What makes attending conferences worthwhile? As I described in Conferences That Work, the two most common reasons for attending conferences are to learn useful things and make useful connections. But there are numerous other ways that conferences provide value to stakeholders. In this post I’ll focus on, arguably, the most useful conferences we can design: those that solve participants’ problems.
A useful taxonomy of problems
When thinking about solving problems, the Cynefin framework provides a helpful taxonomy of problem types. It’s useful because each Cynefin domain requires a different problem-solving approach. Cynefin describes five domains, usually named as: obvious, complicated, complex, chaotic, and disorder. Check out the above Wikipedia link to learn more about them.
As we’ll see:
Traditional conferences support, to some degree, solving participants’ obvious and complicated problems.
Peer conferences improve this support by allowing participants to share their top-of-mind problems in real time and leverage peer resources to get solutions.
Designing experiments into our conferences allow participants to explore solutions to complex problems.
How to help solve participants’ obvious, complicated, and complex problems at conferences
Here’s a little more detail on the obvious, complicated, and complex problem domains. For each domain, I’ll include examples of meeting processes you can use to satisfy participants’ problem solving wants and needs.
Obvious problems (“known knowns”) have known solutions, often called “best practice”.
For example, how do I:
Determine what employee data to store in the human resources system?
Provide frequent and timely feedback to my staff?
Maximize milk production on a New England dairy farm?
Research a potential client’s financial background?
These examples might remind you of the kinds of topics that routinely appear as the titles of traditional conference sessions. That’s because these are problems to which experts know the answers, or, at least, have plenty of good advice to share. Their expertise can, therefore, be shared with participants via traditional presentations.
Sadly, traditional lecture-style sessions are only good for solving participants’ obvious problems. What’s more, the session will be of little use unless the session content happens to match a participant’s current problem.
Peer conferences reduce problem solving limitations in the obvious domain, by allowing participants to influence the content and scope of meeting sessions in real time during the event. So it’s much more likely that participants’ top-of-mind obvious problems will be effectively addressed at a peer conference.
Unfortunately, the majority of our day-to-day challenges are not obvious. (That’s why we spend much more time and energy working on them than obvious problems.) Complicated problems (“known unknowns”) succumb to expert analytical judgment.
For example, how can I:
Unify my business’s unique branding and marketing needs?
Implement a customer relationship management system for my veterinary circus animal practice?
Provide the best guest experience at my Airbnb castle rental?
Evaluate event production company abilities for a game-changing event I’m planning?
Traditional conference lecture-format sessions provide almost no time for solving participants’ complicated problems. Typically, complicated problems can only be addressed up during a question and answer period at the end of the session, when there is little time to perform the kind of analysis a session expert might be able to supply.
Interactive conference sessions allow more opportunities for participants to share specific complicated problems and get targeted advice. However, few presenters incorporate significant interactivity into their sessions, and this format is more the exception than the rule.
Once again, peer conference sessions provide significantly more ways to solve participants’ complicated problems. There are two reasons for this. First, as above, peer sessions are far more likely to address the actual problems participants are currently facing. And second, peer session formats use the resources in the room — not just the session leadership — to uncover and resolve top-of-mind participant problems. (For more information on how to do this, see my book Event Crowdsourcing: Creating Meetings People Actually Want and Need.)
Complex problems (“unknown unknowns”) are even harder to resolve.
Don’t really know what questions to ask to start; and
Cannot accurately predict what the consequences of action would be.
Unlike the obvious and complicated domains, we have to approach complex problems by doing experiments. Cynefin describes this process using the word trio [probe–sense–respond], as opposed to the trios for the obvious [sense–categorize–respond], and complicated [sense–analyze–respond] problem domains.
Complex problems have to be tackled in the same way that scientists use experiments to probe the world around us and gradually build understanding of it.
Thus exploring complex problems requires a probing experiment, from which we observe outcomes, and then, with our understanding perhaps slightly improved, we probe in an appropriately different way again. With persistence and luck, over time we may be able to formulate some helpful responses to the problem.
It may seem strange to run experiments at conferences, but I’ve participated in (and designed) a few conference experiments over the years, and have invariably found them to be some of the most interesting and illuminating meeting experiences I’ve ever had.
