15 Ideas to Create a Great Conference

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I may have attended 20 events and conferences this year. I’ve
been to conferences all my career, but it was especially concentrated this year
as an exhibitor, speaker and attendee. So, I’ve seen conferences, events and
symposiums from multiple perspectives at events such as Internet Retail,
eTail, Shop.org, SuperNova, WOMMA, iCitizen Symposium, adTech, SES, eMetrics,
Creative Good, Forrester Consumer Forum, eComXpo (virtual conference), and others.

iPods are great because they do so many little things right
— software, packaging, itunes, advertising. It’s a whole experience. The goal
is to create an iPod-like experience for conferences. Attendees, exhibitors and
speakers have limited time and money. Some can only attend one or two conferences
a year. So excellent logistics, attendees and speakers make a conference stand
out like iPod stands out among MP3 players. A great conference experience has
great topics, ample networking, and a bunch of little things that just go
right.

So, in the interest of creating an excellent event
experience for exhibitors, speakers and attendees, here are some of my tips
(some big, some small) for creating a great conference experience!

  1. Send a Countdown to Hotel Sell Out — Every conference has a
    preferred hotel with reserved room. Most attendees are procrastinators on
    booking the hotel. With a regular email tell them how many rooms are left.
  2. Send a "To Bring" Reminder to Attendees and Speakers
    — No one does this. But why not send an email a couple days before the show
    reminding attendees to bring cards, a bathing suit if it’s a warm area with a
    pool, sunglasses, etc. Send the expected weather forecast. And send logistics
    of the event (hotel address, conference address, etc.). This creates goodwill,
    excitement, and is a little thing that prior to the event shows you’ve got your
    s&%t together.
  3. Use an Online Extranet for Exhibitors — Internet Retailer
    and Shop.org have very useful online systems to select your booth, rent
    furniture, get billing details, etc. This is a win win…I’m sure this reduces
    churn and time for the conference organizer and makes it easy, fast and
    convenient for the exhibitor to get their s&%t together!
  4. 20 Feet Badge Layout Test — Whether you’re an attendee or
    an exhibitor, everyone is looking at badges to find someone they want to meet
    or talk to. And this is the biggest motivator for coming to conferences. Can I
    see the name of the person and company on the badge from 20 feet away? Make the
    name and company name larger, and include the location of attendee (WOMMA does
    this).
  5. Blog Before the Conference — WOMMA is the only conference
    that has a pre-conference blog. Attendees and speakers can submit tips and
    teasers to their show. These get linked from elsewhere and build buzz.
  6. Prep Speakers On the Phone — Shop.org and WOMMA get on the
    phone with speakers to discuss how presentations should go, expectations,
    guidelines, templates, etc. This creates a high quality show and content.
    Reinforce what the audience wants to hear, show examples of high rated
    presentations, require case studies and examples, and reinforce no selling. An
    email won’t do this…make the speakers accountable to the content organizer —
    lest they not be asked back.
  7. Hand out a Pocket Agenda — I’m sure some conference does
    this, but not the conferences above. Make it easy for attendees to see what’s
    next without carrying a big book, reaching in the bag, and looking for page 5
    in the big book. If you have a large badge holder, put it in the badge or on the
    back of nametags.
  8. Separate Content and Exhibitor Fees — Should exhibitors be
    able to pay their way to speak? Would this create great content? Good magazines
    separate editorial from advertising. Conferences should do the same. If part of
    a conference’s product are great speakers and topics, the event organizer
    should find the best speakers and topics…period. At online online retail
    conference, for example, you can pay to speak (and it costs a lot). Even if I
    had more budget than I knew what to do with, I wouldn’t want to be associated
    sponsored speaking because as an attendee (and I am both), I wouldn’t want to
    listen to sponsored speakers. I think the topics aren’t as interesting and the
    content suffers. Anyone paying to speak will be more likely to ‘sell’ in an
    effort to recoup that investment.
  9. Give Feedback to Speakers — Want great speakers to come
    back? Give them feedback. Send them video or audio of their presentation. Send
    them the scores from the session feedback survey. Great speakers always want to
