July 24, 2014

7 Simple Upgrades to Improve Conference R.O.I.


You know the old adage, "don't let perfect be the enemy of good."

It's tempting to hold off on making improvements until you've got just the right enhancements ready to really rock the return on investment (ROI) a participant gets from attending your workshop or conference.

But while you toil away to build the perfect, your participants often find an immediate good and register for another event.

Don't let that happen.  Here are seven simple upgrades you can make to improve your conference ROI right now.

1. Connect people at hosted tables.
Meals are often one of the more intimidating moments for a conference-goer who may not know any (or many) participants. Help them get connected by offering individuals the chance to sit at a hosted table. Who serves as hosts? Thought leaders in your profession, people speaking at your event, and board members or other prominent volunteer leaders—all are natural candidates.  Make sure to seat people at 60" rounds to facilitate conversation among everyone at the table and do prepare your hosts to help people introduce themselves and get comfortable.  If you're worried about not having enough hosts, make the seating opportunity available to a more limited audience who would really value it; i.e., first-time attendees.

2. Use lightning rounds or "sneak peaks" to preview content.
Having too many good sessions to choose from is a great problem for a participant to have, but it is still a problem.  A possible solution?  Offer a lightning round of sneak peaks in which speakers summarize their session content in two or three slides and just a few minutes.  Think of this as a turbo-charged Ignite or Pecha Kucha round with the emphasis on previewing concurrent sessions that will occur in your conference.  Schedule these presentations during coffee or breakfast and people will start their day with a smorgasboard of key takeaways and a better sense of which sessions they want to explore in greater depth. Bonus: capture these speed talks on video for easy dissemination and post-conference marketing (look at what you missed). Double-bonus: if required during the program submission process, these lightning round slides actually could be used to help with selection.

3. Let people opt-in for more challenging learning formats or experiences.
Conference designers often lament that they have great ideas they want to try, but that their entire conference community would never go for them.  So don't focus on the masses.  Make whatever innovative learning format or experience you want to try an option that is limited to an "exclusive" number of attendees.  Instead of trying to win over the unwilling, you now have a great pilot group of the self-selected.  What you learn from this smaller group no doubt can help you decide if (and how) to implement your innovation to a larger audience in the next iteration.

4. Follow general sessions with discussion and application.
You've brought in a big name keynoter who wows the audience with her compelling content and interesting suggestions for their work.  But are you converting all that positive energy into practical implementation?  Most conferences don't.  Schedule a round of facilitated discussions for relevant audience segments immediately following the session (or do so at tables if a meal occurs next) so that participants can connect with like-minded peers and explore the "so what, now what" aspects of applying the general session content. Since not everyone may be interested in following up on the general session, be sure to make other learning opportunities available.

5. Enable on-site volunteering.
We've known for some time that micro-volunteering is increasingly compelling to potential volunteers, but far too few conferences enable that commitment in real-time and on-site. By offering an expansive menu of simple tasks you make it easy for newcomers (or the less involved) to increase their connection to your community while making a meaningful and very manageable contribution. 

6. Offer an Idea Fair and incent participation.
All attendees hope to get a few new ideas to use in their work, so make it easy for them to do so.  How? Offer a nominal incentive (reg discount, entry into a drawing for free reg, etc.) for attendees to contribute one simple idea in the style of a science fair poster session. Provide a Google Docs template for them to complete and have them tag their idea from a limited number of categories you provide before uploading the file to a Dropbox folder. Print all of them out and have volunteers (see #5) hang ideas similarly tagged in a prominent space that will have regular foot traffic (exhibit hall, pre-function area outside general session rooms, et al).  Now you have an on-site idea gallery, but you also have the electronic versions of all these ideas for your future publication and dissemination. Go one step further and let a panel of volunteer judges create awards that are attached to the winning ideas.

7. Showcase attendee talents.
Few moments are as memorable as when you learn that the brilliant professional you admire is also an accomplished musician, artist, poet, singer, etc.  So many individuals in your conference community likely possess unknown talents. Make it possible for them to share them.  An attendee talent show is the obvious idea, but many more opportunities exist: let individuals "guest DJ" with their favorite playlists before general sessions or meals begin, have members serve as entertainment at meal functions or awards programs, and let members be busker entertainment in the hallways between sessions or at the registration area as people arrive.


What is another easy-to-implement conference upgrade you have found successful?

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