The Solution Room creates a host of simultaneous small group problem-solving experiments, designed to support the solving of participants’ current challenges in a single session.
Finally, there are conferences that are entirely experiments!
In the meetings world, the most well known are the series of EventCamps that were held around the world between 2010 and 2014. These were volunteer-run, meeting experiments that explored a wide range of meeting and session formats and technologies. For example, we designed and held some of the earliest hybrid meetings, and introduced the meeting industry to peer conferences, gamification, improv, sustainability issues, and many other, now common, meeting components. These events made a profound impression on pretty much everyone who participated. Many of the people I met remain friends today.
Since 2016, I’ve been participating in the annual, invitation-only Meeting Design Practicum conferences that have been held all over Europe. A rotating crew of two or three volunteers organize these wonderful events. They plan an experimental program and ask participants to contribute in various ways, but are the only people who know the entire program in advance. Truly a unique and different experiment each year!
Conferences that are entire experiments are rare because they are risky. Experiments, by definition, have unpredictable results, which means they may “fail” to produce “desirable” outcomes. The understandable default assumption for most meeting industry clients is that their meetings are “successful”, and clients who are willing for “success” to include novel learning from innovative experiments are rare.
Nevertheless, whether held by the meeting industry for itself or for clients, meeting experiments provide the potential for the participants to work on some of their most difficult problems, those that are complex. Bear this in mind if you see an opportunity to create experimental sessions or events!
Solve participants’ problems!
Whatever kind of conference you design, remember the value of incorporating sessions and formats that solve participants’ problems. It’s no accident that the experiment-rich Solution Room is the most popular and highly rated plenary I offer. Give your participants opportunities to solve their top-of-mind problems at your meetings and you’ll make them very happy!
Image attribution: Cynefin illustration by Edwin Stoop (User:Marillion!!62) – , CC BY-SA 4.0
Here are the four Pecha Kucha presentations that EventCamp East Coast participants experienced on November 5, 2011. They were followed immediately by small group discussions to cement and broaden the resulting learning.
Traci Browne: A journey inside the mind of a conference producer.
In my experience, when you get a group of professionals together and give them the opportunity to determine what they’d like to talk about, you’ll end up with enough viable topics for several days of sessions. EventCamp East Coast (EC²), held earlier this month, was no exception. The final peer session schedule, shown above, was optimized for the single day that was available, and I was pleased to see significant attendance at every session.
During the event I was asked whether I could share the session topics that didn’t make it into the final conference program. The thought was that the list of undiscussed topics could be a useful resource for ideas for future conference sessions, #eventprofs chats etc. So, here are the undiscussed topics at EventCamp East Coast (quoted directly from the peer session sign-up sheets) that would have been held if we had had more time available:
How do I get sponsors and fundraise for my event?
Sales & marketing: How to sell yourself and/or your product.
Subcontracting services for major corporate events.
Creating a meeting budget.
How to connect with event planners, speak their language, and open them up to social media/virtual events.
Creating engaging learning environments.
Creating interactive sessions.
What are the key pieces you need to start a community like #eventprofs?
Sustainability issues and the future of meetings.
Event industry professional standards.
How to get clients/partners to adhere to timelines for deliverables.
Ways/incentives to get attendees to sign up for events early.
It’s always interesting to compare a peer conference program’s topics with the ones that a traditional program committee would have chosen. In my experience, the best program committees predict only half the topics that attendees actually want!
Do the topics requested at EC² surprise you? What proportion of them would you have predicted?
Here’s what I learned about event professionals at EventCamp East Coast.
One of the reasons I love to facilitate Conferences That Work is that I get to learn interesting things about the culture of the participants. Whoever they are—young developing leaders, childcare workers, in house and outside counsel, information technology professionals, food policy wonks—each peer group responds a little differently when given the opportunity to determine the form and content of what happens at the event.
At EventCamp East Coast (EC²) I discovered, not surprisingly, that event professionals have their own set of distinguishing features.