    improve and they’ll look forward to speaking at your conference next year if
    you give them feedback.
  10. Thank the Speakers — For the same reason you want to give
    feedback to speakers, thank speakers after the conferences. I’ve presented at about
    10 conferences this year and only one sent a thank you note after the event. That stood out to me.
    It made me want to refer other speakers to those conference organizers, and made
    me want to come back. It made me want to tell others to attend the event.
    Speakers are your product and they’re your influencers for driving word of
    mouth attendance.
  11. Select Speakers Based on Feedback and Topic Popularity
    Conference excellence is based on logistics (facilities, organization, etc.), participants
    (networking) and speakers (content). So, great content is based on the right
    topics and the best speakers presenting them. Select next year speakers based
    on previous years’ feedback, attendee feedback and input on great speakers, and
    topic popularity. Topic popularity can be gauged by attendance to previous
    conference topics, most popular article topics online, attendance to other
    shows and its topics, and attendee surveys. Also consider topics and speakers
    based on brands that are popular. The most popular breakout at a recent Word of
    Mouth conference was one where Coca Cola, Dell and Microsoft were all speaking.
  12. Bring in Speakers with Wisdom, Emotion and Perspective — In
    addition to selecting speakers that have good feedback and the right topic or
    brand, consider seeking out speakers that present wisdom, not just knowledge.
    What makes a keynote a keynote? Typically a great keynote makes you think,
    stretches your perspective, and is emotional and memorable. Certain speakers, perhaps
    not keynote-level, present their topics from a more strategic perspective. They
    can tell good stories. They simplify the complex. They share how knowledge is
    applied, and how things fit in a broader perspective. These are the
    presentations attendees remember. They forget the typical tactical breakout
    tips and tricks. And as a conference organizer, you want as much emotional and
    memorability from your conference. My guess is attendees typically forget
    and/or don’t act on 95% of what they heard.
  13. Bring in Speakers and Topics that are "Off" Topic
    — I ran into the VP of eCommerce for a major brand at Forrester Consumer
    Forum, who had just attended Shop.org (as I did). For her needs (higher level)
    she liked Consumer Forum better because it talked about topics with different
    perspectives instead of the tactical topics presented by all retailers. If
    you’re a conference trying to attract senior execs, they are interested by the
    name and perspective of the keynotes (see above), and topics that will broaden
    their perspective. Otherwise, they’ve heard everything else before and the only
    attraction left is networking.
  14. Create Roundtables — Shop.org has a popular section of
    their conference where brand leaders, sometimes with their agencies and
    vendors, present topical case studies. Roundtables are popular because they are
    targeted, small enough to allow Q&A and discussion, and they are great for
    networking. It’s also a great way to find out what topics are most popular! One
    roundtable on organization issues had to put two roundtables together to meet
    the demand.
  15. Leave Time for Q&A — At a recent WOMMA conference Dell,
    Coca Cola an Microsoft leaders spoke on word of mouth. They left no time for
    Q&A and everyone was disappointed. My sense is the audience would rather
    they spend 1/2 time presenting and 1/2 time for Q&A. This is why
    roundtables (above) are so popular. Format the session and instruct the
    speakers to leave adequate time for Q&A. Have someone in the room give the
    speaker 10 and 5 minute warnings (WOMMA does this). And make sure every topic
    ends on time so that next topics are not running behind, squeezing out Q&A
    time.

3 Responses

  1. Sam: I am one of your hundreds of passive readers :), but wanted to take a moment to express my thanks for this post. It really is such a cogent articulation of very prudent tips. I have attended many conferences and spoken at a few as well and it would be thrilling if the organizers followed 50% of your recommendations.
    Have a happy holiday season.
    -Avinash.

  2. Steve Harper says:

    Sam,
    I would love to chat with you about this! I am working on a new program as a way to fully engage conference participants on the front end called the Conference Ripple. Would love to get some of your feedback.
    Shoot me an email when you get a chance. steve@ripplecentral.com
    Ripple On!
    Steve Harper

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