Dear FHF: “When I attend genealogy conferences, such as RootsTech, why do speakers try to sell me on their products and services? Aren’t they getting paid? I attend the conferences to learn, not be sold to.” – Martha Ann, Centerville, Utah
Martha Ann, that’s a fantastic question. I’ll do my best to answer by pulling back the curtain and sharing some useful tips. Before I address genealogy conferences specifically, let me use examples from other industries and then circle back to family history events.
Conferences are Opportunities for Product and Service Providers to Market Themselves
No matter the industry, many experts you learn from often have a business they are building and promoting.
Marketing and public relations experts strongly advise small business owners to book speaking engagements to promote their products and services. Conferences top the list for speaking opportunities.
When a bridal boutique owner teaches “How to find the right dress for your thematic wedding” at a bridal expo, the shop owner establishes themselves as an authority and directs brides-to-be to their store.
Genealogy conferences are no different. The events are great opportunities for chart makers, software companies, professional researchers, and folks with educational products to promote their goods and services while teaching you something new.
Understand What The Difference Between a Hard Sale and an Invitation
A hard sale happens when an entire presentation focuses on one product or service to the exclusion of everything else. An invitation mentions a product at some point during a presentation but is not the entire focus. An invitation might look like a ‘commercial break’ but often includes mentioning a product or service at an appropriate time.
The Hard Sale
I’m not a fan of hard sell workshops unless I specifically seek them out. When I’m tricked into them attending them, my irritation increases, as yours would be too.
When I attended a homeschool conference in Houston, each speaker was tied to a product or service. That’s not a problem on the surface.
While reading a class description, one caught my eye that would teach me tips to teach my children Spanish. Within 5 minutes, the class instructor had revealed that the workshop would only promote their Spanish education program and nothing else. That was a hard sell which I would like to have be forewarned of and likely to have avoided.
If you’ve listened to political commentary, financial advice, or relationship podcasts, you probably have heard the commercial break sales pitch. You listen to quality content on the podcast until at some point the podcaster breaks for an advertiser or sponsor message. The message might include one of their products or services. Regardless, the podcaster will then end the message and return to the topic of the podcast.
When done well, the commercial break sales message during a conference is actually a welcome relief. Sometimes a presenter gives you so much information, the ‘ad’ interruption gives you mind a chance to recover from drinking from the firehose.
In homeschooling circles, Heidi St. John, The Busy Mom, has a podcast and books about becoming “Mom Strong.” Crystal Paine, The Money Saving Mom, has her money saving’s tip blog and gratitude journals. Both presenters masterfully insert a commercial break into their workshops. They did this so well, I remember their presentations 5 years later and I remain unbothered by the commercial break.
Unlike the obvious commercial break, product mentions are more natural, even if not organic. In genealogy conferences, many presenters mention products and services at the appropriate time (planned and unplanned).
For instance, when a genealogist teaches about handwriting analysis, they may mention their book in this way, “I have more examples for you to practice your handwriting analysis skills in my book ______. You can get it at booth ___ or on my website ______.”
This product mention could be on a pre-planned slide or in response to an attendee’s question.
Another example of product mentions could refer attendees to a specific piece of content for further reading. For instance, in my city directory class, I could include a slide that shows the thumbnails to the three videos I have on YouTube about city directories. That is a pre-planned natural insertion of a product (my YouTube channel) into the workshop. It’s a sales pitch but it’s not overt.
I might also direct folks to videos and blog content if they ask questions during the Q&A session. I’m trying to turn attendees into fans and then buyers of our products and services, but it’s a natural product mention.
Genealogy Conferences Rarely Pay Presenters their Market Value
Understanding the sales approach doesn’t address the question, “Aren’t they getting paid?”
Let me pull back the curtain a little for conferences. Then perhaps you’ll understand why sales pitches enter into conference workshops.
At some homeschool conferences, speakers receive no pay from the event planner. They actually pay to speak. How does that impact the presentations? You’re a lot of commercial breaks and hard sales workshops. The speakers needed to recoup their pay to speak investment.
At genealogy conferences, many organizers will compensate their speakers with $100, a hotel room, and free admittance to the conference. This income rarely offsets the cost of traveling to and attending the event, let alone the time investment to craft a well organized and delivered workshop.
How does this affect your workshops? You should have less hard sales and commercial breaks and more product mentions. Unless of course the lecture is sponsored, which would be a pay to speak situation and likely a hard sale workshop.
How Not to be Sold to at Conferences
With the curtain drawn back, how can you avoid unwanted the sales pitches at genealogy conferences, such as RootsTech?
Tip 1: Avoid the Likely Hard Sale Classes
The first tip involves using extreme caution when you select your classes. Avoid classes that have the phrase “This session is sponsored by _______.” A company paid money to the conference to have that workshop on the schedule. It will contain a sales pitch, most likely a hardsale but you might be blessed with product mentions. If you don’t want to be sold to, choose a different class.
Tip 2: Read the Program
The second tip requires you to read the class description. Avoid classes where the title is very similar to a book the speaker has written or a product the presenter works with.
I have one class in which the class description says, “the class is based on the book A Recipe for Writing Family History.” If you attend a class with this type of warning, then you will hear a sales pitch. (I try to give you value in my class even if you don’t’ buy the book, but I will mention it during the workshop.)
Tip 3: Attend the Right Conference
The third tip suggests you only attend conferences that pay their speakers well. Few events compensate their speakers market value for their travel and time. (That is one of the reasons why I wrote the piece How to Compensate a Speaker More at a Genealogy Conference.) As such, many presenters still need to recover the investment costs of traveling to teach you.
There are some conferences that require presenters to refrain from inserting sales pitches into their workshops. To gain compliance from presenters, the organizers compensate the speaker well for their time and travel. If you want to attend sales pitch free workshops, you’ll need to research which genealogy conferences pay their speakers well. (One such conference is the Ohio Genealogical Society event.)
Tip 4: Embrace the Sales Pitch
Recognize that presenters need to recoup the expenses associated with traveling to conferences to teach you and smile knowingly when they use a commercial break or product mention in their presentations. You know why they are doing it and you might actually want to continue your relationship with them through these services.
Refrain from fussing about workshops that were clearly marked as hard sales pitches. If you don’t want this experience, don’t attend the class or walk out as soon as it’s too much for you.
Save your complaints about workshops for when the presenter gives an hour-long hard sales pitch but their class title and description did not clue you in ahead of time.
Thanks again, Martha Ann, for your question. I am glad you trusted us enough to ask such a question and hope you find it useful.