Event professionals like to talk
I made (at least) a couple of mistakes while facilitating EC², both related to participants’ loquaciousness. With other peer groups, during the opening roundtable ~30% of attendees don’t take the full time they’re given, typically 90-150 seconds, to answer the three questions. This did not happen at EventCamp East Coast! Just about everyone took full advantage of the 2½ minutes they were allocated. In addition, I made the big mistake of not cutting off the oh-so-charming Sam Smith when he went way over his allotted time. Naturally, some of the folks who spoke after him followed his lead, and I was too chicken to call them on it. The end result was a roundtable session that ran nearly thirty minutes late. My bad.
I should add that I was impressed by how well EC² participants knew and communicated what they wanted to get out of the event. Not only do event professionals like to talk; they’re good at it!
Event professionals are great at listening to and following instructions
In the past, at peer session sign-up I’ve always found that some attendees ignore?/don’t hear? my repeated requests not to sign their names under topic suggestions until all the topics have been suggested. EC² #eventprofs were different! They listened to my instructions…—and followed them! EC² participants were also quick to point out that I didn’t cut people off when I should have (see above); i.e. they called me on not following my own instructions. Love you guys!
Event professionals stay on task
A surprising finding from the interviews I conducted for my book Conferences That Work was that the median answer to the question “What is the percentage of the (traditional) conferences you’ve attended where you either left before the end (for other than practical reasons) or wished you had?” was 25 percent! At my events, I’ve found the percentage to be much lower, but some people always leave before the end for logistical reasons. At EC², I was impressed by how few participants left early, and at the level of concentration and involvement that persisted until the very end of the final group spective. This was followed by a wonderful volunteer group effort that quickly returned our LaSalle University venue to its original layout. Event professionals rock!
Event professionals are analytical about event process
While it’s not surprising that the level of feedback that I received at EC² about the Conferences That Work event design was far greater than at other events I’ve facilitated, I was delighted by the quality of comments and suggestions made. Usually I get one or two good ideas at an event on how to improve what I do. EC² provided a steady stream of commentary and fresh ideas, not only during the event, but also afterwards via participants’ evaluations, several fruitful phone calls with individual attendees, and finally in a long Skype conference with my wonderful co-organizers, Traci Browne and Lindsey Rosenthal. So many great proposals were made that, after I’ve tried some of them out, I’m thinking of writing an update for purchasers of my book.
And yet…event professionals are not so different from anyone else
Despite these interesting comparisons between event professionals and other peer groups I’ve worked with, there are far more commonalities than differences in how peer groups respond to the “structured unconference” format of Conferences That Work. Comments like Deb Roth’s: “(the format) allowed us all to get to know each of the 40 people well, better then other conferences that I have been to with 2000 attendees“; Howard Givner’s: “It was literally impossible for anyone to fall through the cracks; everyone got immediately swept up into the flow of the event and was steadily woven into the fabric of group experience“; Sam Smith’s: “I have never been to a conference where I felt like I got to know so many new people so well“; and Eric Lukazewski’s: “…it was a spectacular thing to watch each individual “bring a brick” and marvel at the creations, knowing that WE EACH contributed to what was left standing” are responses common to every event I’ve run.
When it comes down to the bottom line, people are much more similar to each other than different.
Do you have other observations about characteristics of event professionals? How are we different from other peer and professional groups?
I have a ton of EventCamp East Coast appreciations!
I’m still sorting out the lessons I learned from facilitating and organizing EventCamp East Coast, and I’ll be writing about them soon. But, while the memories are still fresh, I want to offer appreciations here for the incredible contributions the organizers, volunteers, and participants made to the event. During lunch on Saturday I shared these thoughts with the participants, and now I want to share them with the online community.
CAUTIONS: 1) I’m 59 and my memory is not what it was. If I’ve left people or assistance out or got details wrong, let me know and I’ll make it right. 2) This is my personal experience of EC²—I attended just three of the thirteen sessions offered, and did not manage to talk with every attendee, so please forgive me if your contributions and sterling qualities are not given the acknowledgment they deserve.
Volunteers Paige Buck, you came all the way from San Francisco as a Conferences That Work trainee, and threw yourself into helping in every way you could: scribing the roundtable, working effectively on the peer session determination, facilitating the session Time, tools, & tactics: addressing planners’ pain points, and assisting with every logistical need you could. I appreciate you for the skills, charm, wisdom, and humor you brought to EC², and look forward to working with you in the future.
