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Should you Pay to Speak at DMA09?

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The Direct Marketing Association, known as The DMA, is the leading trade association of “business and nonprofit organizations using and supporting multichannel direct marketing tools and techniques”. Even in the digital age, Direct Marketing (DM) remains a huge business. As you can read from their site, expenditures by U.S. companies totalled $173.2 Billion during 2007, equivalent to 10.2% of total U.S. GDP.  To say that the DMA is a powerful organization is an understatement, but is the DMA introducing policies that could create long term damage to its brand?

Among the year-round slate of conferences, seminars, and educational events, the crown jewel of the DMA is their Annual Conference & Exhibition, known this year as DMA09. I have facilitated DMA sponsored seminars in the U.S. and Brazil and have attended the Annual Conference on many occasions, presenting on a few. It has always been competitive to be accepted as a speaker at a DMA event and the influencers of selection can be reduced to Brand (the power of your company’s brand in the market), Client (the interest the market has in a campaign run by your client), or Money (to what extent you sponsor or exhibit at the event). In 2009, it seems that Money has become a more influential filter for speaker selection as the DMA instituted speaker proposal fees ranging from $59 for council members to $199 for non-members.

The new policy sparked controversy. Robert Rosenthal kicked off heated conversations in Facebook and LinkedIn groups where he wrote:

“The Direct Marketing Association is circulating its call for DMA09 presenters. This year there’s a new twist…the DMA will charge a processing fee for proposal submissions in 2009 to cover the administrative costs associated with managing the RFP process….have they gone too far with this policy? The implications are serious as long term damage to their organization is not out of the question.”

The posts which followed were passionate and largely in opposition to the new policy. This excerpt sums up the opposing argument succinctly:

“Speaking at DMA events is a marketing and networking opportunity. It has brought me can’t-put-a-price-on-it credibility….I’d also like to think that the benefits flow both ways. Surely by traveling and speaking at our own expense, and by sharing what would otherwise remain proprietary information, we render a valuable service to the DMA and its members. Must we now pay, not only to be of service, but to think up and suggest ways to do so?”

Ultimately, the DMA’s Bill Carls, Senior Digital Marketing Associate, posted a response directly from the Office of DMA’s President.

“….We believe most people understand the inherent value of taking a leadership position in the direct marketing community by sharing thought leadership at the global event for integrated marketing. For them, the investment of a small processing fee upfront should not be a real deterrent, even in these increasingly challenging times.”

Weighing the stream of comments from both social networks, it is clear to me that the DMA elected a policy that is contrary to the interests of its members. Except for a few outliers, the majority of entrepreneurial and business-owning DMA members vigorously objected to the new fees.

Capitalism has an interesting personality – the market unceasingly evolves to fill gaps as historical models decay and no longer provide value. Through its new policy, the DMA may be unwittingly contributing to the disintermediation of the conference business.

There are alternatives to incurring big fees and travel expenses to attend a conference when the highest element of value is often distilled to networking. As we all know, networking has gone viral – just witness the conversations on this subject in Facebook and LinkedIn. The DMA is not alone as SourceMedia, IIR, and others are adopting their own “pay to speak” business models.

I was taught at an early age that as soon as you think you are invaluable, you are at your most vulnerable. Conference organizers in the traditional model should take note.  There are several avenues through which disintermediation could take place and I will cover a few in the very near future.

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