Comprehensive guide to successful conferences

Let’s meet at Barcamp Bodensee
#bcbs15 this weekend: June 12-14, 2015.

Ineffective workshops can be deadly.
This is the ultimate pre-conference checklist - 10 critical factors for putting a successful meeting together.

Going down history lane… just a bit ūüôā

A barcamp is a user-generated conference. Some also call it an unconference. The program is put together by participants first thing each day the unconference is held. Each participant introduces themselves and provides three key terms:

Who: I am Urs E. Gattiker from Zurich, Switzerland
Term 1: benchmark metrics
Term 2: minimally invasive surgery / technology
Term 3: hiking

One or two ideas are then presented by the individual. What are they willing to share with other participants? This could be in the form of a presentation, workshop or discussion. If enough people will be interested, the idea gets assigned a time slot.

The first barcamp was organised in a week. It was held in¬†Palo Alto, California, August 19‚Äď21, 2005.

Interesting Read: What is a Barcamp?

My first barcamp was a blogcamp in March 2009 in Zurich¬†with the . The next one followed in Rapperswil in October¬†of the same year with the¬†hashtag #bcrappi. Later that month we had Barcamp Liechtenstein with the hashtag #bcli09Soziale Medien f√ľr gemeinn√ľtzige Einrichtungen: Wie nutzt man diese besser¬†(Making better use of Social Media in the context of any industry – my Slides with checklists). Three barcamps in 2009 alone, what a ride it was…

Barcamps are great places to meet like-minded people with very different brackgrounds, training and interests. From hobby photographer, designer, and coder to top-notch professionals in various disciplines such as medicine, genetics and sociology. Everybody contributes something, including volunteering time at the registration desk or helping with clean up. The opportunities to share and learn seem limitless.

For me, a repeatedly exceptional barcamp over the years has been Barcamp Bodensee (see Twitter hashtag #bcbs15, #bcbs14, #bcbs13, #bcbs12, #bcbs10, and so forth). Every time I go, I learn a lot while having a great time (read Barcamp Bodensee #bcbs14: Synergien finden РFinding Synergies).

Do barcamps differ from hackathons?

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so if people start copying you, you must be doing something right. Today people use various types of conferences that are different shades of barcamps. Many call themselves unconferences and have copied part of the idea that led to barcamps.

At a hackathon you are likely to meet coders, programmers, software engineers and so forth. The sociologist or tool or die maker are a rare specimen at such an event. Often the focus is on a theme (e.g., wearable and / or mobile technology). Attendees form groups of 2 to 5 people and start on their project. hackZurich attracts about 400 and focuses on a theme, with the objective being to program an App in 40 hours or less.

There are barcamps that use this approach as well, for instance, when a start-up weekend is organized. Few people form a group and then get cracking on their business idea, which may include working on an app.

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What makes barcamps and hackathons similar?

The Zurich Hackathon (October 4-6, 2015) is similar to a classic barcamp. Both require volunteers to donate their time and know-how to make it happen. Without them, neither barcamps nor hackathons are possible.

In addition, well organised barcamps or hackathons manage to get sponsors ranging from Zeppelin, to Daimler, Ruppaner, Sonntag morgen, and other local and not-so-local businesses.

Originally, no fees were the norm for such events, but these days some charge, for example using rising fees. Here the first delegate registering pays $20, then $21, and so on, until the last registrant you let in pays $350 or thereabouts. This allows the organizers to make some money or at least recover the costs if few or no sponsors pick up the tab.

Can corporate barcamps work?

Digital Accelerator Allianz took up the idea of a barcamp. For this purpose it organised a hackathon towards the end of May 2015. Its intention was to get new ideas and apps developed in that time.

The company proudly announced the winners, who got some cash prices, as illustrated here in this Allianz Tweet (image below).

Another approach is an ideathon. Similar to a hackathon, experts attending the ideathon choose and join groups of 2 to 5 people to brainstorm, generating novel solutions.

These ‘great ideas’ are pitched to the company and the best receive cash awards, such as Novocure ideathon (see image below). So yes, corporate barcamps can work. But unless we follow best practice, they leave a foul aftertaste.

Below I outline the things I feel are crucial to a successful event.

Best practice checklist for organisers

Based on my experiences with barcamps, worshops, hackathons and conferences, as attendee, co-organizer and¬†program chair / ‘chief’, I have created this checklist to ensure your event works.