Carolyn Ray, you traveled from Montreal to volunteer at EC², and I was struck by your infectious calm & cheerful demeanor as you seemingly effortlessly dealt with a myriad of issues as they came up. Oh, and besides efficiently helping with peer session determination, you also led two sessions: Learning from event successes and failures and Conflict management & negotiation for event professionals (bet you didn’t expect that). I appreciate you for your enthusiasm, passion, warmth, and your willingness to share your surprising knowledge with others.
Peer session determination Mitchell Beer, Andrea Sullivan, & Traci Browne – you, with Paige & Carolyn made peer session determination at EC² one of the easiest processes I’ve led recently. You worked with me late into the night while others were partying. I appreciate you for your quick thinking, expert advice on how to cluster topics, and whether to combine them, and unfailing good humor during the whole 14-step process.
Scribes Paige I’ve already mentioned, but Cameron Toth, you were the scribe that gave that extra I hadn’t even thought to ask for: documenting the roundtable process and, without being asked, jumping up to fill flip chart paper with the salient points from the group spective. I appreciate you for your boundless energy, willingness to help in any way you could, and your continual flow of ideas and possibilities. Oh, let’s not forget your fashion style!
Carolyn Ray (Learning from event successes and failures and Conflict management & negotiation for event professionals) and Paige Buck (Time, tools, & tactics: addressing planners’ pain points) – see above
Traci Browne (Tradeshow layouts that encourage attendee interaction) – see below.
Jenise Fryatt (Social media 101 and Applied improv) – Jenise, I appreciate you for your ability to say YES when the moment comes, your thoughtfulness and accompanying clarity of expression, your kindness to all, your enthusiasm for new experiences, and your infectious cheerfulness and tact. AND… you’re a superb teacher of improv!
Debra Roth (Using design as a tool: how do color, form, and style affect your attendees) Deb, it was a treat to be invited into your creative world. I appreciate you for your straightforward manner, your kindness, your calm guidance during the session, and your evocative, creative talents.
Mitchell Beer (Repackaging conference content) I wish I could have attended your session, Mitchell. I appreciate you for your enthusiasm for my event design, your cheerful professional demeanor, and the blush worthy positive feedback you bestowed which means a lot to me, given your 27 years experience attending and recording conferences.
Andrea Sullivan (Brain-friendly ways to keep attendees engaged) This was the session I most regret missing. I appreciate you for the experience, ideas and energy you possess, and am looking forward to talking with you further next week.
Sam Smith (Integrating web and mobile technology at events) Sam, thank you so much for coming to EC², and your calm acceptance and positive response to an event design so different from what you dazzled us with at EventCamp Twin Cities. I appreciate you for your depth, your knowledge, your ability to make wise choices, your fundamental fairness, and your vocal support for this event.
Jay Daughtry (Social media 101), Jonathan Vatner (Beginning writing workshop), Kiki L’Italien (Advanced social media). Jay, Jonathan, and Kiki: I don’t know you well enough to say much (though I’m skeptical about that bacon-flavored vodka, Kiki), but I appreciate the three of you for stepping up to the challenge of leading event sessions with little warning, and reappearing triumphant at their successful conclusion.
Caterers Susan and Ernie of The Twisted Gourmet – what a feast you provided us at EC²! What more could we have asked for? Thank you!
Hostess Beth Brodovsky, what a hostess you turned out to be for our Friday night party! I appreciate you for graciously offering the use of your home by fifty strangers, and for your unflappability as we moved furniture from one room to another during the party, stuck paper all over your living room walls, and prepared food in your kitchen. (And on an unrelated note, I also appreciated your incisive contributions to Deb’s design session.) We all owe you a big vote of thanks!
EventCamp East Coast was held because Traci, whom I met at the original EventCamp in New York, bought my book, became excited about the event design and wanted to see what Conferences That Work was all about. When she asked me to help create a regional EventCamp, I accepted immediately. Without Traci’s belief in me and my work, EC² would never have been born. So Traci, I appreciate you for possessing that trust and belief. But there’s much more. I also appreciate your passion that fed us as we worked through one logistical problem after another, your forthright temperament to “tell it like it is” coupled with a surprising flexibility and tact that made you a delight to work with, your sense of humor, your integrity, and, perhaps most important, your big heart hiding under that superficially cynical exterior. I’d work with you again in a minute, and hope to do so often.
