A conference about conferences, isn’t that super meta? It is, a bit. Most web conferences aim to bring web people together and inspire them to do better work. ConfConf in Bristol did something similar for those who organise conferences.
Having originally been conceived as a joke between two event organisers, ConfConf became a real thing for the first time last year. It turned out that the event provided real value: with all the knowledge sharing, organisers were able to learn a lot from each other.
This year, the event was held in Bristol, and I attended as part of a group representing Fronteers Conference. The audience was small enough to have group discussions and not need mics, but big enough to have lots of conf-organising experience between them. These are my notes of the day.
The human side of event organisation
Marc Thiele, organiser of the Beyond Tellerand conference in Düsseldorf, gave the first talk. He walked us through his process and the tone of voice he tries to convey.
If one thing stood out from his talk, it is that communication plays a huge role in everything he does. It sets the tone of the event, Marc explained.
He makes a point of being very friendly to every single person involved with his event: attendees (including previous attendees), speakers, suppliers, even the venue staff. Being friendly includes checking in with people, being prepared to patiently answer the same questions over and over and being interested in everyone at the event. This goes a long way. For instance, if you need your A/V to think with you about new ideas, it helps if you get along with them.
Communication is also about being very clear. Marc took us through the various emails he sends to attendees, speakers and others, to make sure everyone has all the information they need.
Getting bums on seats
John Davey, who is responsible for the ‘Reasons to’ conferences, talked about what he does to sell tickets. He recommended selling tickets early, making use of social media (on accounts that matter to your target audience rather than those with huge numbers) and doing so creatively.
John likes people who pull faces and, as his slides confirmed, is quite good at this himself.
He emphasised communication should be provocative (never rude though) and not bland. Creative communication and attention to detail also helps convince potential attendees of the quality they will get.
John gave some tips to increase ticket sales: by setting limits on based on quantity or time, you can create an urgency; you can be loyal to past attendees and email them with a special discount; you can also use the audience of your sponsors for promotion (their coverage/promotion could be more valuable than money).
Panel: all things to all people: striving for the impossible
In the first panel, there were discussions about curating a quality and diverse lineup, single track vs multi track and dealing with criticism.
Some organisers said they think of speaker names first, others think about talk subjects first and then come up with names for each subject. I like content-first, as it makes it much easier to explain to speakers why you want them. This increases your chance of getting speakers to agree to come to your conference.
We also discussed conferences with tracks. Having a single track can sometimes force people to sit in talks they would normally not attend. Marc Thiele said he likes that and tries to play with that. Rachel Andrew recommended that, in multi track conferences, speakers state the experience level at the beginning of their talk, to allow people to leave if the level is not what they were looking for (better for speaker and attendee).
The panel also talked about video: most conference organisers that attended said they had their talks recorded (some said they no longer did for cost reasons). Brief discussion followed on making videos available accessibly. At Fronteers we provide transcripts and captions for all our talks (see my blog post about how we do this).
What do speakers really want?
For her talk, Rachel Andrew did a survey amongst conference speakers and shared her results. She illustrated those brilliantly with personal experiences (she speaks at a lot of events) and gave a huge number of tips. There was a lot more in her talk than I can cover here, but I will try my best.
She talked about how important it is to be clear to speakers. What it is you do, what you expect a speaker to do where, when and for which audience and what you offer in return. Speaking is expensive, especially for those speakers who are freelancers / run a business. If your event makes a profit, you should pay speakers; only if you organise a community event you may get away with not paying.
Another thing Rachel talked about is to be helpful: make sure they have your contact details (and make sure there is always someone on phone duty), have professional audio/video people (‘agressive A/V people are a thing’, Rachel’s survey showed) and try to get post talk feedback to them (best filter it for constructive notes).
Rachel also said all speakers should be treated equally (rockstars and newcomers). That means they require equal pay, but also equal taking care of and being friendly to. If you are going to differentiate, best be extra helpful to newcomers rather than rockstars. If you have newcomers, inexperienced or vulnerable speakers (in any way), covering expenses can make a huge difference: paying their expenses and fees can empower them.
Panel: the future of conferences
In the ‘future of conferences’ panel, we discussed structure, and techy vs creative events.
Thomas van Zuijlen of Fronteers asked whether the “Fronteers model” (2 days of ‘just’ 45 minute talks) is going to die out in favour of newer models like the “responsive day out model” (1 day with sessions of three 20 minute talks followed by a panel discussion). Most of the panel agreed that the old model is likely there to stay, but new structures are interesting and bring in new benefits: more concise talks, easier to cover subjects that are too new to be suitable for a full length talk, etc).
The panel touched on the difference between events about technology and those about creativity. Some noted that the ones about creativity and inspiration are much harder to sell tickets for. One reason for this, the panel concluded, may be that it is easier to get management approval for attending a conference, if it is easier and more tangible what the conference covers (Angular vs creativity).
The conference survival handbook: extreme edition
Cat organises the international Smashing Conference as well as ConfConf itself. Cat’s talk was about a subject that will be familiar to anyone who has organised an event before: conference nightmares. There is so much that could potentially go wrong! Cat talked about known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns.
Known knowns are things that can be planned for, like not running on time, slow registration process, speakers illnesses and poor WiFi. To avoid running off schedule, Cat recommended planning time for getting everyone seated without gaps, factor in welcomes and introductions and being very clear to speakers about how long they are on for. To make registration smoother, she said events should avoid requiring ticket print outs and have one person available to investigate in case someone shows up and their badge is not there. She also mentioned preregistration, which can be good, but requires extra plain badges as people tend to forget theirs on the conference day.
Unknown knowns are things that happen on the day: a speaker oversleeps, someone is angry or rude on Twitter or a complaint is made. The crux of solving such issues is being ready for them when they happen: having people available that can react quickly is important. Cat mentioned at Smashing, she asks speakers to be on site a minimum of 3 times the travel time between hotel and venue.
Unknown unknowns are things that almost never happen: the projector’s bulb blowing (ask A/V staff if they have a spare), power cuts (again, ask venue for their backup plan) or natural disaster (take insurance).
If there is one thing that I learned from this day, it is that taking care of all the little details, being very friendly and communicating clearly are very important additions to your main conference organising duties. Probably thanks to having had an experienced speaker (hi PPK!) and a very friendly personality (hi Krijn!) amongst our founding organisers, I realised during some of the talks, many of these things have been in the FronteersConf handbooks for years. But I also heard many things we could improve on.
It’s been great to hear from some seasoned organisers and a speaker. And it was very useful to exchange knowledge on the day and in the pub afterwards. ConfConf showed me that there are many types of events, as well as styles of organising. Recommended for all (web) conference organisers!