I had the pleasure of viewing the AssociationTRENDS on-demand webinar, “The Evolution of the Association Conference” instructed by Jeffrey Hurt with Velvet Chainsaw Consulting. The session affirmed the stagnant nature of association conferences and why we as association professionals have to take the bull by the horns and use creativity and calculated risk to increase the value of our conferences for our attendees.
What’s Wrong with the Way We Do It Now?
So you may ask what’s wrong with doing things the way they’ve always been done. Well, Jeff points out that years ago attendees came to conferences to get information. That is no longer the case. The internet has already cornered the market on providing information. In order to compete and bring attendees back each year, we have to now deliver a lasting, educational experience.
The top three reasons people attend conferences are education, networking and generating business. Our meeting has to deliver on these aspects in order to grow.
What Can We Do to Change Things?
Jeff discussed six key conference hacks for delivering a conference that is focused on the needs of the participants and will keep them coming back for more:
Conference Hack #1: Identify your top 3-4 target markets
Identify your top 3-4 target markets and focus on serving them first. They are the key to profitability.
Who are your target attendees? Are they industry veterans who have been in the industry for 15 or 20 years? Are they from larger companies or smaller firms? What are the things that keep them up at night and what will help them professionally? We have to be laser focused on our target group.
Conference Hack #2: Be a courageous experience designer
The only way that meetings will change is if we as the association professional experts are brave and courageous enough to see ourselves as experience designers who view our registrants as co-creators.
The volunteers on our planning committees are not experts in experiential learning. They are the experts on the industry and professional field. We have to use their expertise in the right way and be willing to present them with new, creative ways of designing the conference learning experience.
A great rule of thumb presented was to ensure that at least 25% of your conference each year is new and different. This gives you the opportunity to improve on your existing format while also leaving planning room to invest in greater changes for future meetings.
Conference Hack #3: Become a Curator of Content that is Consumer-Centric
We need to become curators of content to help attendees uncover what the content means and use the content to develop deeper understanding. The days of the lecture with participants passively listening need to make way for active learning that stays with participants long after conference.
Jeff explained that we often put content before the needs of participants. We jam presentations full of data and information and deliver it in a one-way lecture format. Our participants walk away without really understanding context and being able to apply what they’ve learned after conference, let alone remember anything they’ve heard. We need to look at content differently and use it as a tool for deeper understanding.
Conference Hack #4: Speakers Need to Be Facilitators of Learning
Related to hack number 3, most of the time we allow our speakers to dictate the content and rely on the lecture format of delivery. But this leaves our attendees out of the equation. We need our speakers to actually focus on learning design and not just transferring information.
I’m sure you’re thinking how can we do that when most of our speakers are volunteers and members of the industry. They aren’t educators or trained facilitators. Well, Jeff provided some suggestions to help mold our speakers more into the facilitation mold and putting attendees’ learning experience at the forefront:
- Set aside time and money for speaker training. Even the most seasoned speakers always want the opportunity to improve. Build in some type of training to help your industry professionals understand how to implement more facilitation into their presentations.
- Hire a professional facilitator to assist your speakers in developing their facilitation techniques.
- Ask presenters in the call for papers to outline the adult learning methods they will use in their presentations.
A great rule of thumb is to incorporate 60% interaction (peer to peer discussion & engagement) into each session.
Conference Hack #5: Registrants Want Understanding Not Just Information
Attendees don’t want to come to a conference and hear a lecture of information. Instead, they are looking for understanding of the issues and wise application of takeaways. When we just provide a lecture of information without providing a deeper understanding of the issue being addressed, attendees will take the information back, try to replicate the steps outlined and will fail because they don’t really get it.
Use the DIKUW (Data, Information, Knowledge, Understanding, Wisdom) Chain and identify what type of experience you are giving your attendees with each session. Your attendees are looking to get understanding and wisdom from their conference learning experience.
Conference Hack #6: Use Technology for Engagement in Learning
Use technology to make your attendees think while they participate to ensure that learning is occurring. How can we use technology to extend the learning experience of your conference? Consider using a hybrid meeting approach where you make on-demand learning available before and after the conference to extend the learning and engagement experience.
It’s time to think differently about our conferences. Use creativity and calculated risk to move away from the informational lecture and move toward an engaging experience that will give your attendees understanding and wisdom. That’s what will keep them coming back for more.