Thoughts On Conferences

Yeah, I’m running a software testing conference.  It’s only our second one. It’s still nerve racking. There’s still alot of work to do, it doesn’t ‘just happen’ and we are still learning with each thing we do.

We want to make it something we are proud of and this in my heart especially means giving people great value for their money plus having an experience to remember.

In my effort to create a great experience I’ve been to 3 conferences in the past 4 months.  All Brighton/local ones. Not testing related. One was web, one was business and one was UX.  I was interested in the topics, but was also interested to see how some very nice local conferences are run.  I was being an observant little Rosie.

As a consequence I’ve been thinking a lot about conferences and I think the market is changing.  The newer conferences know this.  The more established ones are yet to catch up.

What Are Conferences About?

Conferences are not about learning stuff from the talks.  How can it be if in most cases you can watch the videos for free shortly after the conference has ended?

Perhaps it’s about meeting people.  Organisers will claim that, but all too often I’ve seen attendees being bored. Not knowing what’s going on outside of the conference. Not feeling comfortable to network with others. Or not knowing where to go.

For the vendors they get to market themselves to the attendees.  Come look at us they will say. The only conversations had there are so sales driven that it doesn’t feel genuine.

So it kind of looks like below. There’s the speaker speaking. The people watching. Then at break times there are the vendor stands that the attendees all too often ignore and either end of speaking to other attendees or to no one at all.

conference

The speaker gets value, it’s hard not to be seen  and get noticed if they are speaking.  The attendees hopefully get some good learning value, but social experience could often be better.  The sponsors often are completely separate. They don’t go to the talks. They don’t really know what’s going on, are out the loop and often cannot connect with the attendees.

If I Could Design My Own Conference…

3ofthem

Oh no wait, I am…

Sales & Marketing Should Be Integrated

Seriously, why do the people at the stands not attend the conference talks or social activities?  People buy from people. Generally from people they like or trust.  Trust comes with time and building up relationships with real conversations and common interests.

Instead of trying to sell stands to sales & marketing departments, why not sell them tickets? Encourage them to get involved. Learn from the talks. Have real conversations and build up relationships with the attendees?

We are trying this out with TestBash.

Sponsor Stands Are Old School

They must go.  I’ve heard from too many people that each year they provide less and less value.  It also puts pressure on the event organisers to provide value – often spending huge amounts of time and money on it.

One of my pet peeves is that some sponsors can buy their way into talks, allowing attendees to get stuck listening to a 20-45 minute advert.

Perhaps replace them with activities, games or try out micro-sponsorship – it’s easier to make lots of small sales than many large ones – it’s also much more inclusive for everyone.

Outside Activities

Create social things around the event and talks.  Not only are these attractive to the attendees, but they really bring the community together.  Often these are what attendees remember the most.

If you are not doing anything, then at least know if people are doing their own on the spur meetups and get involved!

Still A Lot To Learn

I’m not claiming to be an expert.  Far from it. What works for my community may not work for others.  And that’s cool.  But in Rosie Land I’m looking to the future and trying to do my best to create a great experience, even if I find it difficult when I really see myself as a  quiet introvert 🙂

 

9 comments on “Thoughts On Conferences

  1. -

    Rosie,

    I can’t remember if I fed back about this after the first TestBash, but one of the things I really liked (other than the important aspects like the pricing, venue and range of speakers–all excellent, by the way) was the personal touches. Receiving a pencil and notebook hand-stamped with my name simply wouldn’t happen at a corporate conference.

    Regards,
    Paul

  2. -

    Great ideas Rosie, I want to hear more!

    I completely agree that we need to get speakers/attendees/sponsors integrated and socializing.
    After Eurostar 2012 I wrote this piece that is in line with your post.
    http://contextdriven.blogspot.se/2012/11/eurostar-2012-people.html

    I would like to see more people knowing how to get more out of a conference, and one tip I have is this (replace “Eurostar” with “a Test Conference”):

    “””
    So my best tip of the day is this.
    Join twitter today, start following the interesting test people that are out there, engage with them, talk with them, and by the time you go to Eurostar the next time you will have a whole pack of people being eager to meet you in person for the first time!
    “””

  3. -

    Rosie – you have conceived a great idea and one that I think will work. When I think of conferences, what I have hoped to accomplish is to gain specific knowledge from others in the field who have experienced the same roadblocks or enlightening findings, and to take that back to my organization, peers, and followers, and teach others the same.

    In my organization, when we return from a conference, the skeptics are asking whether we have learned something from the conference, or if we simly ‘took a vacation’. I always find myself gathering notes, findings, learnings, and compiling them into a ‘Trip Report’ which summarizes the items that can be used both immediately and strategically in my organization. This seems to drown the debates on whether or not the conference was helpful and insightful.

    However, I don’t wish to simply take notes just to show that I paid attention or that the conference had value. I want to feel I was changed by one or more of the presentations. And what makes that possible is the planning and preparation of the speakers.

    I attended a training for a whole week years ago with a coach and mentor that made the presentations so exciting, fun, entertaining, and insightful that it forever changed my life. After 7 years, I still speak of that training to many people. That’s the type of speaker I want to be as i embark on 3 conferences this year on testing. You want to keep the attention, engage the audience, and make sure they take away things they can use both short and long term.

