Adding more value to conferences – Structure and the unfilled gap of collected content from speakers

Posted on June 29, 2011

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Missing links

When I visit (or speak on) an event, I usually leave with an empty feeling.

My memorabilia are usually my “<fill event name in here>” Name Tag and a crumpled program with:

  1. A map of the venue
  2. A list of speakers, their time slots and topics

I always intend to lookup the speakers which interested me, but always forget as other things take over.

While on the event, I have difficulties choosing. Some speakers I know, many I might have heard of or do not know at all. And how to filter what is important for me is in most cases like fitting an Jigsaw puzzle in a riding bus: collect all the pieces and try make them fit while all kinds of stuff happens around you.

If only topics would be grouped by fields of interest, themes or someting else. If only there would be some clear themes reflecting the intentions for this event I can use as guide lines. In most cases, however, it seems they did not really think about deeply about the target audience, just gathered a bunch of speakers and put them in specific time slots. In most cases the guiding line – if there is any – is unclear for me as their target.

I think this can be changed. And I think this has to be changed if you want your event to be competitive against others.

So here is my view on these missing links.

But before I begin

My writing might suggest that I kind of take the organization of events for granted. That it is easy to organize events.

I do not. And it is not. Organizing an event is a lot of work. And it involves a lot of upfront investment in time and money. It includes a lot of risk.

Most of the organizations start preparing next years event almost right after the previous one is closed: collecting sponsors, finding speakers and special guests, preparing promotion and promotion channels, finding venues, addressing old visitors and what have you not.

If an event fails (especially the bigger ones of 300 people and bigger) the losses can be in the regions of 60.000 euro and more.

It is much much more than posting two lines on Twitter and having a web site stating: “We have a cool event. Drop by”.

Publicized event material

Let us start with what is there.

Usually publications made around any event are:

  1. The Website – 100% of all cases, with announcements, speakers, short speaker bios and the program for the during of the event
  2. The printed program – Maybe 20% of all cases (independent/small events included) and 100% at the big and the sponsored events. As printing involves cost and organization (designer + printer + pre-production) it also involves extra overhead and cost. In some cases, like Reboot, the program is ad-hoc and created by user participation and availability of rooms
  3. Registered movies afterwards – Maybe 10%. Like the printed program, you need to organize stuff. In this case at least one person with a proper camera and sound equipment. Upload to YouTube or Vimeo takes out the additional costs for hosting.
  4. Slides – Maybe 10 to 20%. It depends on how the event itself promotes to the speaker to upload their work and offers links to these presentations as an after service to the visitors.
In some very exceptional cases (I can not find but assume are there):
  1. A (printable) eBook – For some reason, the presented content, the presented ideas seem to be considered disposable. Once spoken and set to movies (if there are any), it is up to the visitor to gather all bits and pieces and make something out of it.

Why are (printable) eBooks and catered sites not part of the Event Package?

I think there are two main reasons:
  1. Nobody they know of did it before – Like live casting and video recordings published to YouTube and Vimeo: you need one or two “innovative” Event Organizers to start this trend (they are usually not the first, but the ones who get noticed). Until then it is simply overlooked as a possibility to promote and support your event.
  2. It adds extra overhead – Do not underestimate the effort required to gather, edit and produce an eBook. It takes time. It takes effort.

Why do I think it is doable?

I take the lazy assumption that:

  1. Every speaker has something to tell
  2. Every speaker wants to tell something
  3. Every speaker already does so on his or her blog: with stories, articles, photos and videos.

So the content should be already available in most cases in some form.

What do I think it will add?
More value for the organizer, the visitor and the speaker

A presentation is one thing. It is a 20 to 60 minute highlight of the most important ideas the person has to share at that moment for that topic. But the presentation can only highlight so much.

An article, with close to unlimited length restrictions (as we do not use paper and have no production cost related to length) can go into details you can not highlight on a presentation.

It also structures and restructures the content in different ways. Stories on paper have a different build up than stories told on stage. They have a different use of words and a different approach to content.

To close this part: I think it is an awesome addition to my Conference Visit and a awesome additional promotional possibility for speakers. I can re-read the stuff I saw, revisit the ideas I liked and go to the speakers site to find out more.

What else is missing?
The issue of structured data

In most cases, events are delivering unstructured data. In 9 out of 10 events I visited or spoke on in the past 10 years, there are no clear topics or themes to distinguish talks.

If I want to find something related to specific topic of my interest, I will have actively to scan the program for specific keywords.

In most cases this leads to events where there might be a lot of interesting speakers, but where there is no deeper narrative. Like an almost random selection of good but sometimes seemingly unrelated books within a specific field.

But what if you would go deeper?

