The state of scholarly events in 2023

4 minute read

The only constant in life is change. Or so a wise man once said. Like most other industries, the scholarly events industry has undergone a tremendous amount of change over the past few years. To contextualise the changes we’ve seen post-pandemic, and help establish benchmarks, we take a deep dive into how societies and associations are connecting and engaging with their communities. Specifically through the lens of their research and technical conferences.

Over the course of 15 months (early-2022 to mid-2023), we conducted 27 open-ended interviews with a cross-section of our Ex Ordo customers, scholarly societies, and industry representatives. We asked each about their goals, activities, issues, and challenges. We listened, we learned. We identified several themes and trends. And we compiled a list of the top 10 insights, which we’re happy to share with you below.

Photo by cottonbro studio

1. COVID as catalyst for rapid digital transformation of scholarly societies & events

All the societies and associations we spoke to echoed the sentiment that COVID was the catalyst for rapid digital transformation of their organisations. It was a key turning point for engaging with online scholarly gatherings and content, despite initial reservations about presenting early-stage research in this format – citing concerns that it could be risky and wouldn’t be embraced by the community, especially in the basic sciences.

2. Digital transformation led to rapid internationalisation of research conferences

Rapid digital transformation in 2020 meant that many societies and associations quickly grew an international audience for their virtual conferences, content, and organisation membership. Three years on, they are now trying to retain this engagement through efforts like international membership options, and finding ways to remove language barriers for event participation and online content.

3. Sustainability prioritised for societies & scholarly events

Sustainability was a hot topic. Many scholarly societies and associations had it specifically called out as a high-level organisational goal, and were using the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals framework to structure their efforts. Near-term focus for sustainability efforts all included some type of blended event offering, but there were also initiatives to make society operations more sustainable, and to engage in discipline- or industry-specific sustainability issues. 

4. Focus on inclusion, diversity, equity, & accessibility for societies

A commitment to furthering the principles of Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibility (IDEAs) was another high-level organisational goal for many scholarly societies and associations we talked to. Issues of gender diversity, financial accessibility, and language barriers were receiving particular focus.

5. Networking & engagement limitations for virtual conferences

Events help members to connect and engage, and facilitating networking opportunities is core to a scholarly society or association’s mission. Many of those we interviewed have experimented with virtual approaches to networking and engagement, with limited success. The perception was that virtual networking and engagement were limiting for a core element of the audience. This, in turn, informed a society’s opinion on and approach to hybrid/virtual scholarly event formats.

6. Pros & cons of hybrid scholarly events

Hybrid is a topic that inspired mixed feedback. While all the scholarly societies and associations we spoke to saw the advantages of hybrid, and tended to agree that hybrid is here to stay, there was huge variety in exactly what that looked like for each organisation. In terms of international reach, and greater accessibility and affordability for delegates, the benefits of hybrid were clear. However, the format was seen to be lacking on the networking and engagement front. There was also universal consensus on the increased time and costs involved in organising hybrid scholarly events. So, while most societies were engaging in some form of hybrid or blended events, the issues of bandwidth and budget constraints meant that many had taken an active step away from a “fully hybrid” approach.

7. Return to in-person research conferences

Societies and associations reported an overwhelming “hunger” from their members to return to in-person scholarly events. None of them saw this as an end to virtual or hybrid offerings, but rather a desire for face-to-face networking, engagement, and community celebration, which has led to a renewed focus on the return to in-person programmes.

8. Building conference content libraries

Most of the societies and associations we talked to were experimenting with on-demand content libraries in some format. This ranged from member-only access to scholarly event recordings, to enhancing conference content with Continuing Professional Development (CPD) elements, like questionnaires. While content libraries was a generally positive topic, and something that many societies were looking to build out moving forward, there were concerns over the level of engagement that unenhanced conference content could have in the long term. There was also reticence from some research communities about having their conference session available in perpetuity, even behind a paywall.

9. Scholarly societies’ need for flexible event tech

A majority of the scholarly societies and associations we spoke to were using a suite of event tech solutions, rather than a single end-to-end platform. Most reported a widespread lack of integrated systems – both in-event workflows and with wider society/publishing workflows – and overly complex and non-scalable processes. This in turn led to frustrating manual workarounds and sometimes lack of insights, contributing to bandwidth issues for already thinly-stretched scholarly event organising teams.

10. Gaining deeper event insights to help grow organisation membership

The issue of maintaining and growing membership was flagged as a key concern for many societies and associations, whilst gaining deep, interconnected insights into scholarly events was challenging. The types of insights sought by societies are broad – from the granularity of in-session activities (e.g. questions asked, and engagement levels), to a breakdown of delegate demographics. A data-driven approach to gathering and analysing event insights could provide a valuable overview of the community’s wants and needs, and help drive membership growth.

Photo by cottonbro studio

Conclusion

Conferences are a core part of the research life cycle, and scholarly and technical events have specific needs. It is evident from our research that conference organisers are often left feeling stressed and overworked, dealing with tools which aren’t fit-for-purpose, workarounds, and lack of support. Ex Ordo aims to change all that. As an events-focussed company specific to scholarly needs, we equip conference organisers with a powerful, flexible platform, backed by dedicated, expert support.

‘If you build it, they will come’ is not a business motto to which we subscribe. Our customer discovery conversations, along with feedback and extensive post-development testing, are key to the shaping of our platform. Before a new feature makes it onto our product roadmap, we hold a mirror up to our customers, and ask them how we can best serve their needs. And as their needs evolve, so too will the development of our platform. We see this as an exciting time for innovation, with significant opportunities to build out solutions that will add great value – not only to our customers, but also the wider scholarly communications ecosystem in the years to come.

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Laura Harvey

With a background in chemistry, Laura has spent over a decade building her career in the scholarly sector. As Ex Ordo's CCO, her lens is now firmly focussed on the delivery of solutions for research conferences, to support the integral role they play in the scholarly lifecycle.