Jinfo BlogSeven things I've learnt about organising a conference

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By Jonathan Kahn

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Abstract

With the help of the internet and social media, it’s now possible to organise a conference without a large advertising budget and an army of staff. You just need to follow Jonathan Khan’s seven-point plan – developed from personal experience – to create a successful conference.

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The internet and the social web are revolutionising the events industry. It’s now possible to organise a conference for a relatively small group of people who are passionate about a topic, even if they’re scattered around the world. You don’t need a large advertising budget, the support of mainstream media, or an office full of staff – you just need a compelling story, a committed team, great speakers, a community that’s engaged with you via social media, some logistical savvy and a large dollop of courage.

I recently organised a three day conference in London, the Content Strategy Forum 2011, which featured 39 speakers and drew more than 240 attendees from 20 different countries. I’ve never organised a conference before, so I learnt a lot from the experience. If you’re considering organising an event – and you should be – here are seven things I’ve learnt, which I hope you’ll find helpful.

1: Do your research

Find out what’s going in the world of events, both generally and in your specific industry or discipline. Scott Berkun’s book “Confessions of a Public Speaker” is a great place to start, even though it’s directed at speakers rather than organisers.

You should also read conference write-ups and critiques, watch presentation videos, and attend as many events as you can, paying attention to the details of the experience. Get yourself a speaking gig or two, ideally at a similar scale event to the one you’re planning, so you can experience a conference from the speaker’s point of view – and hopefully steal some ideas. The point of all this research is to realise the freedom you have to run your event differently from a traditional conference, which is crucial when you’re competing with the established players.

Now’s a good time to identify your audience and start to differentiate your conference from its competitors, both local and international, within your field and in neighbouring fields. (You’re always competing with someone for your attendees’ attention, time and money.) What are you offering that nobody else can? This is your vision for the event.

Despite all the new web hotness, we newbies have a lot to learn from seasoned event organisers. Use your network to get introduced to people who’ve organised events for five years or more, and interrogate them about practicalities, risks, rules of thumb, and tricks and tips. I’ve found that event veterans are happy to share what they know, so make sure you take advantage. You should also ask prominent members of your community for their advice about what type of event the community needs right now. You’ll need their support to spread the word, so why not ask them for advice too?

2: Be realistic about risk

Organising a conference is a risky business. If things don’t go to plan it’s easy to lose a lot of money, and to lose the goodwill of your community too. Why? To simplify, you have to commit to costs like venue hire before you have enough income from ticket sales to guarantee you’ll be able to cover them. Compounding that risk, credit card processors hold on to a portion of your ticket income until after the event, which makes cashflow planning tricky.

Taking risks is a fundamental part of organising events, but you need to be realistic about the risks you’re taking. I recommend that you:

  • Use a limited company so you’re personally protected if the worst happens.
  • Create a business plan (that you aren’t ashamed to show your accountant) with realistic cost estimates and break-even numbers so you know what you’re aiming for.
  • Budget for your time – you’ll be spending a lot of it on planning, and that means less time on your day job or on billable client work.
  • Plan for the worst by formalising team roles with contracts. Conferences take months to plan, and the initial enthusiasm can wear off during the drudgery of endless planning. Make sure you agree at the start, in writing, about responsibilities, risk sharing, time commitments and compensation.

3: Work with great people and avoid committees

Working with a great team will make a huge difference to the success of your event. When you have hundreds of decisions to make, long discussions, status wrangling, and lack of clarity about responsibility are a disaster – so avoid committees at all costs. We found that a core planning team of three people works well. The most important personal qualities are drive, enthusiasm, a positive attitude, and a willingness to see things through, whatever happens in the short term.

4: Choose speakers carefully

Finding the right speakers is crucial. There’s an art to it:

  • Invite great keynotes. A keynote speaker will set the tone for the entire conference, so try to announce your keynote speakers when you first announce the event. It’s worth spending time and money on finding the right person.
  • A great conference brings people together from different disciplines, industries and countries. So find recognisable representatives from different communities to signal to potential attendees that they’re welcome and will find the conference relevant.
  • Use an open call for speakers, to make the talks more interesting and the viewpoints more inclusive. (We found that inviting some speakers and using a call for presentations on specific topics for others worked well.)

5: Make the city part of the sales pitch

Make visiting the city part of the conference sales pitch so attendees can plan a holiday around the conference, which helps to justify the expense. If your venue’s in a major tourist destination like London, this job is relatively easy – London sells itself. Likewise, choose a venue with an interesting location, some history and atmosphere, and staff who care about the success of the event – avoid hotels if you can.

6: Build excitement using original content, a communications plan and preview events

Apart from all the planning, your main job during the run up to the event is to build excitement in the community, both for paid-up attendees and people who’re still deciding whether to come. The web gives us many methods to build excitement – here are three we found successful.

  • Publish original content. Your community is more likely to read (and share) original content about your industry rather than promotional content about your event. So take advantage of your amazing speakers by interviewing them, either by email or on Skype, and publishing blog posts or podcasts.
  • Create a communications plan. Work out what interesting information you’ll be able to share, like speaker and programme announcements, venue information, party details, etc. Space out your announcements using an editorial calendar so that more people end up hearing about your event. Plan your email newsletters in the same way.
  • Organise preview events. Give potential attendees a glimpse of the content and atmosphere of your conference by holding an after-work preview event. Record videos of the presentations and share them online.

7: Sweat the details

Don’t forget to sweat the details of the event itself: every minute counts. Here are some ideas to get you started.

  • Build lots of time into the schedule for informal networking and discussion: attendees need time to talk to each other about what they’ve heard. We threw three official parties and held extended coffee breaks and a long lunch to give people space to talk to each other.
  • Manage audience participation carefully. While taking questions from the floor creates an illusion of inclusion, mic-hogging is common and annoys everyone else. Consider other methods of inclusion like “meet the speakers” sessions during breaks.
  • Have a master of ceremonies (MC) in every conference track. The MC’s role is to make speakers feel welcome, and to get audience excited about them. It’s courteous and it sets the tone.

The most rewarding project

Organising a conference is the most rewarding project I’ve ever worked on. Almost everyone you interact with feels positive towards you – something I don’t experience often as a consultant. Bringing people together is a fantastic feeling and, surprisingly enough, people appreciate all the little things that you’ve considered ahead of time. Good luck with organising your event!

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