In business development, nothing beats meeting a client, partner or colleague in person. While electronic communication and phone calls are a great way to keep in touch, making time for face-to-face communication is an important part of solidifying a deep connection and/or closing a deal. Attending industry events and trade shows is a great way to simultaneously catch up with existing contacts and meet new people. I used to attend trade shows/ conferences to learn about what was going in web and wireless, but that’s less and less the case. The conventional conference format is growing stale, and is less relevant in our ‘real-time information’ driven culture. The only reason I go to shows these days is to focus on relationships, and it seems I’m not alone.
Last week, I attended CTIA IT & Entertainment in San Diego California. As an excuse to meet ton of interesting people and catch up with old colleagues, it was a worthwhile event. However the formal conference content was lacking. The keynotes were lackluster, and the show floor was filled with medium to large companies – many of whom seemed to be there as part of a ‘brand building’ exercise – rather than to launch anything new. These problems are not unique to CTIA or mobile… Conference organizers everywhere are struggling to keep trade shows relevant. Because large conferences are organized many months in advance, the content often lags behind what participants are able to learn in just a few hours on the internet. The most useful ‘conventional’ conference content tends to be either product announcements or forward-looking keynotes from industry luminaries, both of which are, apparently, in short especially supply in a bad economy.
So, what can conference organizers do to make conferences more useful in fast-moving, Internet driven economy? In my opinion, the key is finding ways to facilitate deeper, more meaningful interactions between attendees. Here’s a list of 10 things that would help. Many of these ideas may seem basic, but several have been missing from recent conferences I’ve attended.
- Embrace the power of the “unconference”. According to Wikipedia, “An unconference is a facilitated, participant-driven conference centered around a theme or purpose.” Unconferences facilitate connections and conversations between people. If you’re incorporating an “unconference” into your agenda, make sure that you’ve got influencers, entrepreneurs, and otherwise fascinating people lined up to facilitate the conversation and actively participate in the dialogue.
- Encourage social networking and conversations before, during and after the event:
- Create and publicize the Twitter “hashtag” for your event in advance and at the conference itself.
- Host discussions about your conference on LinkedIn.
- Use and publicize a social networking conference platform in advance of your event that is aimed at facilitating electronic connections and ultimately face-to-face meetings between people who may not know each other.
- Offer free wifi at the show so that people can interact with each other via email, social networks and more during the event. I hear conference organizers everywhere grumbling about how expensive it is to deliver free wi-fi at a conference venue, but I can’t help but think that if the venue is charging an arm and a leg for wifi, there’s something wrong, and they shouldn’t be hosting a tech conference. It shouldn’t be that expensive to set up decent wi-fi at a show, and if the venue is charging too much for it, a boycott is in order.
- Incentivize people to attend keynotes, participate in social networking conversations, and stay til the last day of the show by offering give-aways… For example, offer a handful of free passes to future events or electronics equipment vouchers under a select number of seats in the keynote. Motorola did a great job of incentivizing participants at the pre-CTIA MOTODEV Summit to attend the keynote and stay for the closing party by giving away mobile phones in the keynote and offering opportunities to win phones by participating in a “build your own clay Android” competition.
- Host a ‘demo’ session featuring demonstrations of new products. Don’t charge companies to participate… Just get outstanding demos. Vet companies and products carefully before you allow them to participate. CTIA hosted FundFest this year, and the quality of participants was surprisingly lackluster, given the high quality of so many new mobile start-ups out there.
- If you’re going to have a exhibition hall with booths, consider offering exhibition ‘grants’ to innovative, emerging companies. Host a competition and publicize it. There are plenty of new and interesting companies that don’t have a big enough marketing budget to exhibit but do have really cool products that will draw more people to the show floor. The companies that can afford to exhibit should appreciate the increased traffic these companies attract to the floor.
- Organize ‘speed dating’ opportunities between companies of all sizes.
- If you’re going for a traditional conference with keynote speakers, make sure your keynote speakers are launching something interesting or saying something new… No one likes to listen to a dull or repetitive speech. I’d much rather listen to a keynote from someone I may not have heard of that is saying something interesting and new than listen to someone well known that is regurgitating well-known industry information or selling cups of their stale company Koolaid.
- Hosting an ‘official’ conference party is great, but conference organizers should also consider hosting an official party wiki that lets participants list the public parties they’re also hosting during the show. Encourage participants to meet and interact with each other in an informal setting.
- Eat your own dog food, and mobilize! None of the mobile conferences I’ve attended have offered a really useful and engaging mobile application or WAP interfaces to participants. CTIA had some sort of an app, but they didn’t publicize it well, and I couldn’t get it to download to my Nokia E71 via a mobile browser. Set up a robust WAP site and/ or app (running on multiple OSes) and link it/them to your ‘official’ party list (#9 above), your conference schedule, special offers, and conference social networking platform (#2.3 above).
Add your ideas in a comment below.