All the same complaints people have about weddings (Chicken Dance anyone?), they have about conferences as well. Last week at Social Media Marketing World (SMMW), yea, I learned a shit ton about social media…but I also was blown away by “the experience.” How do these social media geeks manage to inject “rock star” steroids into conference planning?
SMMW is the world’s largest social media conference (3k attendees from over 40+ different countries) and it oozes “rock star” at every step. I was both the SMMW conference DJ and an attendee (my 2nd year), so I can take you behind-the-scenes on both sides.
#1 CONFERENCE PLANNING TIP: Over-Staff Your Registration Area
I have been to conferences with 700 people in which the line to register was a mile long because THE BOSS and 2 helpers were the only people handling registrations. When I got to the front, my badge could not be found so they had me stand there clogging the mile-long line for 5-10 minutes while they printed me one. DON’T. BE. THAT. CONFERENCE.
SMMW had like 20 registration counters. And you know who wasn’t working at any of them? The guy in charge. Get a volunteer staff, train them thoroughly (or else they are useless), and delegate. Imagine how you would feel arriving to a conference you paid dearly for and your first impression is “I should have worn comfortable shoes…sigh.”
#2 CONFERENCE PLANNING TIP: Have an “Opening Night” Party
Don’t think you are going to bring a big, diverse group of strangers together and have “the ice broken” just by playing an upbeat video or having an engaging host crack some one-liners. SMMW does NOT sponsor their opening night party or do ANYTHING remotely sales-y there.
SMMW’s opening night party is held aboard the USS Midway, a retired aircraft carrier parked in San Diego harbor…how’s that for rock star? Conference attendees get shuttled in from area hotels by SMMW’s buses and greeted with a red carpet. Yep. Oh, and they are also greeted by a horde of smiling volunteers giving out high-fives and waving welcome signs.
Once on the USS Midway, conference-goers can go on flight simulators, eat a catered dinner, listen to a live band at one end or my jams at the other. This year there was a donut bar in addition to an alcohol bar, which was very popular. There were also charging stations, belly bars, networking bingo cards, portable heaters for the outdoor parts of the ship…and, of course, the opportunity to snap pics with the conference logo backdrop.
The level of detail is amazing. It is obvious that my fun and comfort as an attendee were considered at every step.
#3 CONFERENCE PLANNING TIP: Splurge on Content, Not on Fluff
Did I not love the Starbucks coupons floating around in the mornings each day at SMMW? Of course. Did I enjoy the free mini bags of popcorn passed out each afternoon for NO REASON whatsoever? Damn straight. But those niceties were not the draw….the fact that I learned about Twitter from a TEAM (yes, a power business duo) all the way from England, who–within 10 minutes of starting their presentation–had earned my trust enough that I was whipping my phone out to do my first Twitter video reply in a room full of strangers…THAT is the draw of SMMW.
If you are at the budget level where you need to choose “goodies” over “good speakers”…choose good speakers.
Content is everything. I recently attended a conference where the “goodies” were better than the content…not worth it. Goodies will never win people over if the content stinks. Content doesn’t always have to mean paying for expensive presenters–SMMW added a ton of value by having presenters lead structured networking discussions each day at specified lunch tables. Easiest networking I ever did…AND there I am sharing box lunches with a bunch of fellow super-star bloggers!
#4 CONFERENCE PLANNING TIP: Don’t Plan in a Vacuum
Again, the less-than-stellar conference I recently went to was such a great comparison against SMMW…it was like, “This is how we’ve always done it, so we’re going to keep doing it.” Yea, Einstein, that is not the recipe. You better get yourself a PhD in what other conferences are doing (two 12-hour days or three 8-hour days? meals included? tables for note-taking or just chairs? pre-recorded presenter introductions?) Step out of your box and get ideas from other conferences. Get inspired!
#5 CONFERENCE PLANNING TIP: Offer a Virtual Ticket
So people can be cheap about certain things–it’s a fact of life. As a DJ, I offer a DIY package where I put all of my “dance floor secret sauce” into a series of ebooks and playlists for those who can’t afford to have me perform live at their weddings. I ain’t too proud to offer a price point that literally anyone can afford.
Any other conference I’ve ever attended cost around $200-$300. SMMW costs 3x that…and then some. But why does a BMW cost more than a Geo Metro? Guess what, you can sell both on your lot! Another conference I attended offered a VIP upgrade to get a reserved seat in the front row, early backstage access to presenters/special guests, and “no waiting” registration. It was $200 extra. Then tables for note-taking were taken away from anyone who didn’t buy VIP. Boo!
The virtual ticket concept is MUCH better. Be a BMW conference and offer the lower-priced option rather than being a Geo Metro conference offering an upgraded sun roof and leather seats. You know what that white speck on top of chicken doodoo is? Yep, it’s still doodoo! Content over “goodies.”
