Use Specific Metrics to Drive Better Conference Design and Results

A fair amount of my work this year has been collaborating with organizations to refresh the design and impact of the conferences they offer.  In a few posts this summer I will share some lessons learned.  The first lesson, while obvious, seems vastly under-applied in conference design: specific metrics drive better design and results.

Ask 1000 meeting planners to list the goals for any of their conferences and one of the most common replies will be: to facilitate participant networking.  Ask those planners how they know if their conference will have done so and you will more than likely be met with blank stares.  Herein lies the problem and the opportunity.

Facilitate participant networking, while an admirable intention, lacks the specificity required to truly drive results-oriented design decisions. Vague goals lead to vague tactics: “Well, we have an opening networking reception and we encourage participants to sit with new people at our meals.”

In working with one organization to redesign a flagship conference, we explored what type of networking participants would most value. That discussion produced a much more measurable intention and outcome: Participants will have at least five substantive conversations with individuals they previously did not know.

Look at the three key elements of this goal:

At least five
We have a specific number to design for and to evaluate.

Substantive conversations
We aren’t talking about cliché “how about this heat?” buffet line chats.

Previously did not know
We are expanding people’s network, not amplifying their existing connections.

How did this inform conference design decisions?

We first examined the conference schedule for the opportunities most conducive for the discussions and identified four.  We then drilled down into what learning or interaction formats could be used to facilitate the required discussions occurring.

New design choices included different room sets to better enable thoughtful discussions; facilitation instructions with specific questions to help participants dig deeper; meal table seating by different characteristics; and an exercise in which participants build on one substantive one-on-one conversation by joining with another pair and cross-pollinating their ideas and insights.

Ensuring people would connect with others they previously did not know proved challenging. We ultimately decided achieving this intention required that participants be willing collaborators. 

To enlist them in this role, these are some of the tactics
  • sharing this conference goal in the promotional materials and the on-site app and program book; 
  • spotlighting tips for deeper networking from seasoned attendees
  • sprinkling “Got Your Five?” prompts throughout the conference venue via signage, staff and volunteer buttons, and general session slide decks
  • adding a field to the conference badge—“Talk with me about ____”—to facilitate conversations among strangers;
  • scripting into the opening welcome key information about this goal and how participants could make choices during the conference to ensure they leave having meaningfully connected with five new people; and  
  • giving participants a “Got My Five” card to track their conversation/networking progress that, when completed, is turned in for a free registration drawing for next year’s event.

Ah yes, five. How did we address the missing fifth connection I mentioned earlier? 

In the scripted welcome comments about this goal, the speaker will highlight the four moments in the conference schedule designed to ensure a substantive conversation with a newcomer can occur.  Participants are then told that whether or not the fifth occurs is up to them and the choices they make on how to engage with other attendees during all of the remaining events on the conference schedule.

To measure whether or not all of these efforts are successful, a simple question was added to the conference evaluation: How many substantive conversations did you have with people you did not previously know before this conference?

The bottom line:

Vague goals or intentions that cannot be measured effectively are unlikely to inform conference design choices in meaningful ways or produce the intended results. You have to get specific!
How might you use more specific metrics in your conference goals to drive more intentional design decisions and achieve greater results?