Most association conferences are not bad and not great. They’re just ordinary.
Here are four suggestions to lift your next conference beyond ordinary and into the extraordinary.
1. Start from Insight
Every aspect of your conference planning and execution should converge on one question:
What do we want attendees to think, feel, and do?
Before you can answer this question, you need to know what your members want from your conference.
Send them a short email survey and then let them see the aggregate results. If you’re set up to support an online forum, have them discuss your survey results. The simple act of asking members what they want and encouraging them to interact will likely persuade more of them to attend.
Once you have survey results, you’ll be able to find answers like these:
- What we want attendees to think: I’m learning things here that will help me be more successful.
- What we want them to feel: I’m so glad I came!
- And what we want them to do: I’ll be back next year, and I’ll tell my colleagues and peers why they need to come.
Now you have the focus and assurance you need to build a great conference.
2. Develop a Compelling Theme
Chances are there’s a fair bit of high level consensus about what members want most from your conference. This tells you what your theme should be.
Let’s say most members want to learn about proven innovations that will help them and their organizations be more efficient and effective. Your theme could be something like:
The path to continuous innovation
Your theme should guide your choice of speakers. It may be tempting to go after a speaker who’s generating buzz in your industry or profession, but you need to look elsewhere if that speaker can’t align with your theme. What sticks with attendees isn’t just what one speaker says, but the cumulative effect of all your speakers. That’s the kind of attendee experience that brings unique value.
With sessions, you have a wider scope. They need to align in a general way with your conference theme, but you’ve got room to accommodate a range of interests and needs. They’re also a great place to experiment with new formats. For example, have a session in which participants briefly present a challenge they’re facing, and then other participants offer possible solutions. This format can spark lively, highly practical discussions.
3. Help Members Turn Inspiration into Action
Why do members come to your conferences?
Most would likely say things like:
“It’s the only time of the year when I can step out of the fray and think strategically.”
“It’s a chance to see what’s new and share lessons learned with my peers.”
Yet, one of the most common complaints attendees have about conferences is that they struggle to put their best intentions into practice back at the office. Often, they return from the conference with work to catch up on, which means even less time for anything that isn’t an immediate need. And so it goes until next year.
How can you help members turn conference inspiration into workplace action?
You do so by starting your conference with acknowledging this problem along with a simple way to address it.
Dedicate part of your opening session to having attendees reflect on these questions:
- What is the work challenge I’m struggling with most?
- What is my team’s top challenge?
- What is my association’s top challenge?
Answering these questions will prime attendees to focus on the conference content and activities that best align with their challenges. In the conference app, introductory package, or program, include a form on which attendees can write down ideas that apply to their challenges.
Then, come full circle. At the conference closing, give attendees a half hour or so to turn their notes into a few high-impact action items.
4. Help Attendees Share the Experience
A main reason members come to your conferences is to connect with their peers from other associations. For many, it will be the only chance they get all year to share challenges, opportunities, lessons learned, and best practices. You can use social media during the conference to further extend their reach.
Create a conference hashtag so attendees can share messages, photos, and videos across Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Use Twitter’s built-in polling feature to point attendees to the most popular sessions.
You can also live stream your conference with Facebook Live, Twitter Live, Instagram Live, etc. This not only lets you engage your on-site attendees but also members who couldn’t attend. If you can give those members a taste of the rich conference experience, they’ll be more likely to attend next year.
Jamie McIntosh is President of Ottawa-based inMotion Video and Digital Marketing. Since 1979, inMotion has helped dozens of associations grow, restructure and innovate. Clients include the Canadian Automobile Association, Canadian Council on Aviation and Aerospace, Consumer Health Products Canada, the Intellectual Property Institute of Canada, the Canadian Wood Council, the Canadian Curling Association, Forest Products Association of Canada, Canadian Wildlife Federation, Workplace Safety and Insurance Board and many others.
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