How to Organize a Tech Conference
Posted in Conferences on Oct 6, 2015
Running a conference is hard work, and lots of things need to come together in just the right way to make it a great experience for everyone. This blog post is a collection of the most important things I’ve seen conference organizers get wrong (with the best intentions). It’s not comprehensive, but I hope it will help point out “low-hanging fruit” for interested people. Hopefully you’ll be able to avoid some of the mistakes as a result.
I organized my first tech conference in 2008 and I didn’t do a great job. I focused almost exclusively on the experience of the attendees, and I didn’t understand the broader picture. Fortunately others helped and it wasn’t a disaster. I learned a lot from them.
There are several audiences at a conference, not a single one.
It seems obvious to state these things, but so often conference organizers ignore the needs of one of the audiences. Don’t forget, too, that there are others such as the local community (e.g. the restaurants and hotels nearby).
A well-balanced conference is a conscious choice to mix the interests and needs of all of the audiences as much as possible.
Good food and drink (coffee, alcoholic beverages) at a conference is extremely important. Without these, the conference gets destroyed and reconvened several times a day. People have to leave and try to find some food, wait in lines, walk around in the rain, get lost, come back late and miss the talks they wanted to see (thus disrupting the talks when they enter late)…
Feed your attendees unless you’re right in the middle of a food paradise. You’ll reap the rewards and so will they. Get sponsors to help and it’ll be a virtuous circle.
What you feed them is also very important. I’m gluten sensitive and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked down a buffet line, only to see literally nothing I can eat. The menu is things like bread, pasta, sandwiches, couscous salad and pizza. Not kidding—gluten (and high carbs/starches) in every single dish. And what about people with common allergies such as nuts? Salads with nuts in them, or cheese sprinkled instead of being in a separate dish… These things aren’t hard to fix. It’s easy to accommodate most peoples’ needs. Just ask for help from someone whose diet isn’t like yours; find a gluten-sensitive vegetarian for example. There are lots of them.
Many conferences don’t plan far enough in advance. Not planning and announcing things leads to a lot of problems. You have to consider your audiences, again:
If you wait longer than other shows to open and announce your call for proposals, in particular, you won’t get proposals because other shows will already have accepted the speakers you want. This typically means at least 6 months, often 8 months. Back out the schedule and see where you need to plan; it varies depending on the type of event, but you want a good amount of time to sell tickets (and if there’s any travel involved you need to do that much earlier), a chunk of time for going through various ticket pricing increases such as early-bird and discount; time for a committee and community to promote the agenda you’ve chosen; time for the committee to choose the speakers and talks; time for the talks to be submitted; time for the word to get out—again, you need at least 6 months as a bare minimum for most events.
I’ve had to miss a lot of great conferences because the organizers didn’t plan and announce far enough in advance.
The CfP is particularly important. It needs to be announced and publicized repeatedly. It’s a big effort. It also needs to be highly visible on the conference website. I’ve seen conferences with CfPs inadvertently accessible only from links in emails and Tweets, not directly linked from the website. The website needs to promote whatever’s stage-appropriate as time passes: the CfP, registration, and then the schedule/agenda.
Many conferences I know don’t do a good enough job asking last year’s speakers to speak again at future events. I’ve gotten emails asking me why I didn’t propose talks for a show where I was a speaker in previous years, implying that I’d shunned the conference, when the reality is the conference ignored me. I heard nothing about the conference or CfP until the accusatory email. This should not be hard; use MailChimp or similar to just create a simple email list.
A very important part of announcement and promotion is to use a guaranteed delivery format such as email, not a maybe-you-notice-it social media channel. I have known conferences that rely on Twitter. They didn’t realize that a significant part of their audience was not watching their Twitter account. They assumed their speakers, in particular, were watching them intently—when the reality is the speakers were leading lives doing other things. I’ve gotten blank stares at times when I remarked on this being the reason I missed things. Email is key. Twitter is auxiliary. Again, build email lists in MailChimp and keep records in spreadsheets, don’t wing it or do it ad-hoc. Otherwise you will miss important things and important people, and the result will be hurt feelings and burned bridges.
If you can, announce the next year’s date and venue during each show. Many people and companies really do need to plan a full year in advance.