Lindsey, at Saturday lunch at EventCamp East Coast I described you as “a force of nature”. (That, in case anyone is unclear, is a good thing.) Lindsey, I am so grateful you joined Traci and me and took on so many of the responsibilities of making EC² a success—we could never have done what we did without you. I appreciate you for your wonderful, unique mixture of drive (don’t step in her way, folks) and charm (Lindsey can put anyone at ease in about ten seconds), as well as your burning integrity, the passion you wear on your sleeve, your hard work ethic, and, like Traci, a big heart.
Lindsey & Traci, I appreciate you so much for taking responsibility for the event logistics so I could concentrate on facilitating EventCamp East Coast.
Finally, I want to acknowledge all of the attendees of EventCamp East Coast. You created this event. None of you were passive spectators. I appreciate you for actively participating, for shaping EC² into the event it became, for freely sharing your knowledge and experience for the benefit of all, and for taking risks in what you said and did while we were together. Together, we made EventCamp East Coast into something unique and wonderful. Thank you!
A number of people have asked whether EventCamp East Coast (EC²) will be livestreamed. The answer is a qualified “no”, and since this is a different choice from those made at the original EventCamp in New York City and EventCamp Twin Cities I thought I’d explain why.
We’re concentrating on the face-to-face experience of the local audience at EC² for three reasons. Two of these factors are straightforward, while the third requires clarification.
The first reason is philosophical. The conference organizers—Traci Browne, Lindsey Rosenthal, and I—want to create an effective, uncomplicated event. Serving a remote audience well, as was done at the recent EventCamp Twin Cities, adds a significant level of complexity, not only to the organizer’s workload but also to the demands on presenters and the local audience to integrate the two audiences successfully.
The second reason is a matter of logistics. We three organizers enjoy busy professional lives, and possess a limited amount of time to make EC² the best conference we can. Creating an excellent remote audience experience (we wouldn’t be satisfied with anything less) would significantly shift our focus from other important components of EC².
The final reason is event design related and, perhaps, the most fundamental. The Conferences That Work design that we are using adds a default requirement of confidentiality to what happens during the conference. Let me explain what this means and why we’re doing this.
The thought of providing confidentiality at a conference may seem strange or counterproductive, especially these days where event sessions are routinely streamed and videoed for anyone who wants to watch. But in fact, there’s always been a need at some meetings for a commitment to confidentiality.
The classic example for a need for confidentiality is diplomatic meetings, where, to make best progress, participants need to be sure that what is said isn’t broadcast to the world. In this case, the reason for off-the-record conversation is to benefit relationships between the institutions that the diplomats represent.
But there’s another reason why confidentiality can be useful when people meet face to face; the personal benefit of the participants.
Perhaps the most well known example of events that provide this kind of environment are the 30 years of Renaissance Weekends, where participants “CEOs, venture capitalists, business & social entrepreneurs, Nobel Laureates & Pulitzer Prize-winners, astronauts & Olympians, acclaimed change-makers of Silicon Valley, Hollywood, Wall Street & Main Street, Republicans, Democrats & Independents” agree to the following policy:
All participants are expected to respect Renaissance Weekends®’ tradition of the candid and welcome exchange of diverse opinions, safeguards for privacy, confidentiality, and non-commerciality, and family ethos. Comments, behavior, or public references which could compromise the character of Renaissance Weekends® are unacceptable.
In my experience, all peer groups can benefit from this kind of environment. For example: more than once I’ve been told by different doctors I know that they regularly meet with a small group of their peers to confidentially discuss professional issues. In each case, the doctor I was talking with said, in effect, “There are some things that I can only talk about with other doctors.” The Conferences That Work format extends this kind of possibility to any peer group, and I believe that providing this opportunity can be important to any group of people with a common interest.
