Marketing conferences elicit a lot of feelings and opinions. Some people attend as many as they can, hopping from session to session, listening to keynotes, hanging out at the after-party ice luge. Others can’t stand conferences, or can’t seem to justify the time or money.

As we’ve watched the list of marketing conferences grow every year, we’ve thought more and more about these special events in our professional lives. What makes them tick? Why do people flock to them? What factors get top conferences to the top? And how can organizers improve what they offer?

To answer these questions, we surveyed more than 300 marketing professionals who have at some point donned a name tag lanyard.

Marketers shared their opinions on what they want out of the marketing conferences they attend.

Conferences can be expensive, no question. Flights, hotels, meals, drinks, entertainment… it adds up. And, if you’re self-employed, or not lucky enough to work for someone who values conference experiences, you could be footing a big bill on your own. Not surprisingly, cost was the leading factor for people deciding whether or not to attend a given conference.

Marketers with one to five years of experience cite cost as the most important factor when deciding whether to attend a conference. For more seasoned marketers, it’s a bit different. While still cost-conscious, marketers with six to 10 years experience consider location the most important factor. Marketers with 10+ years experience say the lineup of speakers is most likely to tip their decision one way or another.

Conference fatigue

Attending conferences is exhausting. No matter the length, a typical conference will feature a jam-packed schedule with short breaks between sessions and all kinds of networking opportunities at night. With the amount of information covered, experienced marketers know how sessions and side conversations will already begin to blur together halfway through the flight home.

According to marketers we surveyed, the ideal length of a conference is three days (43%). The next most preferred length is two days (28%), followed by four days (11%). Single day conferences didn’t get much love from our respondents, with only 5 percent citing them as ideal.

Also of note, a whopping 45 percent of respondents have left a conference early because they didn’t find it valuable.

While some conferences gush about huge attendance numbers and all the big name companies involved, other conferences promote low ratios of speakers to attendees, highlighting a more intimate, personal setting (and shorter lines at the bar). Either way, organizers know the size of a conference is top of mind when people are considering what to attend.

More than half of our respondents prefer conferences with 250 - 1,000 attendees, and 23 percent prefer conferences with fewer than 250 attendees. Those who prefer larger conferences tend to be more experienced marketers, with 10+ years in the marketing game.

Education vs. networking

In a perfect world, all marketing conferences would be chock full of amazing insights and memorable personal connections that result in new business and partnerships. While a few conferences are great both for educational and networking purposes, most tend to excel in one way or the other. We asked our marketers which is more important, education or networking?

Forty-two percent of respondents say networking is more important than education, and 35% feel the opposite is true. The remaining 23 percent consider both equally important. Furthermore, women are more likely than men to prefer education, and men are more likely to prefer networking.

Breaking the Ice

Conference organizers often try their best to make networking as easy as possible. They reserve private rooms at restaurants, provide one-on-one opportunities with session speakers, and, of course, loosen everyone up with their favorite beer, wine, and liquor.

But what types of social and networking activities really set a conference apart? According to our survey, people are interested in having unique experiences above all else. Second to unique experiences are sponsored cocktail hours, and rounding out the top five are entertainment, cash bars, and black tie events.

Are workshops worth it?

Most marketing conferences offer some sort of workshop experience, where experts offer up in-depth, interactive experiences in a classroom environment. Typically, they occur either before or after the main conference and cost extra to attend. We asked marketers if they attend these types of workshops, and what they think of them.

Only 8% of our respondents said they flat out disapprove of these kinds of workshops, and 35% of respondents say workshops either before or after the conference are equally acceptable. More people were likely to prefer workshops that occur before the conference, rather than after. Marketers with at least 6 or more years of experience are half as likely to attend a workshop after a conference.

Get out there

Conferences have evolved quite a bit in recent years. More than ever, there seems to be something for everyone. Just be sure to do your homework before you attend, and confirm a conference is the right fit for you. Looking for a great place to start that search? Check out our Ultimate Marketing Conference Guide.