You need to treat speakers respectfully. If you haven’t been in their shoes, it is easy to mess this up badly. Here is a sample of the ways conferences have inadvertently treated me badly as a speaker:
The worst speaker management sin an organizer can commit, in my opinion, is promoting me as a speaker without asking me first. I’ve had this happen several times when I had already made conflicting plans because the conference didn’t plan and announce early enough. Then it looks like I am the jerk for backing out. Not cool.
By the way, the choice of whether to pay speakers (or just reimburse them) is highly dependent on many factors, so I don’t think any universal policy is appropriate for me to recommend.
I am a big fan of single-track conferences. Examples are Monitorama and Gophercon. The temptation to cram more content in by multi-tracking is strong and I understand the pressures. Organizers who resist this end up with the highest quality conferences I’ve ever participated in.
I understand that big trade shows are a different matter and I’ve organized those too. That’s fine, those are necessary. But if you want to respect speakers and attendees and really achieve a goal of community building and education, single-track is the way to do it. There is a way to work sponsorship into this, by the way, although naturally such a conference is less focused on sponsors. Monitorama does a great job of this.
Have a mission statement. Everything changes when you do. It doesn’t need to be public. Just know why you’re doing what you’re doing.
You must have and enforce a code of conduct. Don’t invent one, just copy one from a conference that does it well and offers theirs for reuse. If you don’t know what I’m talking about you really need to do more research on this yourself. It’s beyond the scope of this post.
Beyond this, having a diverse committee will produce a much better conference. You’ll avoid all kinds of problems that come from monocultures (such as a gluten-only menu). These problems are easily avoided; it’s a really simple thing to just get some diversity onto the committee.
A mission statement and a diverse committee should take care of all the other things you will care about for your specific event (such as outreach to and inclusion of a diverse audience and roster of speakers).
Sponsors/vendors/exhibitors do not want to ruin your conference, they want to improve it. If you have not been one, you might not understand their needs, and again you might make simple mistakes that are literally the difference between them getting their money’s worth or you losing next year’s sponsorship goodwill. Here are some simple mistakes I’ve seen that wreck things for sponsors:
Conferences organized by people who’ve been exhibitors are usually easy to tell from those that are just organized by people who’ve spoken/attended. If sponsors and exhibit areas are afterthoughts it’s a waste of time and money for sponsors. Again, including a diversity of viewpoints on a committee helps avoid simple mistakes like this.
To give you a sense of how important this is, I do reference checks on every single conference we decide to sponsor at VividCortex. I will look at last year’s event and see who sponsored, then call or email them and ask if they had a good experience. I also regularly give feedback to other companies, so I’m not the only one who does this. A lot of conferences that get rave reviews from attendees (best tech conference I’ve seen in years!) are a waste of time for sponsors.
Good advice is to think of how to put talks on one side, an expo hall in the middle, and food and drink either intermingled with or on the other side of the expo hall. It usually can be done. Few things are more frustrating to a sponsor than flying across an ocean, setting up a booth, and sitting at the booth alone for the evening reception/party while all the drinking and talking is happening two rooms over.
Depending on the type of conference, it might be appropriate to help publicize the sponsor’s participation. This can be as simple as tweeting about the sponsor (or sponsored talks), inclusion in newsletters, press releases, all the way up to dedicated publicity campaigns. It can definitely be overdone, however. One cloud event is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. They are obviously hiring armies of social media spam accounts, because there have been thousands of Tweets like the following (redacted to avoid naming names):
That’s definitely not the way to do it.
Organizing a conference is a stressful job. There are so many potholes you can step in. Some have serious consequences, such as using PayPal to accept payment and having all your funds frozen. That kind of thing can destroy an event (or even an organizer’s personal finances). And a lot of stuff has to be done by the seat of your pants or at the last minute, unless you’re a pro and have it down to a set of checklists.
As such, if you’re a sponsor, attendee, or speaker, please try to be nice to the organizers. They’re doing their best. It’s much harder than you think it is to run a conference. (It’s also way more expensive.)
There are tons of other things that can go wrong.
However, these are largely things that most conference organizers are aware of, in my experience. They may do a good job or not, but they’re not ignorant of it. In this post I’ve tried to focus on things that conferences seem to get wrong repeatedly because they’re non-obvious mistakes.
Feedback is welcome!