a whole bunch of people I’ve gotten to know over the years and meet new people.

    I agree, a lot of employers will not fund conference attendance, much less dues. My current employer supports the Classic level of membership, but I upgrade my membership to the Gold level on my own dime because I find value in that level.

    I wish I could afford to attend all the conferences that apply to my interests, but I can only justify one when it’s on my own dime. I choose the Summit.

    Reply
  11. Larry Kunz Post author

    Thanks, Rachel. I’m glad that the Summit is still the conference where you find the most value. (And personally I have a hard time imagining a Summit without you there.)

    Reply
  12. Steven Jong

    I will not be at the Summit this year. It draws about the same percentage of members it always has, but as you know, the membership peaked in 2001 and has declined steadily since then. Declining attendance is a vicious cycle, because as attendance has shrunk we can’t fill a conference center in A-list cities; and B-list cities, while cheaper, are less attractive. But given the decline in membership, I think that’s an effect rather than a cause.

    Mark Baker has it exactly right. For more than 15 years now the strategy of STC has boiled down to “providing more value for members.” That’s been the campaign plank of every candidate for the Board (including me, twice). A lot of good presidents and Board members have devoted themselves to wringing more value out of the STC value proposition. We see what it’s getting us. Yet we continue to pursue that strategy, harder and faster and more single-mindedly. (That’s not surprising, because under stress organizations fall back on doing what they do.)

    What’s the problem with providing value for members? Well, I like value fine; its the “members” part that’s the problem. When STC had, by my estimate, 25% of all practitioners worldwide, it was a great strategy. Today, we have only a quarter the members even as the profession has grown. “Value for members” is now a retention strategy, when a growth strategy is essential.

    The answer is obvious (it’s one word!), and if I could I would steer the ship towards it. Ah, well, that’s a tale for another day…

    Reply
    1. Mark Baker

      I think member value was a better strategy in the past because there were more obvious benefits. The primary benefits (at least of me) are communication and community. In the age of paper, pushing out communications and organizing communities was expensive and took organization. Now all it takes are accounts on Blogger and MeetUp. That yanks the guts out of the value proposition for societies in non-regulated professions like tech comm.

      The problem with doubling down on this strategy over and over again is that there is nobody left in the society who does not subscribe to this approach. It is hard to reform something when the only people left are the ones who see no need for reform. You have to stop doing the very things that are holding the members you still have left.

      It’s another example of the innovator’s dilemma, I suppose. Which tends to argue that it is more likely for an organization like Meet The Docs to emerge than for the STC to reform in the right direction. Write the Docs has a much more bottom up locally driven form or organization and much lower costs than STC. How Write The Docs describes itself is very telling:

      “Write the Docs is a series of conferences and local meetups focused on all things related to software documentation.

      “We consider everyone who cares about communication, documentation, and their users to be a member of our community. This can be programmers, tech writers, customer support, marketers, and anyone else who wants people to have great experiences with software.”

      As far as Write the Docs is concerned, we are all members of the community already. But note the description “a series of conferences and local meetups”. Write the Docs is what it does. that kind of entity is only possible in an age where the Web provides all the infrastructure you need.

      Of course, this means that Write the Docs have very little inertia, It could fade and die tomorrow. But when the startup costs of new organizations are so low, lack of inertia may not matter. It may even be a good thing, if it makes people focus on the purpose of the organization rather than striving to maintain or justify its existence.

      Reply
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  14. Ed Lightle

    Hi, Larry. Thanks for asking what we think about STC. From my perspective, STC is going the way of old school technical writers like me — waiting for retirement, overwhelmed with all of the new technology, and thankful to still be hanging around. But that is a tenuous existence and waiting is not a good strategy. Layoff or the dissolving of an organization can happen quickly so we must find ways to remain relevant. Change happens whether we are ready for it or not. The development department where I currently work is hiring newer/younger developers who are creating mobile/web applications and transforming the way I will be writing online help and user documentation. Video tutorials are becoming almost essential, and the ability to write for the web is becoming more important. I have done none of this in my former life but I will have to get on board or get off the train, so to speak. I will be honest, it scares the bejesus out of me! What scares me most is not knowing what new skills I need. I have a feeling, however, that necessity will soon become the mother of invention and I will embrace these changes with the open mind and persistence that have served me well for the past 25-plus years. Let us hope that STC can do the same.

    Reply
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