SMMW’s virtual ticket gives access to each presenter’s slides, an audio of the presentation, and a video of the slides & audio together. It costs around $300…AND it’s included free with the full price ticket. $300 to hear some 50 or so presentations from industry rockstars. No brainer, right?
#6 CONFERENCE PLANNING TIP: Prepare Your Presenters Like Kindergartners
Conference calls with what to expect, question-answering, deadlines, rules, A/V info, etc…your speakers are the engine that keep the car going. Pamper them! I believe SMMW has presenters find their rooms the day before and do a FULL rehearsal of their presentations with the A/V staff in the room–everything as it will be during the real deal (slides, mic, up on stage…FULL dress rehearsal). At SMMW, there is also a special “green room” type area especially for presenters (not the same as the private staff room) with some snacks and just a quite place to recharge–a nice touch that really does not add much cost to the event.
Some great presenter tips you should be giving to your “engine” include:
- Tell the presenters everything you know demographically about who will be in attendance (FT? PT? Corporations? Solopreneurs? Mostly men? Mostly newbies? Mostly local? International?)
- Don’t make presenters worry about ANY tech issues. Provide all the equipment, hook it up for them, have the A/V staff offer mic tips for sounding good, let the presenters worry about their content and presentations ONLY.
- Don’t be salesy. This is a BIGGIE!!! The “boo” conference I recently attended started off the first session of the conference with a book talk from a book having ZERO to do with the conference’s industry…but it’s author was a well-known member of that industry. The entire presentation was just chapters of his off-topic book 🙁
- Tell them to PRACTICE!!
- Make sure you have back-up copies of their slideshows. Always have a Plan B if a projector dies or a laptop freezes.
- Give general pointers like, “Don’t start with, ‘Man, it’s early…I need more coffee. How is everyone?'” Snooze! Start with a power punch and give the audience the ride of their lives! Avoid religion and politics if you’re not at a religion or politics conference. Avoid generic inspirational advice–get to the specific, actionable items, case studies, screenshots of the tips in action, and so on.
- Let them know whether swearing is OK or not.
Final two tidbits: personally listen to your own “quality control” session recordings, and let presenters know your organization is happy to write them a reference letter to speak at other conferences if they like.
#7 CONFERENCE PLANNING TIP: Dos & Don’ts of Conference Sponsorship
The “other” conference I have attended has break-out rooms for sponsors to do infomercial-style presentations. Hmmm…in my numerous years attending that conference, how many times have I walked away from the “conference main street” to voluntarily attend a live infomercial off in some new room? Umm, never. Don’t expect attendees to seek out sponsors, put the sponsors’ messages in front of the attendees.
Now this tip is coming from me…this is not how SMMW does it, just to be clear. So it’s a bit of an experiment, but I think it would be a win-win. What if exhibitors got to sponsor the seminars? Nice value add-on for them, right? “Ladies & gentlemen, welcome to ‘Spin the Pin: How DJs Can Kill it on Pinterest’ presented by Canva! Canva offers free Pinterest templates to make gorgeous, optimized pins every time. See them at booth #73. And now let’s give it up for your presenter, DJ Staci Nichols!”(Yes, this is my topic at the upcoming Wedding MBA conference in October…ut ut!)
Now imagine a Canva ad up on the projector screen as this is being said AND maybe a rep from Canva standing up front smiling and waving (the rep can stick around and pass out Canva swag to attendees as they leave the seminar too).
Wow! Now you just gave the exhibitor a live almost TV-style ad in front of a very targeted audience. Didn’t cost you anything to add this value for the exhibitor either. Of course, the sponsor would be printed in the program and all that too.
Depending on the size of the conference and how many exhibitors you have, you might have to make the seminar sponsorship an upgrade for exhibitors -or- you might be able to bring in non-exhibitor sponsors (like the virtual ticket of sponsorship LOL). Either way, provide top value for exhibitors WITHOUT detracting from content!
#8 CONFERENCE PLANNING TIP: Branded Slideshow Openers
Another ninja-level hack from SMMW is to require presenters to use your organization’s own branded slideshow page template as their opening slide. It gives a consistency to the presentations and provides a professional feel for virtual attendees.
Now, if you like tip #7, you can even throw the sponsor’s logo onto the bottom corner of the template or have the presenter include the sponsor’s logo elsewhere.
#9 CONFERENCE PLANNING TIP: Offer Different Types of Presentations
Don’t make all of your conference content one speaker standing up and talking with a Power Point in the back. How about getting a panel of your website writers together for a Q&A so attendees can pick their brains about articles they read throughout the year on your site? How about small workshops limited to 50 people plus the hands-off mega lectures? How about a panel discussion with 3 industry leaders lead by a host? Get creative because not everyone learns the same way.
