According to the Convention Industry Council (pdf), in 2012 there were over 1.8 million business meetings, events and conferences held in the US attended by 225 million participants generating over $280 billion in spending. The volume of participants has grown 10% since 2009.
Clearly, the business conference industry is booming. The number of marketing and communications conferences alone is overwhelming compared to when I started attending and speaking at conferences in 2005.
Attending and speaking at business, marketing and client user conferences is a big part of our marketing and while there are changes with so many new, niche events popping up, I don’t think our conference participation will change. The challenge is, with so many conferences to choose from, which events provide the best return on investment? What makes a great business conference?
Assessing a great conference experience relies a lot on the context for your participation: an attendee looking for knowledge and networking has difference expectations than a sponsor. The experience for speakers is different than for exhibitors. But there are some things that are universal to great conferences. Here are a few fundamentals:
Conference Theme – The overall topic of the event as well as a creative theme can go a long ways towards aligning attendees with a bigger picture promise for the event. You can get informed just about anywhere these days, but can you get inspired? A conference theme contributes to that inspiration.
Communications – Before, during and after the conference, communications are key. Many conferences simply send promotion emails using the same email blast templates they use to market the event. When it comes to attendee communications, a little empathy with the attendee would help. Where to register? What are the networking events? Where to get food? What are the WiFi credentials? How to get to the event?
Organization – Who needs to be where and when? And how? I can’t imagine the juggling of cats that’s involved with keeping sponsors, attendees and speakers happy and all the information up to date. But that’s the expectation of conferences. Being organized about what is going on and when as well as how easy it is to access and act on information makes a huge difference.
A conference app is a great idea, but it needs to be promoted before and during the event to get people to use it. The app actually needs to work too! Paper conference schedules and obvious signage at the venue are also key so the majority of people who wander can easily decide which session to go to next.
Content – Some events have 100+ speakers and vetting those presentations individually just isn’t practical. But something needs to be done to ensure content continuity between what’s being promoted in conference marketing materials and what’s actually being delivered in the presentation. Content relevance, organization and usefulness need to be stressed as well. Some of this vetting can be accomplished through speaker selection (only invite smart, qualified speakers with great presentation skills) and communications with speakers when setting expectations.
Besides speaker content through presentations, there is also content that the event can provide about the conference itself, the speakers, sponsors and exhibitors. Also, inviting people to liveblog to a conference creates real-time content that can be very useful for attendees. With the ease of livetweeting presentations, this is less common but no less valuable. Making recordings of presentations available to attendees is also a smart idea. Just be sure to get speaker permission in advance.
Food – Can I get a whoop whoop for box lunches? No? Hotels charge insane prices for decent food and in many cases it’s worth it. I was at a small ClickZ Live event in NYC recently and the food was incredible. Food and snacks complement the conference experience, they don’t make it. Some of the best networking I’ve ever done at conferences was over lunch and so it’s important that there is ample space to actually sit down to do the eat and meet.
Breaks – Provide ample time to move from one session to the next. Maybe a little more so people can get a coffee (yes – coffee all day if possible). If breaks are too long, people will get distracted by networking so it’s important to find a balance.
Socializing – Networking is a big reason why many people want to attend business conferences. They’ll justify going because of reasons like learning and prospecting, but connecting with other professionals is very motivating. Creating opportunities for attendees to network (not just be sold to by a sponsor) adds a lot of value to a conference. This means more than drinks in the exhibit hall, but it doesn’t have to mean renting an entire aircraft carrier either. Although, that’s pretty unique. After conference parties and events for all can be a trick to get sponsorship for, but well worth it to provide the mass of attendees something fun, interesting and social to do.
Exhibit Hall – Being fortunate enough to fill the exhibit hall with sponsors solves a lot of problems for conferences. Many people look forward to cruising tradeshow booths to connect with companies they want to learn more from or those they already do business with. Some 4 day events have the exhibit hall up for just 2 1/2 days. That’s disappointing if there are a lot of presentations to see at the same time. Find a balance for attendees to have access to the exhibit hall for more than just a slice of the event time and I think both attendees and the exhibitors will be happy.
These are pretty general of course and just a slice of the many, many things you can do at a conference. I am happy to say that some of my favorite events to attend like Content Marketing World, Social Media Marketing World, MarketingProfs B2B Forum, NMX, PRSA International and the many new and niche events (Authority Intensive) that are popping up all over in the U.S. and abroad (Fusion Marketing Experience) engage in best practices for many of these areas of greatness,
Since so many millions of people attend business conferences each year, I’ve asked my @leeodden Twitter network what makes a great conference and here are some of their suggestions. Do you agree? What would you add?
Kami Huyse – @kamichat
Events, when planned correctly, are a powerful alchemy to bring the online and offline world’s together. Events require compelling content/experiences, the right mix of people, and a device, like a hashtag, hangout, etc. to tie it up.
Stacey Burke @staceyeburke
There is still no substitute for face-to-face to capture a certain % of my target demographic.
Kelly Kuhn-Wallace @KKDUB
Great events are much like great social media: thoughtful blend of content sharing, networking/interaction, & humorous asides. Presos or workshops at a tactical level. things I can master & then try out the next day. fun!
Rohan Ayyar @searchrook
The speakers invariably want to reserve their best insights for a live audience!
Derek Edmond @derekedmond
I’m a fan of case studies but also appreciate accessibility to speakers through networking, etc
Carrie Hane Dennison @carriehd
A combination of people (seeing and meeting) and sessions filled with actionable take aways.
Bastian Grimm @basgr
Food And coffee all day! And redbull like w/ @seokomm !
Darren Maloney @Darren_Moloney
It’s got to be @brightonseo it just gets better every year & generously c/o @kelvinnewman it is a totally free conference
Pete Renzulli @PeteRenzulli
Action steps I can apply immediately. Breakout sessions that foster exchanging ideas on topic specific business problems
Aleyda Solis @aleyda
What you learn and who you meet. Amount and level of new knowledge you get, if you get inspired by talks, the networking.
Matt Grant @mattgrant
Great people, great networking (aka parties and happy hours), great programming, great facilities. In that order
Amanda Gallucci @agalluch
the details! Enough time between sessions, good food, helpful coordinators, comfortable setting for networking
Mumar Kahn @MUmar_Kahn
The best part is to meet, interact and explore the greatest mind of the industry.
Maria Amelle @Maria_Amelle
I love it when I have the chance to learn something new and I hate it passionately when speakers just talk about their agencies
Chelsea Rhane @ChelseaRhane
upbeat networking opportunities, and anything that makes people have fun/smile!
I was going to tap the numerous conference organizers that I know for quotes in this article, but I’d like to invite them to share what they do to make their conference “great” by sharing in the comments. I’d like to know from you as well. What makes a conference great for you?
Speaking of conferences, here are the next 4 events I’ll be speaking at over the Summer. I hope to see you there!
May 31, 2014
WVU’s IMC INTEGRATE – Morgantown, West Virginia
“Digital Convergence: The Integrated Marketing and Public Relations Imperative”
June 10, 2014
Fusion Marketing Experience – Antwerp, Belgium
Keynote: “Attract, Engage, Convert – How to Be the Best Answer Wherever Customers Are Looking”
June 13, 2014
ICEEFest – Bucharest, Romania
Keynote: “How to Win Friends and Influence the Influencers”
June 27, 2014
MnSearch Summit – Minneapolis, Minnesota
Keynote: “The New Role of Search in the Digital Marketing Mix”
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What Makes a Business and Marketing Conference Great?