Should I attend an artificial intelligence event or not?
What event should I go to?
Should I go to this event?
Should I go to that event?
We hear these questions a lot. I joke often that the money is being made in artificial intelligence today at events. The vendor companies can raise $50 million in venture funding, but it takes them a lot of time to generate $10 million in revenue.
That’s not because these companies are bad companies or they’re not run by very smart people. It’s a testament to how nascent these technologies are and how many great barriers there are to bringing AI into the enterprise. There are a lot of hurdles to overcome, and so a lot of money is being made at events.
I’ve gone to probably too many AI events myself as a speaker, panelist, or just from being in the area, and I’ve talked to a great many executive teams who’ve probably been to, admittedly, too many AI events. Prioritizing which ones to go to is not as simple as, “Oh, go to this one. Don’t go to that one.” It really is going to depend. When someone asks, “should I attend this event?” Well, it depends on what your priorities are, on who you need to network with.
In this article, I present the process I run through, and for me, it’s a once-a-year process. It’s not a once-a-quarter process. I decide on it once and that’s it—to determine whether I want to travel somewhere to speak, travel somewhere to attend, or even go to a conference if I’m in the area.
By the end of this article, you’ll have an idea of which events you might want to go to and which events you might want to scratch off the calendar and not worry about attending at all.
Determining Your AI Objectives
The first step in the process is always going to be discerning what your objectives are with artificial intelligence in the first place. Are you at a point where you’re just wondering what can be done with AI and what’s working? Do you just want to get a general gist of what’s possible with AI? Do you want to understand the trends that matter most for a specific business function or within your industry? Are you at a point where you’re thinking about your company’s data infrastructure?
Here at Emerj, we do a lot of high-level AI strategy work with big enterprises and governments. Whether that’s in terms of presentations or just in-person meetings, AI strategy is a big part of what we do. Some folks already have an idea of their strategy, and they’re showing up at events simply to execute. They’re in execution mode more than exploration mode.
Where are you? If you don’t have a firm grounding of that off the get-go, I would say it’s probably best not to just explore events but to firmly discern what you’re trying to do with AI.
There are some clues as to whether AI should even be on your radar in the first place. If you’re a very small company or a smaller mid-sized company that’s not particularly well-funded or web savvy, it’s exceedingly unlikely that AI is going to smash its way into your business model tomorrow. AI may have less reason to be on your radar in the first place.
However, if you know for a fact that your competitors of about your size are currently leveraging AI, then that might be a reason that AI should be on your radar. If you even know that companies two times or five times larger than yours that are in your sector are legitimately leveraging AI in a meaningful way, maybe it should be on your radar.
What you have to be careful of here is the fact that there’s a difference between a press release and between actual AI adoption. If the companies bigger than you are all sending out press releases about building a chatbot or doing AI but they’re not actually implementing it or there’s no evidence of it you can see for yourself or they haven’t hired anyone with a formal AI background, then it’s unlikely they’re actually doing AI.
Often, people go to AI events because they saw a press release that makes them feel like they should pay attention to AI. The fact of the matter is there’s much more hype than there is substance in artificial intelligence. Look at your peers and look at the companies that are two times, five times larger than yours in your sector, and ask, “Is there evidence of real adoption? Is there evidence that there’s real traction here?”
The enterprises are the ones that are going to be adopting AI first. All the vendors are targeting the enterprises, with very rare exceptions, and so you might not want to care much at all about AI. If your business meets none of the criteria I just mentioned, you may not want to attend AI events.
Determining Your AI Event Networking Goals
The next step is to figure out who you need to network with at the event that can help you with your AI goals. Do you need to meet AI talent and data scientists so that you can potentially hire them or hire people that they know and broaden your ecosystem of folks with strong data science skills? Do you want to meet other service providers and vendors who might be able to help you achieve your business objectives? Do you want to meet people in your sector and ask them how AI adoption went for them?
Often, the biggest value at these events is speaking with people in your sector. In addition, you might want to talk to potential customers. If you’re at a point where one of your priorities is potentially building out, or even selling, an AI-related product, then maybe the people you want to meet are gonna be potential customers.
What you can do now is filter. Once you understand your objectives, in terms of what you need to learn, what you need to do, and your objectives in terms of who you need to meet, or whether these should be objectives at all, you can look through those lenses at any given event and you can ask questions about the event itself.
