Six Ways To Improve Conferences

In May and June, I participated in 13 events as a moderator (six), panelist (four), and featured or keynote presenter (three). They weren't evenly dispersed; May brought a stretch of four events in two and a half days, while June had a span of three events in three cities within 48 hours. It was both thrilling and tiring, and I'm glad I get to return to the day job for a while.

Along the way, I came up with a few thoughts on what can make events even better for all participants going forward. Some organizers have a real knack for this; Jeff Pulver in particular deserves a lot of credit for his thoughtful considerations that he incorporated into his 140 Characters Conference. Ultimately, participating in so many events spanning a range of topics mostly around social media topics gives me a way to cross-pollinate some of the best of what I've seen. Here's what can be done:



  • Mix it up. A number of events suffer from panel syndrome. When you have a large number of panels one after the other, they all start to sound alike. Get some solo speakers, even for short presentations as interludes. When you have a panel, also request speakers sit in the order they're listed in on the screen. If someone's a minute late to a session or distracted with an email during introductions, it's impossible to tell who's who without that arrangement. It's even harder for panels with four or five white males. As one of them, I can tell you from the back of the room, we all do look alike, especially with the social media uniform of the blazer, button-down, dark jeans, and loafers (sometimes we wear khakis).

  • Include speakers' Twitter handles on screen during their sessions and in the programs if the events have anything to do with social media. I've been lobbying a few event producers to do this, and I'm hoping it will become standard practice soon. The people tweeting about events are providing pro bono exposure, often to hundreds or thousands of others. It's even more effective if those tweeters can refer directly to the speakers' handles. Speakers are especially likely to have handles, and it makes it easy for speakers to continue the dialogue with tweeters after the session.

  • Know how to pace a panel. The 140 Characters panel with Rick Sanchez and Ann Curry was remarkable for a number of reasons (Ann Curry may be the best panelist I've ever seen). One first I witnessed there was that Pulver let the conference go twice as long because the audience was so engaged (watch Part 1 and Part 2). Most people I spoke to felt that panel alone made the conference worth their while. Another event I attended was so off schedule that by the afternoon, they couldn't find speakers since no one had a clue when they were speaking. Delays need to either be accounted for (like with a shorter lunch) or clearly communicated. Organizers should be conscious of extending some sessions when people are hooked, even if it means cutting others short when they fall flat.

  • Rework name badges. I'm not the first to say this, and I do see thoughtfully designed badges more often, but the majority of events I go to force unnecessary squinting. Priorities should be given to first names and companies. If it's a really geeky event, Twitter handles merit the same prominence. The smallest amount of space should go to the event name -- everyone knows what event they're at, and if they don't, the organizers have bigger problems.

  • Treat bloggers like the press, or don't include them. If you want people blogging about the event, give them the same courtesy you would to credentialed journalists, ideally with reserved seating and easy access to panelists. I declined to attend one event as a blogger when they tried setting restrictions on how much I could blog, as they feared live blogging was conveying too much information. I emailed the organizer, "If people who aren't there think they can get their money's worth from an event by reading a transcript, perhaps you should cancel the events and sell the transcripts."

  • Follow up with shareable content. For social media events, participants are especially likely to be active across social channels. Let them promote your event for you. Post multimedia to services where photos and videos can be embedded, tagged, and downloaded. Aggregate links to others' multimedia and blog posts in a single area. Provide a convenient list of everyone who was tweeting about the event.

    Several of these suggestions include ways to extend the experience beyond the event itself. Here's one thing organizers don't need to do: create a new social network just for attendees of that one event. With rare exceptions, they're a waste of time, and participants would be better served with groups on existing networks like Facebook and LinkedIn.

    Event organizers aren't the only ones who can keep providing more value to attendees. Speakers and moderators can also step it up, and they may be addressed in a future post. Share your other suggestions in the comments.

  • 7 comments about "Six Ways To Improve Conferences".
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    1. Steve Sarner from Tagged, June 30, 2009 at 3:27 p.m.

      Great input - and one more thing on name badges - print the name on BOTH sides...seems like 1/2 the people have their name badge flipped over - and I don't think it is on purpose (at least not always anyway)


    2. David Berkowitz from MRY, June 30, 2009 at 3:29 p.m.

      Good call, Steve. That's another thing Pulver did well. I was at an event last week where I COULD NOT get my badge to face the right way. I would have needed to glue it on my shirt. Double-sided printing is less messy :)

      Granted, it doesn't work when you have meal tickets and stuff in your badge holder (or if you like carrying your business cards in it), but dangnabbit you can't have everything.

    3. Jeff Hurt from NADP, June 30, 2009 at 3:31 p.m.

      Yes, yes and yes! There are a group of event & meeting professionals that are embracing some of the principles that undergird the social space and integrating it with the event experience. We believe the focus is really on the attendee before conference logistics. This vibrant community uses the hashtag #eventprofs in Twitter to discuss many of the points you shared above.

      Bottom line it's about using the social web to extend the conference experience before, during and after the event and integrating the offline & online experiences for attendees. I do it for my work and ask our speakers to create 2 blog posts, 1 e-news letter article, 1 webinar, 1 radio interview and face-to-face event. It’s actually part of their contract. As the event organizer, I intentionally seek to extend the event experience.

    4. April Broussard from Speakin' Up, June 30, 2009 at 6:42 p.m.

      Great article David. I need to get it out to all my meeting planner friends! Another thing I would like to see at all the conferences (regardless of topic or industry) is a running stream showing all of the tweets that are going out with the assigned hashtag. Either have them projected up on screens or in the walkways on monitors. It helps to connect, both the events/topics being discussed and the people that are there.

    5. David Honig, June 30, 2009 at 9:33 p.m.

      Agree on all points Dave! Also to add to the " mix it up " Category. Start bringing in new voices and let them be heard. There are many brilliant people out there that just do not get on stage and many conferences have the same names, the same faces..... dont get me wrong, I like everyone i see ( including you :) ) but it would be great to see some new young faces to hear their point of view.


    6. Charity Zierten from Socially Engaged Apartment Marketing, July 1, 2009 at 1:31 p.m.

      Great post! Because name badges are so difficult, I put my Twitter handle on the sleeve of my shirt for the last conference I attended. It was a big hit! People could see who I was from across the room AND sideways.

    7. Tony Stubblebine from CrowdVine, July 10, 2009 at 5:18 p.m.

      Hi David, I found this post through Michelle Bruno's blog and wanted to respond to your assertion that events shouldn't create their own social network. I think this misconception is driven by experiences with the previous generation of event networking products (pre-2007). Those products did an awful job of getting adoption and, as we should all be figuring out about social software, you need people.

      The second wave of products, which include my company CrowdVine, are essentially simplified versions of the social networks everyone is familiar with (Facebook/MySpace). That cuts down the learning curve and helps get adoption up.

      We’ve personally worked with over 100 events (which is by far the most in this space, but also just a drop in the world of events), and we’ve only had two events which didn’t have at least 30% adoption. It looks like you used a CrowdVine at Web 2.0 Expo NYC. That one had 3200 attendees which represented over half of all attendees at the conference.

      We started with tech conferences like Web 2.0, but most of our conferences now are for mainstream companies like General Mills or mainstream professions like nurses or lawyers and see adoption rates between 30-70%. Engagement, measured by page views, discussions, and connections made, are also high, definitely much higher than what people have seen in LinkedIn or Facebook groups.

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