Dear Adrian—How do you market a new peer conference?

How do you market a new peer conference?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?

Many thanks!

Cheers
Karl Jeffery
Digital Energy Journal, London, England


A. Dear Karl,

Great questions—no need to apologize! People often ask me 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. Actually, 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. This 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 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 that replaces 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!

To answer your last question, until I published my 2009 book I was the only person creating peer conferences. So it’s still early to expect many examples of established pure Conferences That Work format peer conferences “as a commercial business”. In addition, many current peer conferences are not commercial meetings-for-profit ventures. Instead, they create effective ways to bring a professional or vocational community together. Fees and budget are 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, 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. However, 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 Weekends.

Karl, I hope this is useful. I’d love to hear more about your potential conference. If there’s anything I can do to assist you, please let me know.

With best wishes,

-Adrian Segar-

Should you self-publish your book?

Should you self-publish your book?

“Here’s the problem with self-publishing: no one cares about your book. That’s it in a nutshell. There are somewhere between 600,000 and 1,000,000 books published every year in the US alone, depending on which stats you believe. Many of those – perhaps as many as half or even more – are self-published. On average, they sell less than 250 copies each. Your book won’t stand out. Hilary Clinton’s will. Yours won’t.

So self-publishing is an exercise in futility and obscurity. Of course, there are the stories of the writers who self-publish and magic happens and they sell millions of books, but those are the rare exceptions. How rare? Well, on the order of 1 or 2 per million.”
Nick Morgan, Should You Self-Publish Your Book?

self-publish your book 741941-book-signing-lineNick paints a realistic picture of the work required to become a “successful” self-published author—if you’re defining success purely in terms of book sales. But I think there are other perspectives to consider.

My experience self-publishing my first book

My first book, about participant-driven and participation-rich conferences, was published three years ago. I have only sold a few thousand copies (though sales per year continue to rise). The money I’ve made from selling books translates into a few cents an hour for the four part-time years I took to write the book. Not successful by Nick’s terms, right?

But. During those three years I’ve moved from complete obscurity to become a fairly well known authority in the field of innovative event design. My blog had 2.25 million page views in 2012. I’m routinely presenting at industry conferences. And a typical consulting gig brings income that’s equivalent to selling five hundred books.

If you are writing non-fiction for a niche market and you have something important to say, your book can provide wonderful exposure and authority that may (no guarantees!) translate into significant income.

Why I didn’t use a traditional publisher

I considered going the traditional publishing route and I’m glad I didn’t for several reasons:

  • Traditional publishing typically adds another year before your book is published.
  • I had complete control over the look and content of my book. I hired the same professionals—editor, proofreader, book designer, cover designer, copywriter—that major publishers use (they are often freelancers these days) and worked with them directly without the publisher as an intermediary.
  • Although you’re very unlikely to make significant money from book sales, you receive significantly more money on each copy of the book.
  • I have been able to build relationships with many of my book buyers. Although the paperback version of my book is available everywhere, I sell the ebook myself. Most of my sales come directly from my website, perhaps because I offer 30 minutes free consulting to anyone who buys the book from me. This allows me to connect one-to-one with my readers, which translates into additional consulting/facilitation/presenting work while building up a list of people who are likely be interested in my next book, due to be published later this year.

I hope my experience and thoughts are helpful and perhaps encouraging for some who have been considering self-publishing.

Image attribution: Dianne Heath

The psychology of event sponsorship

Who would have thought that event sponsorship psychology was a thing?

The following story by Vaughn Bell on a recent change to the DSM “psychiatric bible” shines light on a fundamental but little known reason why smart companies sponsor events that have a bearing on the products or services they supply. Yes, event sponsorship is a way for a sponsor to increase visibility, image, prestige and credibility with a target audience, differentiate the company from competitors, help to develop closer and better relationships with customers, and showcase sponsor offerings and capabilities. Yet we’ve known for over five decades that gift-giving activities like sponsorship change recipients behavior in ways that they’re not aware of. In other words, event sponsorship psychology exists! Read on:

A change to the DSM manual

event sponsorship psychologyOne of the most controversial changes to the recently finalised DSM-5 diagnostic manual was the removal of the ‘bereavement exclusion’ from the diagnosis of depression – meaning that someone could be diagnosed as depressed even if they’ve just lost a loved one.

