One of the most common challenges these days for financial advisor conferences is deciding whether or how much practice management content to include. On the one hand, a practice management session that has just one material takeaway that impacts the advisor's business can generate a good ROI for the entire conference. On the other hand, practice management isn't eligible for CFP CE credit, and most practice management sessions end out having a lower turnout. Does that mean it's time to give CE credit for practice management sessions to equalize the playing field?
In this week’s #OfficeHours with @MichaelKitces, my Tuesday 1PM EST broadcast via Periscope, we delve into the issue of whether conferences should still offer practice management sessions, and why the real problem isn't really about whether practice management is eligible for CE, but simply that almost any particular practice management session will only be relevant to a small subset of advisors!
In fact, the irony is that the most common reason financial advisors ask for CFP CE credit from conference sessions is not because it's hard to get CFP CE credit, or that we need to go to a conference to get it. It's because a lot of conferences have mediocre sessions... which means if we as advisors are going to attend, at the least we want some CE credit as a consolation prize for the time and dollars spent! And with so many conferences unwilling to invest into paid speakers, and still relying on sponsors to fill their speaking slots - despite the fact that most sponsors have a long history of delivering sales pitches in lieu of real education - it is no surprise that CE is a common demand. If you expect the content to be mediocre, the CE is the only remaining reason to bother showing up!
But when it comes to good content, the value of the content can more than pay for itself, regardless of CE credit. And good content can come in the form of a technical session or practice management. In fact, financially, good practice management content – that provides real takeaways that can be implemented to make meaningful changes in the business – can actually provide a much higher ROI than technical content. And in point of fact, it really is the conferences that spend the most time and effort (and in some cases, hard dollars) on content that are seeing the most growth and financial success!
The caveat when it comes to practice management content, though, is that even the best session isn't likely going to be useful for all advisors, or even most of them. After all, a great session on selling a firm won't be valuable to the majority of advisors who currently aren't looking to sell their firm anytime soon. A great session on technology won't be valuable the large number of advisors whose platform makes the technology decisions for them. And a great session on marketing won't be valuable for the large number of paraplanners or associate planners who don't have business development responsibilities. Which means even the best practice management speaker will rarely draw a large crowd for a practice management session. But that doesn't mean conferences should avoid this content altogether! Rather, they should be careful about how it is scheduled - put practice management content in breakout time slots, paired with different content for those who won't find the session relevant, and be cognizant only to put practice management speakers into general sessions if their content is truly relevant to the whole audience!
Ultimately, as CFP and other types of CE becomes more and more commoditized and accessible from many sources at a low cost, the value in attending a conference is not the CE. Advisors may leave audience feedback requesting CE, but that's not a sign they truly need CE - it's a sign that the conference needs better content, so the audience isn't demanding CE as a consolation prize!
(Michael’s Note: The video below was recorded using Periscope, and announced via Twitter. If you want to participate in the next #OfficeHours live, please download the Periscope app on your mobile device, and follow @MichaelKitces on Twitter, so you get the announcement when the broadcast is starting, at/around 1PM EST every Tuesday! You can also submit your question in advance through our Contact page!)
#OfficeHours with @MichaelKitces Video Transcript
Welcome, everyone! Welcome to Office Hours with Michael Kitces!
Today, I want to talk about the conferences that we attend as financial advisors, and the sessions we tend to see at those conferences. In addition, I want to talk about the challenges that conference organizers go through in trying to figure out what kind of content should be offered at a financial advisor conference for us.
Today's question comes from Jenny, who asks:
"Michael, we're working on our annual Chapter Symposium, and our board is having a debate about whether to include practice management sessions or not. As you know, practice management isn't eligible for CFP CE, and there's concern that if not all the sessions offer CE, it will hurt our attendance. But don't advisors need help in running their businesses, too? What do you think?"
Great question, Jenny. This is, honestly, an issue I've dealt with a lot over the years myself, both as a former FPA chapter president (I've dealt with this in planning for our own chapter symposium) and also because as a speaker, I have both technical content and practice management content, and I have a lot of conference organizers ask me about whether I think the practice management content that isn't eligible for CE might hurt their attendance or not.
On the plus side, as someone that also goes and speaks at 60- or 70-something conferences every year, I've seen a lot of different events, and different ways to handle this challenge. So here's my take on it.
CFP CE Shouldn’t Be A Consolation Prize [Time - 1:40]
I think a lot of conferences over the past several years have dug themselves into an awkward hole when it comes to their content. The problem is that they didn't do a very good job on the content in the past.
Maybe the conference task force had limited resources to find good speakers, or maybe they just couldn't afford to get good speakers and unfortunately got some bad ones. But in a lot of situations, the problem was that the event relied on sponsors paying for speaking slots to fund the event, and then some of the sponsors sent bad speakers who didn't really educate, and instead, just pitched their product from the podium.
But whatever the reason; not knowing good speakers, not being able to afford good speakers, or having sponsors that abuse speaking slots, there are a lot of conferences that are now known for having, shall we say, mediocre content.