At every Conferences That Work event I’ve run, there are some sessions where the attendees decide not to share the proceedings publicly—in a few cases not even with other participants at the event. A common example is a frank discussion of the pros and cons of commercial tools and services available to attendees. And it’s not uncommon for a session or two to delve into work- or industry-related issues where attendees are looking for support and advice from their peers. Although these sessions are in a minority, it’s impossible to reliably predict in advance whether a specific session will turn out to require confidentiality.
All sessions at Conferences That Work have a recorder assigned to them, who makes notes or otherwise records the session. Because of the default requirement of confidentiality, unanimous agreement of the session’s attendees at the end of the session is needed for the recording to be made public.
In conclusion, it’s likely that the recordings of most of the sessions at EventCamp East Coast will be made available publicly, but they won’t be streamed live. So if you’re interested in fully experiencing EC², please join us on site in Philadelphia! I hope this article has explained why we’ve made these event design choices, and I welcome your comments and questions.
Reading Sam Smith’s frank article about the resources and effort that went into the production of the remote component of EventCamp Twin Cities (ECTC) got me wondering.
I counted ten full-time staff needed to create the remote component of this amazing event, which delivered an impressive participative and immersive remote audience experience.
Virtual Event Design Consultant / Project Manager
Virtual Emcee: The Host of the Remote Broadcast
Tech Director: Calls the show, video camera shots and switches
Twitter Moderator: Captures questions, comments and ideas from the audience
Soundbyte Tweeter: Tweets Out Speaker highlights under the event’s Twitter ID
Main Session Cameraman
Mediasite Tech: Manages video, audio and VGA feeds going into Mediasite system
A/V Tech: Manages the House signals
A/V Tech: Manages the Video and Audio Switches for Remote Audience
Most, if not all, of these people needed to be around for at least half a day before the live event. And none of them (I hope) are normally paid minimum wage.
The equipment and technology
2 Cameras: One for the main room and a second for the studio
2 Camera Tripods
3 Laptops for Virtual Emcee, Twitter Moderator and Fact Based Tweeter (if not the same person)
2 Studio Microphones (These are linked to webcast – but not house sound.)
3 House Sound Microphones
Riser – to make the tripod sit over everyone’s head
Media Site Player (this is the webcasting gear)
Interview Studio (Table, Chairs Backdrop, Professional Lighting)
Event Twitter Account
Webcast Player (Mediasite provides this – but can be configured)
Intefy System (Virtual Front Door that shows video, schedule plus twitter streams)
Hosting Server for Storing and Hosting Streaming Video
Various and sundry cables to connect and power everything
All this does not usually come for free. I’m not privy to the financial details of EventCamp Twin Cities, but I do know that the companies and personnel involved donated much of the above. Such generosity is and was much appreciated by all of the local and remote attendees. These substantial sponsorships of the event made it possible to offer free remote passes to the remote audience, making it easy for 500+ people to tune in and enjoy a superb remote audience experience.
What I’m wondering about is the economics of creating hybrid events when the time of donations disappears, and the fine folks at companies like Intefy, SonicFoundry, and Allied Productions & Sales, need to get paid for their time, equipment, and expertise.
I’m guessing that the regular price tag for a setup like the one used at EventCamp Twin Cities might run in the region of $30,000. (Please, those of you who actually know what these costs are; stop laughing and enlighten us.) If so, that translates into a cost of around $60 per remote ECTC attendee.
Perfectly justifiable if that attendee would otherwise have to pay for a plane, accommodations, travel time etc. to attend in person.
But not free.
Another thing to bear in mind is that the costs to provide the two-way interactivity that was a hallmark of ECTC were largely fixed; they’d be more or less the same if 100 or 1,000 people had showed up. In the former case, the cost becomes $300/attendee—an amount that might be a concern for many event planners working with small or highly specialized target audiences.
I don’t see many possibilities for reducing the personnel numbers and outlay required to run a good hybrid event. I expect that equipment and bandwidth costs will decline in the future, but I’m willing to bet that the expense to add a remote audience with the capability for meaningful participation will remain a significant component of a hybrid event’s budget for a long time.
What do you think of the hybrid economics I’ve described? Can you provide better figures for the expense to add a remote audience to a hybrid event? Will the relative costs and rewards act as a deterrent to you to add a remote audience—or do you see them as an income producing opportunity?