The Washington Post has been investigating the financial ties of those on the committee and, yes, you guessed it:

Eight of 11 members of the APA committee that spearheaded the change reported financial connections to pharmaceutical companies — either receiving speaking fees, consultant pay, research grants or holding stock, according to the disclosures filed with the association. Six of the 11 panelists reported financial ties during the time that the committee met, and two more reported financial ties in the five years leading up to the committee assignment, according to APA records.

A key adviser to the committee — he wrote the scientific justification for the change — was the lead author of the 2001 study on Wellbutrin, sponsored by GlaxoWellcome, showing that its antidepressant Wellbutrin could be used to treat bereavement…

The association also appointed an oversight panel that declared that the recommendations had been free of bias, but most of the members of the “independent review panel” had previous financial ties to the industry.

Actually, it’s kind of sad that this isn’t a surprise, but perhaps more worrying is the fact that the chairman of the mood disorders panel that made the change, Jan Fawcett, doesn’t seem to understand bias.

“I don’t think these connections create any bias at all,” Fawcett said. “People can say we were biased. But it assumes we have no intelligence of our own.”

Fawcett is assuming that bias means ‘dishonesty’ where people deliberately make choices for their own advantage against what they know to be a better course of action, or ‘sloppiness’ where people don’t fully think through the issue.

But bias, as you can find out from picking up any social psychology paper from the past century, is where incentives change our behaviour usually without us having insight into the presence or effect of the influencer.

This is exemplified in the work of Dan Ariely, and the research that won Daniel Kahneman the Nobel Prize.

So when someone says, “I don’t think these connections create any bias” it means – ‘I’m not willing to think about the bias that these connections create’ which is a red flag that they won’t be recognised or addressed.
A depressing financial justification by Vaughn Bell

Event sponsorship psychology works!

The Middle East merchant who invites you into his shop for coffee before discussing a sale. The Italian winemaker who plies you with her wines to taste before she graciously shows you the cost to ship a dozen bottles back home. (Yes, this happened to me recently).

Most cultures learned long ago the power of giving gifts to change behavior.

Western cultures believe in the supremacy of our minds over our emotions. Daniel Kahneman describes this as “the rider over the elephant”. Consequently, they discount the effects that sponsorship can have on our hearts and subsequent decisions. I sincerely thank the myriads of event sponsors who have often made my time at events easier and more pleasant. I also acknowledge their influence on my future consulting recommendations and purchasing choices. As Bell points out, people who believe their intelligence will protect them against the ways our brains actually work are fooling themselves. Meanwhile, the smart sponsor smiles and continues to be generous.

Event sponsorship psychology works!

Stop the Generation XYZ baloney!

Stop the Generation XYZ baloney!

Product/service developers and marketers—listen up!

Google “Generation X’ and you’ll get over 300 million results.

I think this way of thinking about people is nonsense. And so does Clay Shirky.

“One of the weakest notions in the entire pop culture canon is that of innate generational difference, the idea that today’s thirty-somethings are members of a class of people called Generation X, while twenty-somethings are part of Generation Y, and that both differ innately from each other and from the baby boomers. The conceptual appeal of these labels is enormous, but the idea’s explanatory value is almost worthless, a kind of astrology for decades instead of months.”
—Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age

Shirky goes on to say that those who like to dramatize these generational differences are making a fundamental attribution error; mistaking new behavior for some kind of change in human nature rather than a change in opportunity. Much of the “difference” between “generations” is in fact caused by a change in that generation’s environment or circumstances.

Stop the Generation XYZ baloney!

Rather than start with supposed generational differences, dig deeper into the causes for changes in behavior. Instead of marketing driven by statistical analyses of differences in behavior, concentrate on understanding why behaviors have changed. (Or haven’t.)

Then develop your products, services, and marketing around your understanding of relevant human behavior and the changing environment.

Remember, people don’t change that fast. But their environment and circumstances can.

That’s what you should focus on.


P.S. If you haven’t already, read Switch by the Heath brothers for a great practical approach to changing people’s behavior.

A letter to event technology companies trying to sell me stuff

sell me stuff

Here’s a letter to every event technology company trying to sell me stuff.


