I’ve produced more than 100 conferences over the years as part of my work leading AdMonsters, and I believe there are some reasons why most conferences suck – and some straightforward ways to make your conference awesome.
One way to encapsulate this is with core values for conferences.
I like to go deep, and I don’t like to waste time. A great conference requires a clear focus on a specific shared subject. As a participant, I want to know that the subject will actually be of interest, and that my fellow participants will be peers that I can connect with deeply and meaningfully.
I don’t do rides, junk food, or tabloid news. Quality means authentic, direct, real, purposeful, and engaging, with clear editorial vision and integrity.
I hear way too many conference producers talk about their event as a “show”, and about getting “butts in seats”. Presumably, if you put on a good show, you get a lot of butts filling your seats, and – since many producers are under the (mistaken) impression that butts are what they are selling – then you have done your job well. Get this, people: Butts are not your product.
People come to your conference because they want to learn something (a lot!) and meet other people (awesome people!). First and foremost, your job is to serve your audience. Only with a great audience do you have something to sell to sponsors. And only a great agenda will attract a great audience. Do not sacrifice quality to fill time on the agenda or to satisfy the craven desires of your sponsors. Fill the agenda with the most interesting, controversial, compelling, illuminating, problem-exposing, deep-diving, inspiring leaders, discussions, panels, round tables, and presentations. Notice that I didn’t say “
content“. That word is worn weak with overuse. We don’t create content, we create conferences. For people, not butts.
My one-time VP of Sales Dan Halioua said it best: Community is necessary. People are desperate for community. We all want to be part of something. Everyone wants to feel that they belong, that they have friends and peers, that they have someone to share their problems with, to brainstorm with, to have a beer with. A huge part of your job, of your opportunity, as a conference producer is to activate and serve your community.
Your conference is not a show. People come to a show, and then they leave. Everyone at your conference should be an active participant. Everyone can contribute to the conversation. Active participants are more engaged, and therefore more valuable to everyone else, including your sponsors.
We all want and need community to develop as individuals and in our professional crafts, to meet each other, find and learn from mentors, become mentors themselves, solve problems, create and find solutions, develop best practices, experiment with ideas, test theories, and launch products. Community is necessary to find understanding, share stories, learn, grow, laugh, make human contact, and to feel part of something larger than ourselves.
Work used to be a drag. Part of the reason for this was that work was separate from the rest of our lives. We went to work, and we were no longer ourselves. Work should be fun – and we know from experience that we get more done when we are engaged and happy at work. Let’s help to redefine work as part of an awesome life!