Another issue of an occasional series—Dear Adrian—in which I answer questions sent to me about event design, elementary particle physics, solar hot water systems, and anything else I might conceivably know something about. If you have a question you’d like me to answer, please write to me (don’t worry, I won’t publish anything without your permission).
Q. Dear Adrian,
Forgive me if this is something you have been asked a million times before (and maybe you could point me to the page on your website which gives the answer, although I couldn’t find it.)
How do you market a new peer conference?
I can see that the peer conference structure can work for groups which have already been meeting for many years, for example industry association meetings, and people are looking for a better format.
But I think it would be very hard to get people to have enough confidence in a new peer conference without anything to show them about what is going to happen there (except possibly a list of other delegates, if it was possible to get anyone to sign up to a conference where the agenda was a blank sheet of paper).
The standard way to market conferences as you know is to try to attract some relevant interesting sounding speakers, and use the speakers names in the marketing – but that forces the structure into the standard 30 minute powerpoint format.
Do you have any examples of where someone has developed a new peer conference as a commercial business?
Digital Energy Journal, London, England
A. Dear Karl,
Great questions—no need to apologize! I’m often asked about how to market peer conferences and your request has an interesting focus.
Most of my consulting clients want help with conference redesign—making established traditional events more peer-driven and participation- and connection-rich. You may be surprised to hear this, but I think it’s often easier to create a new peer conference than to change the format of an existing conventional event. Changing something that already exists is often harder than starting from scratch.
I’m not saying that it’s simple to market a new peer conference. As you point out, people are accustomed to seeing a pre-determined schedule of conference sessions and speakers, which influences their decision on whether to attend. (I cover this “program trap” in Chapter 4 of Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love.) Many wonder a) how you can create a great conference program at the event and b) how good the resulting conference will be. Your marketing has to address these concerns.
In my experience there’s an essential prerequisite for a new peer conference to get off the ground: a core group of organizers who understand and believe in peer process (ideally, but not necessarily, through experience) and who are committed and prepared to proselytize the envisaged event to their professional circles. My rule of thumb is that this group should contain at least five people.
Once you have your core group in place, your marketing should feature the peer conference format without going into all the details. Intrigue potential attendees, especially those who are tired of traditional conferences, and talk up the proven nature of the design. Here’s an example of what you might say:
Have you attended a conference about TOPIC recently? Then you probably sat in room after room with scores of other attendees listening to outside experts talk about topics that weren’t quite what you were interested in. You were sure there were some interesting people to talk to, people who had the same questions you did (and maybe even some answers)—but how could you find who they were and meet them among the swirling crowds? Did you come away frustrated, feeling that only a small portion of the time you attended was valuable to you?
If so, you’re not alone.
INNOVCONF is different.
INNOVCONF is an out of the box conference experience for those accustomed to highly scripted events, calls for papers, pre-determined workshops, keynote speakers, networking receptions, etc. We use the proven Conferences That Work design to create a conference that adapts to meet your needs, leverages the combined expertise and experience of all participants, and provides unique opportunities to discover, connect, share, and learn with the peers you want to meet.
Our conference format is participant-driven and participation-rich. The attendees themselves—DESCRIPTION OF TARGET ATTENDEES—will determine the conference’s agenda, presenters, session format, focus, and results during the first afternoon of INNOVCONF. (To learn more, visit conferencesthatwork.com.)
The goals of INNOVCONF are simple. Create the best possible conference for each individual attendee, maximize participant interaction and connectedness, strengthen our community, and explore future group initiatives. Sounds good? Then register today to join your peers at this innovative event!
In answer to your last question, until my book was published in late 2009 I was the only person creating peer conferences, so it’s a little early to expect many examples of established pure Conferences That Work format peer conferences “as a commercial business”. In addition, many of the peer conferences now being held are not designed to be commercial meetings-for-profit ventures. Rather, they are seen as effective ways to bring a professional or vocational community together, with fees and budget set to cover costs and make a modest profit.
What people have started to do is to use the Conferences That Work format in conjunction with traditional general sessions to create what I called in the book a hybrid event (unfortunately of course, since publishing, “hybrid” has come to mean an event that has face-to-face and online components). The marketing of these events often plays up the big names invited, but the formats themselves contain significant peer conference elements. Three examples are FinCon: A peer conference for the financial blogging community, the Swiss Caux Conferences, and the Renaissance Weekend.
Karl, I hope this is useful. I’d love to hear more about your potential conference, and if there’s anything I can do to assist you, please let me know.
With best wishes,