I went to London to attend Conf-Conf, a conference centered around organising conferences. Here are my notes and some thoughts.

Fronteers sent me as part of its 2017 conference committee. Apart from that I co-organise the role=drinks and idea11y meetups, so this was a conference where I could definitely pick up some good tips and tricks from the trenches.

Another Fronteers attendee was Paul Verbeek-Mast who had booked us a place to stay around 10 minutes away from the conference venue. Thanks Paul!

Setting

The conference was held at the De Vere Holborn Bars, a beautiful building near Farringdon station.

A photo taken in the center square of Holborn Bars, its Victorian architecture looming over you.
The Holborn Bars.

It was a bit tricky to find the exact room where we needed to be, but we followed some other conference goers.

The venue itself was very welcoming. We were a bit early, but there was coffee, tea, and cookies. The seating area had comfortable chairs and large tables with paper notepads and pens. And hard candies.

As we picked seats near the front, two employees from Global RealTime Captioning were setting up CART. Interesting how we've come to expect captioning at significant events. Very cool.

Getting started

The conference was about to get started as the last attendees found their seats. We were waiting for some folks to arrive - this delayed things a bit, but people were just chatting so it wasn't a problem. In the meantime the presentation screen showed a conference wall which is a great way to show a tweetstream and important info!

Introduction

Co-organiser and MC Ben Macgowan took the stage. He explained why co-organiser Cat Hunter couldn't be there. Ben introduced the folks at the reception desk, explained that Craig Lockwood was recording the talks, and then kicked off the conference by introducing the first speaker.

Vicky Carmichael - Promoting your event on a shoestring budget

Great talk. Vicky was an engaging energetic speaker as she spoke on how to get your event out there if you have little or no money.

Audience

Vicky explained that knowing your audience is crucial to promoting your event efficiently. Is your audience a niche crowd? Which channels do you have available to promote your event? What are your audience pain points, and how can you empathise and connect with them?

When promoting an event, make sure to emphasise what's unique about your event, and to communicate this clearly. Make sure managers can be easily convinced of the value your event offers - make sure this can be summed up in one line.

Getting the word out

Now that you know your audience, it's time to get them informed. According to Vicky, you should first off make sure that you have a website ready. Even if all it contains is the most basic of event information and a form to sign up for the mailinglist (generally accounting for around 5% conversion).

Make sure the semantics of this page are in good shape - browser indexing matters. Mobile search is essential. Sharing to sites like reddit should be easy. Make sure you monitor backlinks. Have an active twitter feed where you send regular updates and photos.

Understand which channels you can use to spread the word (Twitter, Facebook, mailinglist, community sites, blogs...) and try to get scene authorities, 'context celebrities', to spread the word. Approach your event's speakers to shout out.

Try to get listed in relevant newsletters, and make sure you have appropriate free analytics tools set up to track interaction. Make sure that promotion link usage can be monitored and measured.

Email marketing

Vicky told us that the number 1 rule in e-mail marketing is: don't repeat yourself. This warmed my programmer heart. When you run a mailinglist, make unsubscribe easy to perform, and filter your list audience by pre-booked attendees. Make sure that your mailings are personal and exciting. Try to approach your audience as if you're having a personal chat with them.

Social Media

While social media can be an effective promotion media, Vicky warned that it contains lots of noise, which as a promoter you have to get through. Make sure that you pick networks that your target audience frequents, and try to share content regularly. Don't just tweet events. Link to your website, and follow people - but also communicate with them. Be active rather than passive.

Take negative stuff offline - online is no place for that.

If you have the budget, use paid ads, since they can be quite effective.

Networks like LinkedIn can be useful, but their clickthrough is generally terrible. However it can be useful to increase visibility if your event is mainly a professional one.

Google AdWords can be powerful but backfire if seen as too stalkery. If you can, use carbon ads instead, such as those used on StackOverflow and Reddit.

Blog about your process, share speaker content. Canva can be used for free graphics.

Pitching at other events

This takes time, but can be quite useful if your event relates. It can be seen as more organic. Make sure to network, network, network. Swap contact details, and follow up!

Get event speakers to spread the word if you can, and consider having them hand out some discounted tickets. If speakers can promote you on their personal sites, great!

Measure. Measure. Measure.

Find out which promotion effort is most effective and why. Ask event attendees, but treat this data carefully since it's after-the-fact by then. Be wary for false correlation.

Analytics UTM parameters are essential. For link sharing, you can use bit.ly with shortcodes to easily pass links around.

Pricing

Vicky warned to be careful when handing out discounts - don't use this as marketing, that can easily devalue use of discounts. Early / Late Bird pricing can be used to drive urgency.

You can issue discounts to community groups, but be careful when dealing with partial refunds.

And overall, respect adblockers!

Adam Butler - A tale of two meetups

Adam's talk revolved around having run both the BristolJS meetup and SimpleWeb Challenge and the work involved to run all this smoothly and to keep it going, rain or no rain.

Adam's meetups have been free, and very much Bristol community-based. He spoke on the various types of equipment needed (recording, dongles) and how to easily transport them. One thing he used was Grid-it which I had never seen before. I'm definitely gonna get one as it's extremely useful. I'm always carrying around my presenter's kit in various bags and pockets.

Adam explained that he wanted his meetups to be inclusive to speakers and attendees of all skill levels, and with different viewpoints. He urged fellow organisers to not just cater to the experienced crowd - meetups thrive on diversity and inspiration. They should also try to vary between education and entertainment. Have presentations, but also try to foster debate.

Involvement from members should be simple. To help with this, Adam created some tools himself, such as:

Other tools he suggested were:

He's also written a very useful page on A/V equipment.

A couple weeks ago he implemented a CoC for BristolJS, which he based on the Conf Code of Conduct.

