Ten ways to improve (un)conferences

Do You Podcast?

This summer and into the fall I’m doing quite a tour of PodCamps and conferences. I’ve been to Boston, I’ll be in Philadelphia, Montreal, San Francisco, Pittsburgh and possibly Denver. It’s left me a lot of time to think about how these conferences can improve the experiences that their communities have. This is just a short list of things I’ve observed and heard from speaking to people who have gone to more of these than I.

1. Don’t start a blog unless you plan to maintain a blog.

This rule seems like such common sense to me that I almost didn’t include it on the list. Instead, I made it first for a reason. Nothing reflects more poorly on your conference than when someone comes looking for information, finds your blog and sees that it was last updated a month ago. Often, I see conference blogs that aren’t updated for months at a time before the event or after the event. The blog isn’t just a source of information for the people who are attending, but it’s a source of information for everyone who knows that the conference is happening.

At Social Media camp on August 7th, 2008 Saul Colt of FreshBooks in his presentation said that the number of people who know your event is happening is more important than the number of people who are attending. This is not only true, but speaks to the fact that you need to have information on that blog that is helpful to those attending and those who are just watching from afar.

2. Make sure your schedule is posted before the event

Unconferences are defined by the people who attend. The names and topics of the talks on your schedule are what draws people in, especially if you are going to have a track that is special to the conference. PodcampNYC ’08, as an example, had a track that was created for educators. If that was not announced well in advance, there would have been no way to attract that specific audience.

If you are going to be putting on a conference BarCamp style where everyone signs up the day of the event to speak, that’s okay too. If you are going that road, just make sure that where the schedule would be, you explain what is going to happen on the day of the event. This way, you are still giving out information to the people who are unfamiliar with the style of sign ups.

3. Use the content created at the conference

The official rules of the unconference require that content created at the conference be licensed using the Creative Commons license Attribution Non Commercial Share Alike, yet the websites of the conference so rarely use the content that is produced by the attendees. For each camp or unconference that I attend, I usually write up detailed notes about my experience. There is nothing stopping the people who maintain the blog of whatever the event was that I attended from using the text of that blog post. It’s licensed under Creative Commons and it would help drive more traffic to the event’s site and be beneficial to my own. I would appreciate it if they linked to the original post and directed people to my blog to leave comments have have discussion, but that’s about the only restriction that I would put on usage of the posts. This not only encourages people to blog about their experiences with the knowledge they might be included on the official conference site, but it also promotes the individuals who blog about the events.

4. Make sure there’s dependable wifi

I haven’t yet been to a conference with wifi that was reliable. I understand the difficulty of maintaining a network with hundreds of people constantly hitting the routers, but I also know that it’s possible. Often organizers will say that written into the contract for the facility was a guarantee that wifi would work and stay up for the duration of the conference. Does that include a downside guarantee as well? If the wifi fails or never works (as was the case at Social Media Camp NYC) is there a percentage of the site fee that is returnable? Will the site provide a technician or have someone on call to help fix the issues?

Perhaps it would be worth it to find a sponsor for the wifi. Make it their responsibility to provide internet access to the conference. This way they can take pride in the fact that they were able to succeed where others have failed in the past.

5. Highlight your sponsors

A spot on a t-shirt isn’t enough thanks to pay to a company who is providing the funds to make your conference happen. These are the people that believe in your cause or your ability to draw the right people for their message. Give the sponsors a table to present their company in a constantly high traffic spot. If you can identify a place that people will congregate, make sure that’s where your sponsors are located.

Is a .jpg on your site enough attention to pay the people who are providing the funds to get everyone together? Perhaps not. Where’s the digital version of the high traffic hang out spot at the conference? MAke sure that your sponsors have a presence. Maybe it’s the wiki, maybe it’s the blog, maybe it’s the Twitter account, but make sure that the people who are enjoying your conference from afar are also shown who is making it possible.

recently the number of repetitions on average it takes for an advertisement message to sink in was estimated at 12. How can you figure out how to include your sponsors in your message enough so the attendees, both physical and virtual, get the message from your sponsors?

6. Provide information for local food and points of interest

This is double important if there are people coming to your conference from outside of the area. A list or map of local eateries and pharmacies can go very far to help welcome an out of towner to your city. It might not be necessary to go as far as Chef Mark Tafoya did for PodCampNYC ’08, but a list of the places in the immediate area of the facility can go a long way. This is just my preference, but try to stay away from national chain restaurants if possible. The local places provide a better sense of the neighborhood and and usually cheaper than the national chains.

You might also want to consider contacting local food establishments and getting delivery menus. Maybe they would be inclined to offer a discount on the food ordered if they could be the only place that had menus distributed throughout the day? I would have killed for some delivery pizza instead of going out to lunch at PodCamp Boston 3 when it was 95+ degrees outside.

7. Update your site throughout the conference

There was a conference I attended that did not update their site at the beginning of the conference or during the entire weekend it was taking place. Instead of letting readers and visitors know that the event had started, the main post on the home page was heralding that the conference was due to start tomorrow. That’s extremely frustrating that those of us who are media makers and decide to throw a conference cant keep our own sites up to date. It’s bush league stuff and we can’t allow it to happen.

8. Think about including a dedicated blogger in the organizational team

If your organizational team cant find the time to blog r contribute content to your site, perhaps you should think about bringing someone in who’s main job it is to disseminate information. You could call them the Propaganda Czar or just the official conference blogger if you like that better. It’s like finding a community manager for your company. This is someone who would interface directly with the attendees before, during and after the conference.

9. Jump into the stream

What’s second best thing to attending the conference? Virtually attending of course. Sites like UStream.tv or Stickam allow us to break down the geographic barriers that prevent a lot of people from attending conferences, so why not use them? We recently started using this for the NYC Podcasters Association and while we had a modest showing our first time around, we were able to prove it worked. It also allows the people who cant attend to contribute to the conversations by asking questions or making comments. It also gives the people watching a chance to spread the word about whatever is going on at the conference.

Issues present themselves, especially the wifi issue. This is another sponsor opportunity. If you can find someone to provide EVDO cards, then you’re already on your way to streaming success. Finding people to monitor the chat room is even more fun because then the people who are remote can participate just like everyone else.

10. Tag the world

You need a good way to track the content that comes from your conference and deciding on a good tag might be difficult. The PodCamp Montreal organizers recently changed their tag from #podcampmtl to #pcmtl to save characters of Twitter. This was a good idea in my eyes, partially because I suggested the change.

This way, the organizers can search across the net to grok the content related to the conference. you can see how well this works by searching for “pcb3” on Twitter, Flickr or Technorati.