Determining if the Event is Worth it
What is Going to be Covered at the Event?
Realistically speaking, if the event sessions might have to do with some industry vastly different from your industry, you may be showing up for the wrong reasons. However, if you’re a banking person, but you’re really interested in just the broader capability space of AI, then maybe going to that broad event might make sense. If there aren’t three or four that are very in line with your objectives, you may just not want to go to the event.
Who is Speaking at the Event?
In addition to that, you may want to look at who’s keynoting. This is a lens that we here at Emerj use to figure out if we’re even going to promote an event, never mind if we’re going to go. We pass the keynote speakers people through a filter of AI hype.
We take a look at who these “experts” are and if they aren’t actually strong AI experts or people with real experience in the space who could bring real value to a presentation, then we don’t promote the event. I certainly wouldn’t go because what does that say about the rest of the smaller speakers? I probably don’t even have to look at them to understand that their credentials aren’t great.
Who is Attending the Event?
We can also look at the attendees. Who generally shows up to this event? Sometimes this will be on the event web page, but sometimes you’re going to have to ask the event organizer who generally attends the event. It’s also worth asking what the ratios are of the following:
- Different industries that attend the event
- Different company roles that attend the event (CTOs, marketers, etc.)
- Vendors to buyers
What Are the Core Takeaways You’re Looking for From this Event?
Think about the event in light of the core takeaways that you’re looking for. When you leave, you want to get some value. Ask yourself if the event is going to match up with what you primarily want to learn from an event. If your objective is determining the critical factors for successfully implementing fraud detection systems in banks, then you’ll want to figure out if the event has enough to do with fraud or if the event will have enough banking people in attendance to make it worth attending. Oftentimes, people go to events pick up on trends in their industry, and I actually think it’s a pretty good reason to go, so long as it’s the right event.
I was speaking at the innovation office for INTERPOL in Singapore last year, and there was a high-ranking police official from a country in Asia who had essentially asked, after I was done with my presentation, “Hey, I want to learn more about AI in law enforcement. What events should I go to?” My answer was, “I don’t really think there are any that are coming to mind here.” Sometimes it’s not like, “Oh, yeah, just go to this big event. It happens every year. You’re totally gonna learn a lot as a law enforcement professional.” That’s not necessarily the case.
Recommendation engines for selling products or drug development for pharma companies may or may not be all that relevant if you are working directly for the Chief of the Police of an Asian nation. In that case, I had recommended this gentleman check out events on computer vision. A lot of law enforcement applications involve cameras, be they programmatically generated video work or detection of break-ins. There’s a lot of interesting work in the visual space for law enforcement, so I told him that would be pretty eye-opening in terms of capabilities.
But for things like predictive policing or border security, there’s really no events that I’m aware of that are catering to the law enforcement space. Law enforcement trends were what this man was looking for, so he might be better served talking to people in his industry about what they’re doing with AI and to go to events that might hit on specific portions of law enforcement capabilities, such as drone technology or computer vision. One is probably not going to find a big, broad event that satisfied their need for law enforcement trends. The same goes for several other industries.
Who on Your Team Should Attend the Event?
If the goal is to pick up on trends and open yourself up to the “capability space” of AI within your sector, you want to make sure the agenda is in line with that, but number two, you want to think about what other managers or what other VP folks or what other folks on my team should probably come along with you. If you are attempting to sell an AI-related product or service the AI ecosystem, you should probably plan on who on the sales team is best to go with you, for example.
Oftentimes, folks will bring along three or four people from their given department, attend an entire event that doesn’t really have that much to do with their particular sector, and walk home kind of feeling excited about AI , but not having any tangible outcomes because they didn’t go there with any in the first place.
I wish that more executive teams would think through events this way as opposed to seeing a press release from their competitor and assuming, “Oh, we need to go to a chatbot conference, too,” or, “Oh, that’s a big AI event. Everyone says that one’s fun. Let’s go spend two days, when we could be doing work, and go to this AI conference.”
There is a way to figure out if these are relevant or not, and the answer is going be different for everybody. I would get three bullet points under each of the following categories:
- What do you need to learn about AI (learning goals)?
- What do you need to do with AI (initiatives)?
- Who do you need to meet (networking)?
Writing three quick bullet points under each of those questions will provide clarity on which events might actually drive value for your organization.
Header Image Credit: Techburst