This week has seen three articles published on crowdsourcing in the events industry. Suddenly, crowdsourcing events is hot! Here are comments from someone <shameless brag> who has been crowdsourcing conferences since 1992.
Are We Thinking What I’m Thinking?
The longest and most detailed article is Are We Thinking What I’m Thinking? by Barbara Palmer in the September issue of PCMA Convene magazine. I, of course, love this article because I feature extensively in it. (And, all the photos are mine!) Massive kudos to Barbara for quoting me accurately and clearly conveying my crowdsourcing philosophy, perhaps the most radical approach described, that of using crowdsourcing to determine sessions at the event.
Barbara also interviewed Sam Smith, who, together with Ray Hansen, organized last week’s Event Camp Twin Cities (at which I ran a couple of sessions). ECTC used crowdsourcing very successfully at the session design level by reaching out to the #eventprofs community, asking for suggestions for novel session formats and content, and then creating a conference program that incorporated many cutting edge ideas. One of the refreshing strengths of Event Camp Twin Cities was its overt philosophy. “We are trying new stuff here, and probably some of it won’t work.” The result was a truly innovative conference, full of enlightening experiments (with very few failures, as it turned out).
The 2011 GMIC conference
Next, Barbara asked Elizabeth Henderson about her ongoing work on the design of the 2011 Green Meeting Industry Council Sustainable Meetings Conference. Elizabeth is concentrating on creating crowdsourced event design teams with members drawn from a variety of backgrounds and viewpoints. This is another way to use crowdsourcing at the pre-event level that helps to avoid a groupthink mentality.
What meeting professional think
Finally, Barbara quotes various meeting professionals’ views on crowdsourcing, around the theme of the role of the expert compared to the role of the crowd. In this section, the viewpoints expressed downplay the value of the crowd’s input. This is the crowdsourcing as a minor fad point of view. The possibility of influencing session topics and content is mentioned. But the description of crowdsourcing’s value for “entry and exit music, entertainment options, ways to green an event, reception themes, and party-venue options” implies relegating its importance to the relatively superficial. And the final two comments—”I suggest that event professionals crowdsource topics, content ideas, and suggestions – and steer clear of crowdsourcing speakers and actual sessions” and “Crowds can tell you what they want…But an expert can say, ‘You are going to need to know this'”—revert to the old worldview of novice attendees being guided by wise non-attendee experts. Such a worldview ignores the reality that conference audiences invariably contain a healthy mixture of novices and veterans.
The Good and the Evil of Crowdsourcing Conference Content
The second article is Michelle Bruno’s The Good and the Evil of Crowdsourcing Conference Contentfrom the Trade Show News Network. Michelle starts by saying “Event organizations that crowdsource conference content are learning there is a right way and a wrong way to solicit community feedback.” This formulation is unfortunate for two reasons. First, as we’ve seen above, there are a number of ways to approach crowdsourcing an event, and it’s simplistic to say that any of them are right or wrong. Second, the article offers no evidence that any particular approach is better or worse, except for the gut instincts or opinions of the people Michelle quotes.
First, Michelle describes Mike McCurry’s work on developing peer networking sessions for the 2010 PCMA Education Conference held in June. Since the event is over, it’s a shame that there are no follow-up comments as to the effectiveness of Mike’s pre-event crowdsourced topic selection. Perhaps this information exists but is unpublished.
Next up is South By Southwest’s crowdsourcing of 30% of their conference sessions. I tend to agree with Jeff Hurt (quoted in the Convene article) that for a conference of this size, the process SXSW uses becomes a popularity contest rather than participatory crowdsourcing. This is because there’s no significant pre-selection communication between attendees and/or the folks offering the sessions. So we end up with what is basically online voting on thousands of suggestions.
According to Michelle’s article, the same kind of process is used by the Nonprofit Technology Network, which points out that it takes about 90 minutes to vote on every one of the 400+ sessions suggested for their 2011 conference. It’s unreasonable to expect more than a small fraction of attendees to expend this kind of effort, so the question then arises: how representative of all attendees are the responses NTEN gets?