Dear event technology vendor,

I’m sure I’m not the only event professional who is bombarded with email from event technology companies. I receive solicitations from multiple companies each week, asking me to check out/review their latest mobile app/conference management software/social-networking tool etc.

Guys, I don’t want to be crass here, but could you give me some idea upfront how much your products/services cost?

If cost was no object I would be a customer for much of the stuff you are pitching.

But cost is not no object. For me to evaluate the value proposition you’re offering I have to know the value of what you provide and what it costs me. The former is my job. The latter is yours.

I read your patter about your product or service, decide to find out more and click on your embedded link. So far so good. I jump to your elaborate website where it’s obvious you have spared no expense creating great material designed to turn me into a customer. Overviews, feature lists, videos—it’s all there.

Except for any kind of price information.

You don’t share your pricing model! Is this is a $299-for-unlimited-use, a $5/seat, or a $10,000/event deal? Are there packages of services available at clear price points? If customization is an option, what ballpark costs are we talking about?

About the only thing I’m sure of, once I’ve wasted my time searching for this information on your oh-so-pretty website, is that you don’t use a freemium model. You would have told me about that.

I’m sorry, but I don’t have the time to enter into your next sales step—the “contact us to discuss your requirements” dance—on the off chance that your actual pricing model represents real value for me.

So next time—if there is a next time—please consider giving me all the basic information I need so I’ll be compelled to check out your possibly awesome creation further. I can handle talking about money upfront. And so can you.

Sincerely,

A lost potential customer


Please read this, folks trying to sell me stuff.

Photo attribution: Flickr user dswilliams

Content Is Marketing; Profits Come From Somewhere Else

content is marketing

Here’s an important lesson I learned about marketing while running a solar business thirty years ago, forgot, and learned again after publishing my first book in 2009. With the rise of online, this lesson has never been more important than it is today.

Succeeding in business in a commodity market

In 1979 I was an owner of Solar Alternative, a Vermont solar manufacturing company. It was the height of the first “energy crisis”, and solar was, forgive me, hot. We manufactured solar hot water systems, which we retailed, wholesaled and installed all over New England. Solar hot water was a fairly easy business to enter in those days. Our small company, which employed about a dozen people, had plenty of competition, some of it providing equipment of questionable quality.

Apart from the solar collectors, which we manufactured using a few hand tools and our big investment, a ten foot sheet metal brake, all the other solar hot water system components could be purchased from any well-stocked plumbing wholesaler. We developed a reputation for supplying reliable systems that could stand the severe New England winters, but so did many of our competitors.

Our company needed a way to successfully differentiate itself from significant competition.

We noticed that our customers were unwilling to pay for information about how to correctly select and install solar hot water systems. There are many ways that these systems can fail or provide sub-optimum energy output, and we had learned how to avoid them. Our potential customers were willing to shell out big bucks for the systems themselves, but they did not want to pay separately for our hard-won knowledge.

So we gave away our expertise.

The one differentiator between Solar Alternative and our abundant competitors became our unique willingness to provide free, unlimited advice to the wholesalers and end-users who investigated and/or purchased our products.

We were happy to freely share our valuable content—how to build and install high quality, reliable solar hot water systems—to anyone who asked. Our company gave away our content for free. We made money from the mark-up on our products when our prospects trusted our expertise and decided to purchase.

The brutal economics of writing a book

There’s no question that writing my first book cannot be described as a carefully thought out business decision. I was mission-driven to share what I had learned about participant-driven events since I began organizing them in 1992. It took four years of part-time work before Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love was published. Despite brisk sales for a niche book, my compensation for writing it was a few cents per hour.

This isn’t news, of course. Very few of the million book titles published globally each year ever make an author much money directly. So, was my decision to write a book one of the poorer financial choices of my life?

Well, no. (The worst was shorting Google’s IPO; it seemed like a good idea at the time.) Though the book provides a tiny income, the fact that I wrote it has led to numerous speaking, consulting, and conference design engagements, any one of which pays far more handsomely than selling a hundred books. Though the book isn’t free, its content sells for about one cent for every hundred words; a pretty minuscule amount. I make money from the apparent expertise and exposure that the book implies/conveys (your choice).

