How To Make Conferences Great

Industry conferences are a cornerstone of our interactive industry. They serve many purposes: idea exchange, education, soapbox, vendor bazaar, sponsorship, promotions, networking, market intelligence and revenues for the producer. Many are great, but too many are average. And with a robust interactive economy, there are more events than any industry professional could ever expect to attend in a lifetime. It's overwhelming, and the conference calendar is getting still more crowded, with frequent overlaps!

As a regular attendee, speaker and occasional programmer and sponsor at a range of interactive marketing events, I've become sensitive to several facets that can make or break the conference experience. Most of these are obvious, but the obvious too often is neglected or ignored altogether.

Conference producers, take note! Here are my top ten recommendations to be great:

1. Be authoritative. To produce an A-level conference, you need to be the highest-level authority in the subject. That means acknowledging where your subject-matter authority begins and ends, and cultivating it over the long haul. Conversations are a conference core, and meaningful ones require thought leaders to attract the right participants, engage stakeholders, guide the discussion and synthesize conclusions. Are you an authority?



2. Define your community. Who are the core stakeholders that make up your community? Are you eyeing the strategic players, or ceding to industry tire-kickers and fly-by-night companies that probably won't be around after recession or consolidation? The quality of everything correlates to your discipline in serving core, strategic community members -- whether presenters, attendees, sponsors or partners.

3. Halt Powerpoint abuse. I'm shocked at how many conferences will charge thousands of dollars for a ticket and then subject attendees to boring presentations made excruciating by Powerpoint abuse. A lot can be done to improve presentations, but putting severe restrictions on slide usage is top of the list. By eliminating Powerpoint crutches, presenters would be forced to inject more thought and preparation into effective presentation techniques.

4. Enforce points of view. I'm also shocked at how many presenters and panelists show up with poorly constructed arguments -- if any real point of view at all. Every single moderator, presenter and panelist should be forced to submit a one-page persuasive essay on his or her subject, with solid supporting evidence. Such an exercise would intimidate and weed out people without anything meaningful to say, and enforce more crystallized arguments and constructive discussion.

5. Pay the presenters. OK, maybe this idea is crazy. Why would a conference producer pay presenters if there already are so many people jockeying for the spotlight? First, many of the smartest, most relevant presenters won't show without pay, or some other significant incentive. Secondly, if presenters are what drive paying attendees, shouldn't conferences share in the financial gain? Thirdly, paying presenters would create demand for such presenter opportunities and drive the quality of the talent pool.

6. Showcase more new smart faces. There's a lot of smart people that deserve repeat exposure, but too many conferences rely too much on the mainstay experts. Many conference producers can afford to do more homework to solicit new faces and compelling stories.

7. Tap into audience wisdom. Even conferences with poor attendance typically end up gathering relatively significant numbers of smart people. Conferences should do more to harness that wisdom and redirect it back into the overall experience. A conference can attract some great presenters, but the collective wisdom of the attendees will always be far greater. Think survey research, focus groups, workshops, debate and online interaction. Eliminate "audience" status and make everyone a participant.

8. Serve good food. Why is bad hotel food the staple of so many conferences? Dry chicken breasts. Overcooked salmon. Soggy vegetarian plates. Then there's the self-serve box lunch with aging cold cuts on a stale bun, accompanied by a waxy apple. Considering the cost of conference tickets, there's room for better food!

9. Provide reliable WiFi. Most conferences have received the memo: not providing WiFi creates a tumultuous experience for busy execs who need to be on the grid. Not having WiFi also creates friction for press and bloggers filing stories. Conferences are getting better, but WiFi provisions still are not guaranteed. They should be, especially in cavernous venues where wireless broadband cards don't work.

10. Remember that less is more. Finally, producing more conferences isn't necessarily better. If there's a market for more, great! But expanding conference franchises may risk diluting core conference brands and signature events. Great care must be taken to ensure that quality and exclusivity are not jeopardized in the quest for greater volume and revenues.

Which industry conferences do you attend? And what makes or breaks the experience?

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