Ten tips for conference organisers

The conference industry is going through a time of massive change. Last weekend’s National Speakers Association of Australia conference showed how you can make business events more compelling in a crowded and difficult market.

The events industry is a sector in trouble from internet driven change – the effects of the GFC, coupled with people’s desire to conserve their valuable time, makes it essential that a conference or event offers something unique and compelling.

Here’s 10 ideas to respect your audience and make the next conference one they won’t want to miss:

Know your audience
Understand who you are pitching to. A recent conference I attended had been pitched to small business owners when the content and speakers were more relevant to public relations and media people. As a consequence half the room were disgruntled with the content. I doubt they’d come to another similar event from that organiser.

Get relevant speakers
The biggest turn off for a conference are speakers who have nothing new to say or aren’t relevant to the topic or the industry. Take some time to choose the right presenters. If you have trouble finding appropriate speakers for a session, it’s better to can the session rather than plonk in a participant who adds little or nothing to the topic.

Proper descriptions of speakers
A one paragraph biography and a 10 year old photo is not enough. Where is this person’s website and some video clips of previous presentations? If the speaker really adds value, then you shouldn’t be hiding their talents.

Have a proper website and domain
Setting up a domain name for the event is essential if you are charging substantial fees. If your event is free or there’s a nominal charge to cover costs then a WordPress, Facebook or Eventbrite site is fine, but if you are charging $2,500 then a proper domain with a half decent website is essential. Cutting costs here is a big warning sign to potential attendees, particularly in the tech and media sectors.

Maintain a blog
On your site you need to have a blog and it has to be kept up-to-date. As well as a useful marketing tool it’s a great way to have a dialogue with attendees. You will get questions and comments on your blog and you will be rewarded if you listen to those comments and communicate with your audience.

Create a Twitter hashtag
Rather than let your audience guess a hashtag and risk having four different streams running concurrently, publish the hashtag early on your website. This also creates a pre-event buzz and gives you the opportunity to gauge the markets view of the event.

Think twice about a Twitter wall
Feeding the Twitter stream to a screen behind the speakers can be a great idea but it has the opportunity to be a train wreck. If the presenters don’t have experience in dealing with live comments or you have a room full of mischievous Tweeters intent on hijacking various sessions then you should think twice before doing it.

Wireless networking is essential
Audiences need wireless networks and even high cost events often fail to provide them. If you are charging serious money for an event then buy some routers or, better still, choose a venue that’s realised the 1980s are over. Also, don’t mess people around with complex logins, the odd leech sitting outside stealing your intenets is better than irritating a room full of paying customers.

Post your presentations
You’re bound to have missed something so follow up with posting the presentations online. Depending on the event you may choose to lock them behind a paywall accessible only to conference attendees and supporters and that’s your call. However, the lesson from TED is if your event was truly valuable, having the videos free to the public is going to help your conference in future years.

Allow discussion
Your audience is smarter than you and your presenters. By giving them ample microphone time to comment or question the speakers you add value to the event and maybe even find smart people for your next conference.
Lecturing the audience only works if the presenter is an unchallengeable leader in their field. This factor is even more important if you are running a social media function where the speakers have spent the last hour proclaiming the importance of dialogue.

Giving the audience the stage is about respecting their intelligence, and we all want smart people to attend our events. Respect cuts even deeper, event organisers need to respect the technology and the economic changes that are challenging the events industry.

Those who do remember their job is to add value to smart, motivated folk will be those who prosper in a crowded, challenged market.

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Paul Wallbank is a writer, speaker and broadcaster on technology issues. He founded national support organisation PC Rescue in 1995 and has spent over 14 years helping businesses get the most from their IT investment. His PC Rescue and IT Queries websites provide free advice to business computer users and his monthly newsletter has over 3,000 subscribers.


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