#10 CONFERENCE PLANNING TIP: Working the Networking
Free-for-all parties with alcohol and dancing and food are great for getting attendees together, but you also need structured networking activities to help them break the ice and really make friends they will keep in touch with after the conference. SMMW has their networking bingo cards at the Opening Night Party and structured networking at specified lunch tables (i.e. “table talks”), but they also offer a morning networking break where nothing is on the schedule for 45 minutes. The introverts check in with the office and clean out their in-boxes, but everyone else is wandering through exhibits, buying presenter books in the book store, and casually chatting.
SMMW also starts the networking well before the conference and loops in virtual attendees as well as in-person attendees. They start a Linked In group and Facebook Event and asked everyone to introduce themselves there. They have networking on Slack. They have networking on the conference app, Buzzaboo. They had an “official” after-party at the hotel the night after the last Keynote that a ton of presenters attended (it was just casual drinks at the hotel bar, but it was announced a few times before and after Keynotes so everyone knew about it).
#11 CONFERENCE PLANNING TIP: Offer Lots of Effective Badge Stick-Ons
Make sure to have stick-on ribbons or something similar for people’s badges that say “First Timer,” “Alumni,” “Speaker,” etc to help attendees more easily start conversations. At SMMW, in addition to these easy-to-read sticker ribbons that hang from the bottom of the badge, they also had stickers to put ON the actual badges saying things like, “Blogger,” “Influencer,” “Snapchat Expert,” and so on. The more you provide these kind of labels for the attendees, the easier it is for them to get conversations started. While cutesy badge stick-ons that say, “Party Animal,” “Girl Power,” or “I’m Tired” are fun, they are not as effective at helping attendees find like-minded allies as the first type of stick-ons are.
#12 CONFERENCE PLANNING TIP: Provide Meals for Attendees
If your conference is at a location with a lot of eating options (i.e. a casino in Vegas), it can be tempting to let everyone loose for lunch, but when attendees disperse like that they are far less likely to network. The more the attendees make valuable contacts at your conference, the more value it provides them…and the more likely they are to return the next year. By providing a box lunch or food stations in such a way that keeps attendees from dispersing, you are much more likely to see attendees swapping business cards over their turkey wraps and laughing together. When they disperse, they are super likely to end up eating lunch alone or with the same one or two friends they already made.
#13 CONFERENCE PLANNING TIP: Get your Conference #Trending!
Have a conference hashtag AND encourage attendees to use it. Offer give-aways to those posting with your hashtag. Post almost all of the professional pics from your staff photography crew to the conference hashtag so attendees can see that group shot they posed for last night (that probably won’t make the conference highlight video or the website for next year…but still has value). Ensure your organization has someone monitoring the conference hashtag throughout the conference and liking, commenting, and retweeting as much as possible. When those using the conference hashtag are rewarded with retweets and comments, they will only want to promote your conference for you for free MORE!
Attendees will go on Instagram and Twitter (maybe even Facebook) and check the conference hashtag regularly…and this will also help them network. I make A LOT of conference connections by first developing a relationship on Linked In (pre-conference networking in the Linked In group), Twitter, or Instagram and then recognizing that online acquaintance at lunch or in the hallway. “Hey, it’s you from Instagram. OMG! Nice to finally meet you in person.” Easiest #Networking ever.
And, don’t forget, your virtual attendees will be going crazy with jealousy at all the fun everyone is having without them when they check the conference hashtag. Hello, upgrade for next year!
#14 CONFERENCE PLANNING TIP: Now We Talk About Entertainment
See how this is the bottom item? Having some music by a DJ or band adds a lot of energy…even the right pre-recorded music is better than nothing. At SMMW, they had me DJ 30 minutes before and after each Keynote as everyone was coming in and out. I was set up on a small stage in a big, open networking area between the doors and the Keynote room. When attendees opened the door to come in off the street, grab a coffee, and find a seat, “Good Day Sunshine” (Beatles) or “Lovely Day” (Bill Withers) was the first thing that became a part of that day’s conference experience for them. On the last day after the final Keynote, their good-bye music was “Takin’ Care of Business” (BTO) and “Don’t Stop Thinkin’ About Tomorrow” (Fleetwood Mac). The music connects with them and taps their “conference loyalty” button.
Up on the Keynote stage, SMMW had different live bands not just playing upbeat music but interacting with the crowd. The energy was through the roof! They also had a Calypso band play during that morning networking break right by the breakfast area. How “feel good” is Calypso??? Ever meet anyone who didn’t like Calypso music???
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Post by San Diego DJ Staci
San Diego DJ Staci is a mad scientist of raise-the-roof-ology who spins “everybody faves” in a fresh way...including Spanish & country music. Her super-power is getting people to dance at San Diego weddings & parties like no one is watching. She writes for "Mobile Beat" DJ magazine & BookMoreBrides.com and also owns WeddingBizConsultant.com, CountryDJStaci.com, and DIYWeddingDJMC.com. #GirlBoss Like what DJ Staci writes? Subscribe below!
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