Wearing my hat as an advisor, when I look at whether to go to a conference, I decide primarily based on whether I think it's going to be useful content. If I'm gonna pay, and more importantly, I'm gonna take time out of my day, I want to get something of value. Ideally, in a world where I need at least 15 hours of CFP CE every year to maintain my certification, I'd like to get CE also.
But here's why this matters. Because what it means is if the content is good, I'm going to go for the content. If the content turns out to be bad, I can always say, "Hey, at least I got some CE credit." In other words, at best, it's good content and CE credit. And at worst, I wasted an hour of my life, but at least I get some CE credit as a consolation prize.
However, the problem with conferences that have a history of bad content is that their audience is assuming it's probably going to be bad. So now, the only reason to show up is CE content. And then suddenly, the best-case scenario is "Well, at least I'll get the CE consolation prize." Which means we see these audience feedback forms that say, "I'm attending because you offer CE." Because at least a bad hour of content that's eligible for CE still fulfills the CE requirement. If you're going to offer bad content and not even offer CE, it's just a wasted hour of my life I can never get back.
This dynamic makes practice management content especially challenging since practice management content isn't eligible for CE. Which means the stakes are really high. The session better be good and relevant because there's no CE consolation prize coming.
But here's the key point to recognize, however: it's not actually about the CE. It's about the content. When the content is good, the questions about CE go away, and I've watched that happen with one conference after another. No one asks about CE when they're going to see a speaker or a topic they're excited to see, they want to see, and it's relevant to their needs. We ask about CE when we're expecting or worrying it's going to be bad content, because we want to make sure that at least we're going to get the consolation prize.
Focus On Valuable Content, Not Commoditized CE [Time - 4:32]
Which means, if you're organizing a conference, the key isn't to figure out whether your content lineup is all eligible for CE. The key is to make sure that your content lineup has good content. Because advisors will pay for high-quality content. And whether it's technical content or practice management really doesn't matter. To be honest, from a financial perspective, if you can give good practice management content that really helps me improve my business, I get a better ROI from practice management content with no CE than I do from technical content.
That's why one of the secrets of the speaking world in our industry is that if you want to get paid for practice management content, you go to a broker-dealer event. Because broker-dealers are actually much more likely to pay for practice management content. From a broker dealer's perspective, if 2% of the advisors have a 2% increase in growth rate and you magnify that across the entire organization, you get an amazing return on investment for the conference to pay for practice management content.
Certainly those advisors need CE, too, but the truth is that 15 hours of CE actually isn't really that much to get. I mean, not in today's world where there's so much CE out there that you can get it free from a lot of sponsors, or you can choose from dozens or hundreds of conferences now. So many in fact that we publish our list of top advisor conferences every year. Heck, you can get CFP CE credit from the Members section on Kitces.com for reading Nerd's Eye View blog.
The reality is that CE is a commodity. Good content is a differentiator in real value for a conference. And that's why we see the conferences that focus the most on the content are often the ones that spend the most on the speakers and the ones that are growing the most. It's events like AICPA's Personal Financial Planning Conference, FPA NorCal, IMCA Private Wealth Advisor. And what you'll notice about those conferences is that there are virtually no sponsored sessions anywhere on the agenda. Because unfortunately, sponsored sessions tend to have the worst hit rate or the worst miss rate for delivering bad content. Speakers get on the agenda based on the merits of their speaking abilities and the relevance and the value of their content.
And the irony of that all...although I guess it's not really ironic when you think about it, is that by eliminating those sponsored speaking slots, those conferences actually generate some of the highest sponsorship revenue for conferences of their size. Because when the content is valuable, then advisors show up. And when advisors show up, the sponsors want to be there, even if they don't get a speaking slot.
In other words, the events that are the least focused on CE and giving the fewest opportunities for sponsors to speak are the ones that are growing the most, getting the most growth in advisor attendance, and the most growth in sponsorship dollars. Because the value isn't the CE and building a conference with mediocre content where CE is the consolation prize because that's not sustainable, as a lot of conferences now with declining attendance are learning. It's not about giving away the CE. It's about giving good content. And at that point, the CE is just a bonus.
Why Good Practice Management Content Will Have A Limited Turnout [Time - 7:34]
With all that being said, I think it's worth pointing out that even with really good content, most conferences will never get the same turnout for a great practice management session. And the reason isn't because practice management content isn't eligible for CE or because practice management content isn't great (some of it really is!). It's because practice management content just isn't relevant for as many advisors.
Think about it for a moment. Let's imagine you've got one of the industry's leading experts to talk about how to maximize the value of your advisory firm as you get ready to sell it. You've got David Grau, Dave DeVoe, Dan Seivert, or Philip Palaveev out to talk about valuing your advisory firm.