Content is Marketing; Profits Come From Somewhere Else

Get the connection between these two stories? For whatever reason, people are generally reluctant to pay much or anything for commodity or packaged information. But that doesn’t mean they don’t value good content. Often, they use the existence of high-quality information to cement their trust in the person or organization that provides it. From this perspective, content—whether it be advice on solar hot water systems, a fresh way of thinking about conferences, or accurate, timely, and useful information on any topic—is effective marketing for whatever you sell that makes money for you. I think this has never been truer than in today’s online world, where it’s never been easier to find pertinent content.

In 1985, my mentor, Jerry Weinberg, said it well: “Give away your best ideas“. It has worked for me; I believe it can work for you too.

Do you give away your best ideas? If so, how has doing so worked for you? If not, why not?

Post inspired by Publishing 2.0: Content Is Marketing, Profits Come From The Packaging

Create events that tug at heartstrings

Do you create events that tug at heartstrings?

events that tug at heartstrings 5353299866_90e3786bfc_o

“When I think of how meetings are marketed, I never see anything, at least for our industry, that tugs at heartstrings. That’s where many of us connect. Imagine if say there were words and visuals of founders of organizations who were still active in some way…it just seems we forget.”
Joan Eisenstodt, from a March 6, 2011 comment on Facebook

Eight years ago, at a conference I was facilitating, I noticed a couple of participants wandering round with a camcorder. (This was a somewhat novel occurrence at the time; inexpensive camcorders were just appearing.) They were shooting footage of conference events and seemed to be interviewing people. No one had asked them to do this, and I assumed they were videoing for their own purposes. This was fine by me, and, in the usual press of conference process I forgot about what they were doing.

Six months later, out of the blue, I received this:

edACCESS testimonial video

Watching, I had one of those rare but so special conference choked up moments. Without asking anyone, Tom Flanagan and Whitney Donnelly decided to make a movie about our conference and offered it to us for promotional purposes. When conference attendees do something like this unsolicited, you know there’s something good going on.

Today, it’s easy to make such movies. But we haven’t made any more. The video is still available for viewing on the edACCESS home page. Nothing out of the ordinary by today’s standards, it remains as a reminder of something very special made by Whitney & Tom because their heartstrings were tugged back in 2003.

Do you create events that tug at heartstrings? If so, you should feel proud. I know I do.

Photo attribution: Flickr user ally213

How to add participation into a traditional conference and market it

A common question people ask me is how to add participation into existing events and market them effectively. The Medical Group Management Association will be doing just that at their 2011 PEER conference (estimated 800 attendees).

Even MGMA’s choice of name for the conference echoes the event’s theme of “directing the conversation”: PEER, a neat acronym for Participate, Educate, Experience, Relate.

Conference marketing

Take a look at how the conference brochure carefully incorporates PEER themes (click image to view).

add participation MGMA PEER brochure

What do you think of MGMA’s design and marketing?

Full disclosure: MGMA is a client of Conferences That Work.

Social media presentation May 13 2010

Publicity still for SM talkOne man’s descent into a world of blogs, Twitter, and social networking sites in the pursuit of publicity for his book.

Updated May 13, 2010 with slide deck & additional links (see end of post)

On Thursday, May 13, at 7 p.m., in the Brooks Memorial Library’s meeting room, Adrian Segar, local author of Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love returns to describe what he’s learned about marketing his book via social media in the six months since it was published. His talk will be of interest to anyone who wants to find out more about using social networking sites and tools to market products and services.

Adrian Segar, who ran the monthly meetings of the Southeastern Vermont Computer Users Group for sixteen years, offered to give this talk after he recently began being bombarded with questions about blogging and using services like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn for publicity, marketing, and fostering connections with existing and potential customers.

Marketing with social media is a huge topic and can’t be covered comprehensively in a single session. Instead, Adrian will describe his surprising journey attempting to discover how best to use social media to publicize his nontraditional approach to conference design. His experience will be a useful guide to what you may encounter if you delve into this strange new environment. After Adrian has told his story there will be plenty of time for questions and discussion.

Adrian Segar has organized and facilitated conferences for 30 years. He is a former elementary particle physicist, information technology consultant, professor of computer science, and co-owner of a solar manufacturing company. He lives with his wife Celia in Marlboro, Vermont, is active in the non-profit world, and loves to sing and dance.

The program is free and open to all.

Presentation resources

Slide deck for my talk
Some reasons I don’t like FaceBook
More reasons I don’t like FaceBook