Does asking attendees in advance for program suggestions work?

by Adrian Segar

Does asking attendees in advance what they want to have happen at a conference workOver and over again, attendees report in conference evaluations that the predetermined program was a poor fit to what they would have liked to have happen. In my experience, the average participant gives lukewarm ratings to over half of the sessions available to them at a conventional conference.

How can we do better?

One obvious approach is to poll attendees before the conference. Nearly all conscientious event planners do this.

The problem is, asking your attendees for their input on the upcoming conference program simply doesn’t work very well. Here’s why:

  • Attendees, like all of us, are busy people. How many of yours are going to fill out a long (or even a short) questionnaire about what they want at an event that’s happening six months from now? Not many. Even if you force them to answer as part of the registration process, how much time are they going to spend to really think about the three most important topics they’d like you to offer? Sure, a minority of attendees will be conscientious and may give you some good ideas. But do you know if they represent an unbiased sample of your attendees? Do you want to base your conference program on their responses?
  • Most food goes stale. (OK, Twinkies don’t, but how many of us enjoy eating Twinkies?) Similarly, most conference topics have expiration dates. The topic that’s hot now may be cold by the time your conference rolls around. So even if lots of your attendees tell you they’re really into sushi now, it may be Cambodian Cha knyey when it’s time to actually sit down for the conference meal.
  • There’s a world of difference between a response to the question “What do you want” when it’s asked about the distant future and when it’s asked about what you want in the next five minutes. At Conferences That Work, when the roundtable facilitator announces that, in five minutes, people will start to answer three questions out loud to everyone present, minds become wonderfully concentrated. That’s when you find out what attendees really want. Not before.

I’m not saying we should give up asking in advance what attendees want in a conference program. Sometimes you’ll get good suggestions for conference presenters or session topics that you can turn into valuable sessions at the event. But you’ll rarely be able to create the bulk of a conference program that fits as well as one that’s created at the event.

So, don’ t sweat about creating the perfect conference program in advance. Relax. Use the first two sessions of Conferences That Work to ask your attendees what they want. Your attendees will build the best program possible themselves—and they’ll thank you for the opportunity!

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  • Adrian,

    Some terrific thoughts. In reading it strikes me that what you’re saying is that attendees will indeed tell us what they’re interested in discussing/learning, it all comes down to when we ask. In the moment yields better results than well prior to the event. If I’ve understood the thought, that makes sense.

    Wouldn’t a mix of the two make sense? You’ll have a small portion of your community offer suggestions well prior to a conference. Those ideas could build the pillars of an event, while in the moment suggestions can serve to flesh out the remainder of the experience.

    In my experience that small community that provides input prior to an event does well when directed on core activities. I’ve also seen that community grow over time if it’s communicated that the changes seen at the event were provided by the community. Nothing brings ideas like seeing community ideas in action.

    • Hi Kevin, thanks for your inquiring comments! I agree that asking core attendees for input prior to an event makes that event better than when a program is blindly created without input. But I’m not very impressed by the level of improvement, and that’s because I believe (and attendees seem to agree) that I’ve found a better way to make an event serve its participants.

      Over the years, I’ve tried numerous ways to build a standard program in advance by asking for attendee suggestions. And, for the reasons I describe in the post, I haven’t found a way to do this that reliably creates a conference program that attendees rave about. Whereas, using the processes I’ve developed for Conferences That Work develops a great program at the conference every time.

      The longer events I run (>2 days) normally have a mixture of attendee-created sessions and traditional predetermined sessions. This helps to market the event to people who are wary of the idea of a conference with no fixed schedule of sessions. However, it’s the peer sessions that invariably make the event meaningful and memorable for the attendees not the traditional sessions. As I describe in my book, I’ve found that program committees normally predict less than half of the session themes that are actually chosen by attendees. So, in Conferences that Work, it turns out to be not the peer sessions but the traditional sessions that “flesh out the remainder of the experience”.

      I should add that every peer conference includes closing structured sessions that lead attendees through both personal and group introspection about the event they’ve just experienced. Their feedback is then incorporated into future events. The community that is developed around repeated events is indeed, as you say, strengthened by this transparent feedback.

  • Agree, Adrian… We have to accept that we can’t blame the delegates for not telling us ahead of time what they want! 

    All the more, a good curator of a conference is key, and she/he should maintain a close contact to the target group – for three things, basically:

    – a more accurate educated guess of what people really value (without asking)

    – knowing how you can positively surprise your attendees (with innovative and engaging elements that the delegates would never ask for)

    – knowing which questions really to ask in order to involve them optimally before the event.

    Well, not easy, but if anyone could do it… it would be boring, right? 🙂

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