Adam also mentioned Speaking.IO - woah! Very useful website.

When finding speakers, Adam suggested the sweet spot is to ask them about 7 months in advance. The risk is that you miss emerging popular tech.

Financially, you can choose to make your meetup an 'unincorporated association' which otherwise only requires that you do not make a profit. Any meetup organisers are liable.

Overall

  • be kind to your audience and speakers
  • don't force a question and answer section
  • make preventing problems easy, and have contingency plans
  • explain to speakers how the A/V works, in case things go south

Excellent talk - Adam has been in the meetup game a lot longer than I've been, and I definitely picked up some good knowledge.

Shaun Gomm - The art of event curation

A fun talk! Shaun was energetic and funny while presenting a useful talk on figuring out what kind of event you're running, and how that influences the style in which you curate your event.

Shaun described four main event themes:

  1. Community. Often grassroots-based, self-selecting events. By us, for us.
  2. Industry. Big name speakers. Following current trends, presenting hot topics. Glossy.
  3. Academic. A committee selection, with a Call for Papers. In-depth subject matter experts. Hefty.
  4. Festival. Similar to industry, but more social. Music. Food. Drinks. Expect more partying.

Whichever theme(s) your event has, this influences what type of attendees you get. How people move around. Expectations your audience will have.

Notes on space and flow

How do things work together? Is registration painless? Where is lunch in all this? Make sure things are seamless. If they're not, make them appear seamless.

Make sure you have a plan for registration. What are you going to do when people run late? What if people come into the room late? Consider having ushers.

Navigation should be simple. Try to create a 'natural' navigation route, that works with the way attendees enter and exit sessions. With that - ensure enough time for breaks! Have time available for speaker setup and projector handover.

Notes on talk sequence

Start out with a visionary talk. This talk sets the tone for the whole day. Very important. Until lunch, have practical workshop or sessions. After lunch, wake people up with an immersive wake-up session. And lastly, at the end of the day, send attendees home energised with an inspired, positive, humanising, entertaining closing keynote.

Fringe events

If you're not running a large event but a smaller fringe event instead, make sure to focus on trying to get people to interact with eachother. This way you can foster a healthy community that can grow, where new connections are made.

Overall

The magic in events lies with the little attention to detail. There are lots of conferences going on all the time nowadays. Make sure to differentiate yourself. Small details make your event go from good to great.

Oliver Lindberg - The trials and tribulations of speaker liaison

The last talk of the day. I liked Oliver's style - he doesn't beat around the bush and is honest in that running an event can be both a rewarding and thankless job. This talk was a good mixture of helpful tips and realistic warnings.

Speakers are the most important part of an event. They're the focus, the rockstars. Yet, they're also human. Working with speakers can be very hard - it's like herding cats sometimes.

When dealing with speakers, make sure you maintain a speaker spreadsheet. Try to avoid sponsored slots if you can - but there have been cases where 'sponsored' talks were great, and not thinly guised advertisements at all.

Oliver stated that 'lots of weird shit goes on at conferences', and conference organisers talk with each other. This means as a speaker, one should be careful in not acting like a diva - it can ruin one's reputation with other conferences. There were actually quite a few notes on speakers acting like divas.

Sometimes speakers won't respond to you, or string you along. Oliver stressed we should have more empathy. Both ways. We don't know what goes on in the speaker's life, but we also expect not to be strung along, as we have an event to run.

Your schedule is never complete! One in 15 speakers will cancel a month before - PPK.

Sometimes speakers have personal conflicts and won't be at the same conference with each other. Double check this.

Little personal things can make a speaker's day! Often they don't care about the fancy hotels or dinners. A nice thank-you note and some chocolates or a personalised token can go a long way to really making a speaker feel welcome.

Panel discussions

During both panel discussions, the panel consisted of the 4 speakers, and the discussion was moderated by Ben.

Growing audience inclusivity & participation

The first panel session dealt with how to increase audience diversity. The panel argued that we should focus on content. Content comes first, because it shows what your event is about, what your speaker lineup is composed of - it shows the identity representation of your event.

While monocolture begets monoculture, diversity can improve quality. But how do we get there? Our industry is primarily male dominated, and we should work harder to overcome bias.

One suggestion I support is BCFP (blind call-for-papers) - this guarantees we avoid identity politics. BCFP has shown to increase diversity in speaker lineup. One concern I have is: if BCFP ends up in a 80%-20% lineup, can we accept that as an outcome? Even though social expectations differ?

An alternative is to have a BCFP where you collect 200% of the amount of speakers you need (if possible) and select your final speaker list from there.

The usual meetup food staple of "beer + pizza" isn't always ideal. While most events also support vegetarian options and non-alcoholic drinks, there are speakers that have personal convictions preventing them from entering places where alcohol is served. How do we avoid excluding them?

Make sure you have a Code of Conduct. Don't just treat it as a checkbox, actively promote it. It might not be a perfect solution, but it's a good step.


This is a difficult and needed subject. It was an insightful panel discussion, with the audience actively joining the discussion. I liked the positive result that BCFP has shown.

Encouraging new speaker talent in our events

The second panel session focused on getting new people to consider speaking. Meetups and lightning talks are a great place for this.

An interesting thing I heard about was having a couch on stage, where people can try seeing the stage through a speaker's eyes. Very cool!

We can try pairing experienced speakers with inexperienced speakers, to coach them.

Consider making it easier or more worthwile for people to try to speak - offer them daycare, a small gift. Perhaps a ticket to another event. Consider paying for external talent.

Fin

As a relative newcomer to event organisation, this was a useful conference. The audience was friendly and many seemed to know eachother. It had a nice meetup atmosphere. I learned a fair amount of things that I hope to apply to my own events - it was a day well spent. Thanks to Fronteers for sending me there!


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