Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Remixing the conference: 5 cues for organizers

You could call conferences the original social networking experience:  In the traditional mix at most meetings, attendees can connect with lots of others with shared interests, interact with experts, get recognition from their peers, and find lots of high-quality content and plain old schmoozing opportunities. For the organization, it's a labor-intensive but effective way to communicate with subscribers, members, employees and the world beyond them, and often, a way to generate revenue and cement relationships.

But it's a formula that needs to get shaken up like the glow sticks in that Blendtec blender.  Influenced by social networking, audiences are way ahead of organizers on that score, demanding more and better content, audio-visual support for audience members on the backchannel, and options for watching the conference from afar and for free. To make sure your next conference blends smoothly with these new trends, here are five major areas where remixes are going on, and how some organizations are handling them well:
  1. Encouraging audience posts as part of a remote sharing strategy: This year, I'm starting to see more conferences outside the tech/web 2.0 world focus on encouraging, rather than struggling with or ignoring, audience posts from the conference on Twitter, blogs and Facebook.  Some orgranizers (and related organizations) are recruiting teams of bloggers, like the attendees who recently covered the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations meeting for the Tactical Philanthropy blog, and you can see a summary of bloggers covering the NTEN (Nonprofit Technology Network) conference here, along with its live-streaming and other real-time options for including far-flung observers.  The 140 Characters Conference, going on this week in New York, posts video and a Twitter stream from the conference on its webpage, making it the go-to place for those of us not in the room.
  2. Moving past traditional panel/keynote speaker formats:  In keeping with our expanded appetites for the latest information and our short attention spans--two results of social networking sites--audiences are looking for shorter speaking times, varied session length and even more content. I'm on a workshop program committee that's figuring out how to insert an Ignite!-style series of 5-minute talks into the program to break up longer sessions and to offer more content in a short timeframe.  There are plenty of similar models you can find at, where talks are 3, 6, 9, 12 or 18 minutes long. Or push yourself and try the models from 140 Characters Conference, where panels get just 15 to 20 minutes--for the entire panel.  The Tactical Philanthropy blog team got together after a day at the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations meeting to discuss more ideas for blowing up the conference model, a good reflection of the discussion your meeting attendees are likely having.
  3. Using social media to organize sessions and elicit better speaker proposals:  The National Association of Science Writers has been planning its 2010 workshops on Ning (not as accessible an option next month, when Ning stops supporting free networks such as the one we set up to plan this meeting).  The group on Ning replaced a listserv and made it easier for us to share links, documents and threaded discussion points.  The Web 2.0 Expo New York used social media to improve its content, offering potential speakers a webinar (later posted on YouTube and SlideShare) as well as blog posts on how to submit a successful proposal. This year, the expo required a video from speakers and moderators, an option that's much easier to require today.
  4. Talking to participants (near or far) before, during and after the meeting: In addition to audience tweets and blog posts, more conferences are turning to social networks to elicit audience input, share news leading up to the meeting, post background information on the speakers and "handouts," and more.  The National Conference on Volunteering and Service has a Facebook page for its annual gathering, to be held this year in New York in June, and is already actively announcing scholarships, open registration dates and more. The Texas Conference for Women's Facebook page is focusing on topics relevant to women, and using current news to remind attendees of related sessions at the previous conference; it's a great approach to keeping your ear to the ground and knowing what your attendees are thinking and talking about coming into your conference.
  5. Remix your technical support.  With audiences now expecting to use smartphones and laptops throughout a conference, it's wise to reorganize your audio-visual and tech support so that extra outlets and surge protectors, as well as wi-fi, are standard offerings at your next meeting.  Likewise, having "Twitter moderators" to help every panel keep an eye on the Twitter stream during talks will allow your speakers to take questions from afar (and know in real time when an audience backlash is happening online).  Finally, many of the shorter speaking formats noted above put less emphasis on slides or automate them so they fit a rigid time slot.  Adjust your settings accordingly.  These days, the audience may need as much backup as the speakers do, if not more.
UPDATE:  Alert reader Elizabeth Miller shared these links to more examples of handling post-panel web resources:
  • collects 6 apps that newspapers (or anyone else) can use --a news-video widget, a customizable political-facts widget, a Facebook news app. a print self-publishing tool for news content and a tool for annotating and organizing source documents. All the apps were funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and presented at the American Society of Newspaper Editors conference.  The link here goes to the resource page for the panel, and it's noted that "since we have only 50 minutes to do six presentations, we will not have time for Q&A. However, the panel will be available to answer questions after the session and at the Innovation Salon. We also hope you use this site to send us your questions either via commenting on the site, or live, using twitter and our hashtag for this session: #kfapps."
  • The follow-up page for the "Future of Context" session at SXSW looks like this, and includes not only audio, a tweet archive, and other summaries, but links to other blogs that continued discussing the topic.  Eloquent Woman blog readers have seen my recommendation of Jay Rosen's excellent summary of how that panel was put together in a way that accommodated before, during and after contact with the audience, another great model for organizers to consider.
Related posts:  How social media remixes public speaking

7 ways to reach outside your conference

Speakers: Learn from Twitter hecklers

Backchannel book: A guide you need now

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