Engagement & Participation: What’s Your Hook?

I have a secret. Well, I guess (like most things in my world when I get fixated) I have more of an obsession.

Top [insert your number here] lists. I think they’re fantastic. Whether it’s incredibly cute animals from Buzzfeed or quotes from my favorite WaPo bloggers, I’m addicted. I’ve found having that kind of title is also one of the ways that I’m much more likely to click on, spend time on, or sign up for further information about. Now, sometimes the subject matter drives me, but a lot of times, frankly I’m just curious. One of the fun links I found today came from @JohnKenyon who shared a link from one of the best conference designers out there right now, @JeffHurt.

The article, Top Ten Most Significant Challenges with Conference Education, goes hand in hand with an earlier blog post he penned over 17 Education and Learning Trends that will Affect Your Organization This Year. But that’s a post for another day. What was most fascinating to me is that Jeff’s article touched on something I have been dwelling about around what “hooks” people into signing up for workshops and conferences.

I mean, face to face learning nowadays can be expensive. Heck, even online learning can be pricey. Content and the overall feel and experience of an event has to be personalized, differentiated, affordable, accessible, welcoming, deep, and etc. But I want to ask myself, does it really?

Three challenges he identified really stood out for me:

1. Conference education focuses on content decided by committee rather than attendee needs
2. A concentration on the next shiny new thing in technology
3. An under resourced conference infrastructure for experience and delivery (of event, of programming, of networking, etc).

Full disclosure: my day job is partially focused on planning and running conferences. So, when I move into my opinions in a moment, you can’t say you weren’t warned about the soap box that might come out.

1) Conference education focuses on content decided by committee rather than attendee needs

This is a challenging and bold statement to me. Because to start really using the gap analysis from associations/nonprofits that we know exist and lessen the impact of what the community sees as their voice can be seen as tantamount to treason.

In many associations and member nonprofits, the focus is ALL on the community. We [the association/nonprofit] are the platform for them to speak, connect, learn, and grow. Some community members interpret that at as simply as the [Conference] is a space where community members, no matter the parameters of what they want to talk about, should be allowed to talk. Some others want to use their association/nonprofit as a learning platform. Where there is a little more structure in and guidance, both from experts in that field but also from outside folks who can provide perspective and add context and perhaps innovation to the work they are doing. This is why many times we use committees. But that also allows those who have chosen (or been chosen) and usually only around 16-30 folks make program decisions for audiences as large as 12,000+.

It is interesting to note, though, that Jeff doesn’t use the word “steering” before committee. That helps allow us to keep the peace between input from the community and what we as the association knows to be the audience need. They steer us in the direction they would like to see, but ultimately the decision lies with the organizer.Collaboration still needs to be a part of the planning process, because another salient point is that your community has to be a) interested enough to purchase and b) motivated enough to attend. Taking committees away entirely seems like not the right move quite yet…

2) A concentration on the next shiny new thing in technology

I would say having too high a focus on the “tool” rather than the strategy in technology is a larger problem.  Sometimes you need to talk about the new shiny tools. But more important, you should always be talking about those strategies around the tech. And that sometimes is the shiny new thing. It doesn’t mean immediate adoption, but acknowledging it and creating a space for that concentration is important and goes back to my earlier point, that conference education is about attendee needs.

This topic in particular needs to be present in all of those earlier conversations so that strategic integration of how and why the technology (shiny or old) is being used, being considered, and being needed. Because participants NEED to hear about it. At the very least, so they don’t go in uninformed. I think this statement would be better characterized as a focus on the next tech trend or fad…because we should always be concentrating on the new in technology.

3) An under resource conference infrastructure for experience and delivery (of event, of programming, of networking, etc)

Yes, yes, we’re all under-resourced you’re saying, Lindsay. But expectations around these (especially) in-person events have changed. With all the focus on making the experience personalized, amazing, and memorable, the actual conversation and pricing models of what it costs to produce and procure experts and experience is falling by the way side. I think if we’re going to make it a priority to focus on building the infrastructure of the education, the experience needs to rise to. And we need to talk about why we’re charging more, or taking away something. Framing the conversation in a “we can’t do cupcakes/wireless mikes/holograms this year, BUT we have this amazing expert you’ve been asking for for years” is totally acceptable if you follow it up with the context of “and that expert charges a bit more and we want to bring this expertise in this space, and we’re sorry we have to make a sacrifice in some places BUT we want your professional development to be top priority”

People don’t necessarily want to pay money. That’s normal and I get it. I work for a nonprofit too. But allowing for training and capacity building (which includes networking because that leads to communities of practice and support) are NEEDED. And we can’t have the conversation to fix this issue, until we talk about WHY the funding is important. And I think it’s started to move a bit on the dial, but in the meantime, continue to show them that you’re offering a deep and broad agenda with a memorable experience at the dollar amount in place. And that you’re doing everything possible to help them get to their next level.

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