Download Checklist – The ultimate guide for conference organizers
The ultimate checklist for workshop, hackathon and barcamp organisers

Best Practice is a superior method or innovative practice that contributes to the improved performance of an organisation or conference organiser, usually recognized as ‘best’ by other peer organizations.

It implies accumulating and applying knowledge about what is and is not working.

10 points for organisers: Ropes to skip

1. Balancing diverse interests is key to success

You have to balance your sponsors’ needs with those of your delegates.

Getting attention from bloggers is not easy. You might offer them a sweepstake to participate in if they mention your sponsor (e.g.,¬†Zeppelin flight to be won around Friedrichshafen and Konstanz)… Things have to be attractive enough to get them to blog about something in order to be eligible to win.

If your event gets too commercialised, you turn certain people off. Not enough sponsors to pay the way, you have to charge a fee, upsetting a different group.

As the above suggests, this is a never ending balance act, but you better be good at it and find a middle way! Finding sponsors is an arduous and time-consuming process. Sometimes it is worth it to put one person in charge of delivering just that, with the cash enabling you to put a better event together.

2. Various backgrounds make a difference
2.1 Ideal number of attendees

50 attendees can be enough to have a great event, while going beyond 300 barcampers might make the event too big. The larger the event, the harder it is for a newcomer to get to know others and not feel lost. Again balance is needed and sometimes newcomers need help (e.g., when they arrive in the morning, they are greeted).

With barcamps you have to encourage some people and motivate them to come. Getting people who make money to give speeches may be nice for entertainment purposes, but where’s the added value? Better a researcher who tells the audience about their findings, than someone who studies tea leaves.

What is the ideal number? Probably between about 50 to 250. Big enough for a diverse crowd. Enough people to provide the talent allowing each topic to be discussed in some depth, and so forth.

2.2 Language

In Europe, you can offer some sessions in English. The rest is in the language spoken at the location of the conference. This way you can attract French or Italian speaking Swiss to an event in Zurich.

Another option is to choose English as the conference language, #truZurich, another uncoference for recruiters. The hope is that this makes it easier for people to attend.

Just make sure that the locals do not feel excluded because their English skills are a bit rusty.

2.3 Theme

You can narrow down a conference to a particular theme. Examples are change management, fundraising or social media monitoring.

While you may attract fewer people, at least they share a common interest.¬†However, the theme and its description have to be concise and clear. The headline has to convey the message, only then can you attract the ‘right’ people.

2.4 Scheduling

Business events are usually held on a workday. If your boss approves you have it covered Рtime spent at the event is paid work time and expenses are taken care of. Great if you can get it, and most importantly your weekend stays free.

For small business owners that may be difficult. Each day you attend means zero revenue. Here, barcamps suit small business owners and students. Generally, they are held during weekends. Incidentally, experienced barcampers feel that the second is the better of the two days. One has gotten to know people (e.g., during the reception last night), making the conference more interesting.

In short, if the event is about learning, weekends may be better. Those not highly interested may not attend. If the event is about building business contacts and finding clients, an event during the week might be more promising – Tuesday through Thursday is best.

Some take the middle road. They schedule workshops and continuous education events on the weekend, while the ‘real’ program begins Monday (e.g., EICAR and most academic conferences).

3. Corporates can organize a barcamp BUT

If you want your own barcamp as a large organization (see Allianz), set the topic with people that know much about the barcamp idea. Choose people that have experience organising conferences and tell them what you want.

Then, put them in charge. Your benefit is two-fold:

– opening the event to outsiders will attract a larger audience of experts than just those from the company, and most importantly,
– this will result in richer and possibly freer discussions and better exchange of ideas… because outsiders raise issues that insiders may not dare to.

To make this possible, try to limit attendance of ‘insiders’ to 30%.

Keep in mind: Some very smart people may not be interested in developing ideas for a pharmaceutical firm. However, they are perfectly willing to do it for a charity or NGO (non-governmental organisation) such as the Red Cross, Caritas, etc.

4. To tweet, or not to tweet…

Research shows that social media can be a detractor. Watching status updates go by on your screen distracts you from focusing on what is happening at the conference.

I saw and experienced the first Twitter wall in 2008. However, I have never felt these things are conducive to a high-quality conference. I prefer focusing on things right here and now, and find tweets distracting.

Nevertheless, make it easy for non-Twitter users to find tweets with the barcamp or workshop hashtag. Offer them a URL to view these in the browser (e.g., #BcBs15), and publish a shortened link (i.e. http://securl.de/BcBs15-tw).