The article continues with comments by Chris Bucchere about using (what he calls) crowdsourcing in a very different way from the above examples. He says “Using your community to ‘spec’ work for you is an ‘evil’ way to crowdsource.” This declaration ignores the common thread in all the above uses of the term: namely that crowdsourcing is also a win for participants because they get the sessions & formats they want. Chris’s idea of using crowdsourcing seems to be about building community/brands via contests with incentives for the winners. Perhaps this is an effective strategy for “anyone who wants to leverage the power of the social web to build a brand”, but it’s hardly new; advertising contests go back to at least the 1920’s (e.g. Ivory Soap) and it’s a stretch to relabel them crowdsourcing, even if we’re using a social media platform for them now.
In closing, Michelle says “On the other hand, there is such a thing as giving the community so much power that they begin to make specific demands that may or may not be in keeping with the goals of the conference or the organization.” This brings up the issue of control at events, something that I’ve written about before. In 20 years of using crowdsourcing at events I’ve never experienced an instance where a majority of participants made unreasonable demands. On the contrary, on every occasion when something unexpected (to me) has emerged from good group process, it’s turned out to be an accurate and useful way to improve the conference.
How web video powers global communication
The final article isn’t, in fact, an article, it’s a just-released video of a 19 minute TED talk by Chris Anderson entitled How web video powers global communication. In it, Chris describes what he terms Crowd Accelerated Innovation: “a self-fueling cycle of learning that could be as significant as the invention of print”. Chris argues that the rapidly increasing availability of web video is drastically speeding up the ability of people all over the world to focus on and improve the best of breed sharing they discover on their screens. In a sense, web video becomes a tool for effectively crowdsourcing experience and experiments. Chris believes that this new medium has the potential to revolutionize learning and the development of new ideas and their implementation. But he cautions “…to tap into its power, organizations will need to embrace radical openness.” I think there’s a certain degree of hype in his presentation, but it’s well worth watching.
So, there you have a variety of ways in which crowdsourcing is entering and affecting the world of events. Which ways, if any, speak to you?
Want to see my 6 minute 40 second Pecha Kucha presentation Face The Fear—Then Change Your Conference Design! given at EventCamp Twin Cities on September 9, 2010? If so, download this PDF and then open the recorded stream (8 hours and 48 minutes!) of the entire event. Don’t worry, you don’t have to watch the whole thing! Simply move your cursor into the center pane (the one with my name and smiling face) and drag the progress bar that appears to the 6 hour and 27 minute mark. You’ll be able to watch me give the talk in the small inset window, while following along with the slides in the PDF.
P.S. If you’d like to watch any or all the seven Pecha Kucha sessions, here’s a list of them, together with the haiku(!) written to introduce each presenter. Scroll the progress bar to the time indicated to watch.
Adrian Segar: Introduction to Pecha Kucha – (5 hours 36 minutes)
Elling Hamso on “Event ROI for non-believers.”- (5 hours 41 minutes) Elling Hamso San, bringing profits to events, the ROI guy.
Brandt Krueger on “PowerPoint SchmowerPoint: Formatting Presentations for the 21st Century.”- (5 hours 49 minutes) A/V, presentation pro, Knows how to coil a cable! Brandt Krueger, Geek Dad.
Lara McCulloch on “Stories, Sagas & Fables.”- (5 hours 56 minutes) She loves to build brands, Lara McCulloch-Carter, by telling stories.
Lisa Qualls on “#EventsThatLast.”- (6 hours 4 minutes) This is Lisa Qualls, Wife. Mom. Biz Owner. Loves sports. Happy to be here.
Lindsey Rosenthal on “Give Your Event a Charitable Makeover!” – (6 hours 12 minutes) Lindsey Rosenthal, I plan events and fundraise, Love to meet you all!
Greg Ruby on “Foursquare for Events, Exhibitions and Destinations.”- (6 hours 19 minutes) Sexy Greg Ruby, He is a FourSquare addict, Support Group he needs.
Adrian Segar on “Face the Fear-Then Change Your Conference Design!”- (6 hours 27 minutes) Adrian Segar, Beginning his fifth career, Now designs events!
Have fun watching!
What do you think of the Pecha Kucha format for event sessions? Did you find the fast pace and short presentations refreshing? Should we have squeezed in some time for questions and answers?