  1. Use overall topics – If your conference or event is broad enough, make clear what kind of content you will cover.
  2. Introduce specific themes – Where speakers can focus on and adapt their stories to. Which also help visitors to make easy selections and adds value to your conference in general. Clarity is a plus.
  3. Treat the content of your event / conference as if you are a special purpose magazine – Define what you want to publish, how to separate content into clear blocks with clear content. Make it a journey with clear milestones and you as their guide where the visitor goes in as a novice and emerges on the other side enriched by the combination of topics
And related to that:
  1. Who is your target audience? – What do they do? Can you profile them? Can you tell stories about what they do, how they live, how they will be enriched when leaving your event?

How do I think this is doable?
1: From a technological point of view

Looking at the logistics, I think the easiest (read: close to zero investment needed from the event organizer) way to gather and show publishable content is this:

  1. Open a WordPress*-based site for speakers – To publish their supporting article in a way that creates no extra overhead on your side. Add a editor if you want to, or ask your community to contribute as editors. In exchange for free tickets and access to speaker-dinners if you have these.
  2. Find a technology that can scrape and publish the content into an eBook format – As the basis of any site is HTML and the basis of most eBook formats a derivate of HTML, this is a technical possibility. Hell – I might event write that software for you if it does not exists.
  3. Organize the content and make it accessible – Most websites related to events are crap. They present the speakers, the short topics and the biographies of the speakers. But that is where it usually stops. The content is unorganized. There is no real thinking about who you are serving with the event. There are no cross-linking like: “If you find the topic of this speaker interesting, also see these speakers”. There are no theme/topic based keywords like: “Electronic bio engineering (12 speakers)”. There is no general purpose/interest centered mapping like: “You like graphical design? Go here,” leading to sub-topics like: “See all speakers talking about old media (5) – See all speakers who revolutionized design (3) – See all speakers using mixed media (6)”
* Or some other platform that suites you.

2: From an organizational point of view

Any conference is a narrative. A big story made out of all kinds of smaller stories, told by different story tellers. If you do it properly, there is some combining element. Something that makes them part of something bigger.

You need someone who understands the general idea of topics. Someone who can develop a vision reaching farther than: “Yeah: let’s collect speakers within this specific field”.

Someone who can come up and answer questions like:
  1. What would happen (in our mind-space) if we would put (topics of) specific speakers together? – Based on their field of expertise, their discoveries and their stories. Maybe not physically, but in the same room, or in successive time slots. Maybe based on topics and guide-lines.
  2. What are the general topics and how do they connect? – Are there topics overlapping each other, or add value when placed in a specific order? Is there a guide line you can set out for your visitors?
  3. What is the overall vision we want to present? – Is it innovation, progress, awesomeness? And how do you want to present this?
  4. How do you structure this? – there are many ways to structure stuff. See: “The issue of structured data” above for a kick start.

Promote your content

This one is simple:

  1. Place links anywhere you can to your speaker content.
  2. Offer links to pre-publications from speakers who already contributed
  3. Offer links to videos and added content after the event

After effects of serving better content

Bundling and publishing the content of your speakers on a website and in eBook format has a limited effect on one side.

If 10% of your visitors actually read the content with the average publicity given to such content (usually a modest: “It is here, follow this link and you can read it” instead of “IN YOUR FACE! READ THE AWESOME VISION OF OUR SPEAKERS ON THIS AWESOME SITE AND THIS AWESOME EBOOK!”) , you are quite successful.

The longer term effects of structuring the content delivered by your speakers and making published data more accessible are several:

  1. It is an awesome promotional vehicle – For your next event. If you can show that you understand your target audience, that you can collect and structure awesome material you hardly need to make any effort to convince people to visit your next thing. As it will be new, updated and equally good.
  2. It is awesome for the speakers who are upcoming – The ones who are already established will probably give you a: “Meh..” response when you ask. As they do not need you to reach their audience and it introduces more work for them. It might take some extra effort to get them publish stuff. But not impossible. The speakers who are not rock stars yet (whatever they are) are given an additional platform to expose their ideas, jumping from 10 to 150 readers per day to maybe 100 or 10.000 per month for that specific topic.

Will it always be awesome?

Like with everything: the quality of your products are dependent on the people who contribute. Uninteresting people who have nothing to say will produce boring results. Awesome people might produce awesome stuff (but can also fail).

So: maybe. It is up to you if you can find the voices with interesting stories to tell.

It is up to you to stimulate those who are still unpolished gems to excel.

Closing

Events are more and more part of a competitive eco-system.

Events in the likes of Next (Berlin), Reboot and The Next Web have proven that you can bootstrap it with smarts, good people and the right kind of understanding of the web and of people and their social groups.

As quality of the experience is one, to leave this gap on content open in a period where content can be collected and published with close to no cost at all (see “How do I think this is doable”) is probably a losing game on the longer term. Talks which are not recorded will be forgotten. Talks which are recorded only give a portion of the vision that person has to share.

If an event is about sharing information and enriching your visitors – even if an event has become a money machine – adding sustainable content is I think what will make the difference in the next years.

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