This way, attendees are not challenged by Twitter’s too-difficult link, such as https://twitter.com/search?q=%23bcbs15&src=typd

By the way, using small or capital letters in hashtags does not matter. Typing #BcBs15 or #BCBS15 or #bcbs15 brings the same results when searching Twitter (http://search.Twitter.com).

Interesting read: RESEARCH РSocial media results in distraction and higher stress levels

5. Choose your sponsors wisely

It is always a compromise of things like price and how central or fancy the venue is.

An educational institution may be willing to sponsor a barcamp, by providing the venue for free. Most likely you have to get a sponsor to pay for catering and coffee breaks. A soft drink company may let you offer their product for free and so forth. In other cases, the corporate sponsor may offer you a venue including catering, in which case, all power to you!

You can also get a sponsor to offer free flights like Zeppelin did for the Barcamp Bodensee in addition to some cash.

Just make sure that your sponsors do not become overbearing. Your and their aims should match to a large extent.

6. Get help implementing your marketing strategy

Unless we reach people early, they may already be committed elsewhere. In addition, people need to be reminded regularly about upcoming events, but please, not five times in the last five weeks before the event.

Keep those emails relevant and their frequency as low as possible. In turn, recipients are more likely to open and study such mail.

Blog about the event early on. For instance, campaign-summit Switzerland managed to get a small group to register very early. These afficionados were then also included in getting the program together, and they spread the word early on via Twitter and other blog posts.

Getting your marketing right means finding a balance between trying too hard and too little (see image below – too much is annoying to your target audience).

Interesting read: Fachtagung: 10 Tipps f√ľr Teilnehmer (Conference: 10 Tips for Attendees)

Download CHECKLIST: The comprehensive guide to successful conferences (pdf file Р70 KB) http://securl.de/en-check-1

Final note

As a small company, you can get exposure by sponsoring a barcamp or a conference, but even more interesting is the chance you get to exchange ideas and share know-how with others.

For a large company, branding and image-building opportunities are great when sponsoring a barcamp or hackathon. You can sponsor goods in kind, have a booth at the event, or pay the organizer some cash to have your logo prominently placed.

However, if none of your staff attend sessions, you miss a great opportunity to connect with delegates and help¬†build the company’s brand or reputation. The most successful sponsors seem to be those that get a top manager to attend (see¬†Hofrath und S√ľss). Recently,¬†a car manufacturer had one of its top three managers attend a barcamp for 1.5 days.

I have met incredibly talented and motivated people while attending these events. I was lucky enough to hire several of them or put them on boards of companies we have invested in. I continue finding collaborators for projects that my firm would be unable to take on without their help. Barcamps rock!

What do you like most at conferences you attend?
What do you find most annoying at workshops or meetings?
Have you organised a barcamp or conference? What tip(s) can you pass on?

Urs E. Gattiker

Professor Urs E. Gattiker - DrKPI is corporate Europe's leading social media metrics expert (see his books). He continues to work with start-ups. Urs is CEO of CyTRAP Labs GmbH.

2 thoughts on “Comprehensive guide to successful conferences

    • 14. June 2015 at 15:56
      Permalink

      Hi Roberto

      I do not know how the product camp in Zurich went. But again, it is a derivation kind of event from a classical barcamp. What I felt yesterday with the Barcamp Bodensee was

      1. People from diverse walks of life attended (age, gender, education, position at work, interests, etc.)
      2. Attendees were willing to share (give and take) which makes for a rich environment, both emotionally but also for learning.
      3. Old hands (8 or more barcamps under your belt) and newbies (first barcamp ever attended) were nicely mixed
      4. Some know each other, others met for the first time.

      Best is that we probably keep in touch during the year with some of these people. For me the classical barcamp (Bodensee is one with a nice twist….) is not to do business. Neither is it to sell anything to your audience.
      For some this is difficult but if you stay away from that, your audience will love you and find the barcamp inspiring.

      These days, far too often you are asked to attend a conference – possibly invited, at a fee…. – and once you go home you wonder if it was worth it. With a barcamp, the least you have is a few laughs and the best….. the sky is the limit ūüôā – with a Zeppelin this year at the Bodensee Barcamp ūüôā

      Thanks for sharing Roberto
      Miradlo - Ute Foto vom Zeppelin

      Reply

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