Those are great speakers and that's a great practice management topic. I'm sure the content will be good, and I guarantee you the turnout is going to be small. Because maximizing the value of your advisory firm in a sale just isn't relevant for most advisors if you're in your 20s or your 30s or your 40s or maybe even your early 50s, when you're still so far off from being ready to sell your firm, that you're probably not going to take the time to go to that session. And even if you're of an age where you are maybe getting closer to retirement and winding down your firm, not all advisors own their own firm to be able to sell it. Even the industry benchmarking studies are now showing that in the RIA community, there are actually more employee advisors than there are owner-advisors. And even amongst owner-advisors, some of them are minority partners that are already part of a succession plan, or some are experienced advisors getting ready to sell, but they already have a succession plan.
As a result, the number of advisors who might go to that session on selling your practice who are at the right age, at the right business stage, and in the right role just isn't going to be that many advisors. Even for a great speaker, it's just not going to have a great turnout. And the same is true of almost any practice management session you can think of. A great session of advisor technology? Not relevant for a lot of advisors or broker-dealers who don't get to pick their own technology. A great session on marketing and finding your advisory niche? Not relevant for all those CFPs who are still paraplanners and associate planners and don't have marketing and business development responsibilities. A great session how to turbo-charge the growth of your advisory firm? Not relevant for all those advisors who have decided to run a lifestyle practice instead. And the list just goes on and on.
The practice management content just tends not to be as widely relevant to as many advisors, at least not compared to a lot of technical content. Because, if there's a new tax law, everyone needs to know how the new tax laws work. It doesn't matter whether you're an experienced advisor, a new one, an advisory firm owner, an employee, whether you have a succession plan or not, whether you're a lifestyle practice or a growing practice. If there's a new tax law, you need to know how the tax laws work!
And that's the real distinction. Technical content tends to span across business models and different business types and career stages. But practice management content tends to be very specific to a particular business model and career stage and age. And so, practice management sessions virtually always get lower turnout, unless they're truly relevant across the spectrum...maybe something about broad-based industry trends that's really relevant for everyone. The rest is going to get a lower turnout. And it's not because it lacks CE. It's because it just isn't relevant to as many people.
Put Practice Management In Breakout Tracks (Unless It Really Deserves A General Session!) [Time - 10:49]
Here's the key point for conference organizers. That doesn't mean that conferences should avoid practice management content! Because, for the people it impacts, practice management content does matter a lot. And for many topics, the cost of an entire conference can be made in one good practice management session. One key takeaway that I can take back that material impacts my business and changes the trajectory of the business is incredibly valuable. But if you're a conference organizer, you might want to put that practice management session in a breakout so there's something else to go to for all the advisors who don't find that particular session relevant. Or have a time slot with a lot of different practice management sessions. Perhaps different sessions for people at different career stages and within different business models. If you're going to have a session on growing your firm, also have one on how to advance your career as an employee for those who don't own their firm. Or if you're going to have a session on choosing technology, also have a session on personal productivity for all those advisors who don't get to choose their tech, and they want something else that's more relevant for them.
If you put not so relevant practice management content into a general session when it really isn't valuable for most attendees, you know what you're going to hear as feedback? "We want more CE." But it's not because the advisors necessarily want or need more CE. It's because they're pissed they spent an hour in a session that was irrelevant, and they didn't get the CE consolation prize. As a result, the feedback form says, "If you're going to offer crappy, irrelevant content, at least give me CE." But it's not really about the CE! It's because the content wasn't relevant, or maybe the speaker just wasn't very good. Because again, when the practice management is good and relevant for everyone, the lack of CE just isn't a big deal.
So Jenny, getting back to your original question, my advice to you is not to worry about whether the content is eligible for CE. Worry about whether the speaker is actually any good, and how relevant the content is to the whole audience. If the session is really only relevant to a subset of advisors, do the session, don't worry about the CE. But be sure to put it in a breakout slot with an alternative that's relevant for the rest of the audience. And only if it's truly relevant for everyone, then you can put it in a general session.
Either way, make sure you actually try to find a good speaker. See if anyone else on the chapter board, the conference committee, or even just amongst the chapter members has ever seen the speaker and can attest to whether they're actually a good speaker or not. Some speakers even have demo videos or can give you a copy of something that they presented and was recorded at another event, so that there's something to check out as a sample. Heck, a lot of the time, if you just search for a speaker's name on YouTube, you can find at least some recording of something they've done publicly and get some sense as to whether they can communicate clearly and with confidence.
But the bottom line is just to recognize that as CE becomes more and more commoditized and accessible from more and more places (for free or at least cheap), the value is not the CE, and the demand for CE is really not a demand for CE. The value is the content. The demand for CE is the consolation prize for bad content. But don't focus your energy on finding content that gives nice CE consolation prizes. Focus your energy on finding good, valuable, relevant content!
I hope that helps as some food for thought. This is "Office Hours with Michael Kitces," 1:00 p.m. East Coast time on Tuesdays. Thanks for joining us, everyone, and have a great day.
So what do you think? Do you attend conferences for the content or the CE? Is CE a consolation prize for bad content? Do you wish more practice management content was available? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!