    I truly love the idea of combining the speaker, support, and the vendors – this is a great idea and it allows you to not only show the practice of testing, but the tools that can support how you can accomplish these things in your own space. Teaching someone how to drive a car with slides and presentations is one thing – but to have your hands on the wheel and drive is another. What a great concept! I wish I could travel there and be part of this conference! I’ll plan to do so in 2014. You surely have a lot of great speakers there. I’ve met Seth Eliot and spent a lot of time with him at STP Con in Oct, 2012 and learned a lot from him!

  4. -

    Rosie – you have conceived a great idea and one that I think will work. When I think of conferences, what I have hoped to accomplish is to gain specific knowledge from others in the field who have experienced the same roadblocks or enlightening findings, and to take that back to my organization, peers, and followers, and teach others the same.

    In my organization, when we return from a conference, the skeptics are asking whether we have learned something from the conference, or if we simly ‘took a vacation’. I always find myself gathering notes, findings, learnings, and compiling them into a ‘Trip Report’ which summarizes the items that can be used both immediately and strategically in my organization. This seems to drown the debates on whether or not the conference was helpful and insightful.

    However, I don’t wish to simply take notes just to show that I paid attention or that the conference had value. I want to feel I was changed by one or more of the presentations. And what makes that possible is the planning and preparation of the speakers.

    I attended a training for a whole week years ago with a coach and mentor that made the presentations so exciting, fun, entertaining, and insightful that it forever changed my life. After 7 years, I still speak of that training to many people. That’s the type of speaker I want to be as i embark on 3 conferences this year on testing. You want to keep the attention, engage the audience, and make sure they take away things they can use both short and long term.

    I truly love the idea of combining the speaker, support, and the vendors – this is a great idea and it allows you to not only show the practice of testing, but the tools that can support how you can accomplish these things in your own space. Teaching someone how to drive a car with slides and presentations is one thing – but to have your hands on the wheel and drive is another. What a great concept! I wish I could travel there and be part of this conference! I’ll plan to do so in 2014. You surely have a lot of great speakers there. I’ve met Seth Eliot and spent a lot of time with him at STP Con in Oct, 2012 and learned a lot from him!

  5. -

    Sponsors are a bit of a “necessary evil”, we wouldn’t have many conferences without them, but people don’t want to feel like a conference is all about someone selling you something.

    I’ve seen vendors do a good job of not only participating in sessions and open space talks, without trying to promote their own products in that setting, but also to support the community by sponsoring venues for participants to do things a bit outside the conference. For example, a couple of years ago at StarEast, Soasta provided a room for the “Rebel Alliance” (a sort of un-conference within the conference) to meet and hold lightning talks. In 2011, Telerik sponsored a room for not only conference attendees but local testers to hold “PotsLightning”. I believe Diaz and Hilterscheid did that for PotsLightning in 2012.

    We need more of that. I’m finding that I start exchanging ideas with folks like Jim Holmes on Twitter and blogs, and only later discover they work for a vendor. These good people are part of our community first, and vendors second. We all have to work SOMEwhere! I’m especially sensitive to this topic now that *I* work for a vendor. I attend conferences under my own auspices, but of course, people know where I work.

    I love your creative ideas and I hope we can all come up with more ways to improve everyone’s conference experiences!

  6. -

    Sponsors are a bit of a “necessary evil”, we wouldn’t have many conferences without them, but people don’t want to feel like a conference is all about someone selling you something.

    I’ve seen vendors do a good job of not only participating in sessions and open space talks, without trying to promote their own products in that setting, but also to support the community by sponsoring venues for participants to do things a bit outside the conference. For example, a couple of years ago at StarEast, Soasta provided a room for the “Rebel Alliance” (a sort of un-conference within the conference) to meet and hold lightning talks. In 2011, Telerik sponsored a room for not only conference attendees but local testers to hold “PotsLightning”. I believe Diaz and Hilterscheid did that for PotsLightning in 2012.

    We need more of that. I’m finding that I start exchanging ideas with folks like Jim Holmes on Twitter and blogs, and only later discover they work for a vendor. These good people are part of our community first, and vendors second. We all have to work SOMEwhere! I’m especially sensitive to this topic now that *I* work for a vendor. I attend conferences under my own auspices, but of course, people know where I work.

    I love your creative ideas and I hope we can all come up with more ways to improve everyone’s conference experiences!

  7. -

    Oops in my last comment I left off the conference where we were doing “PotsLightning”, it was Agile Testing Days.

  8. -

    I spoke at (& attended for the first time) CAST, Agile & StarWest last year. I came away from all of them thinking the same as you – the conference formula is ineffective and ripe for disruption.

    FWIW my thought was conferences shouldn’t just sell tickets to attend, but rather specific programs that are a logical group of presentations, classes, meetups and vendor interactions designed to meet a goal. That way attendees could buy for example the “switching to Agile” program or the “advanced context-driven testing” program etc. where these programs take place at the same conference concurrently. Think conference tracks but much more thought out, holistic and purposeful.

    Attendees get more out of the conference by picking the best program for them, networking is easier because attendees have something in common (they are constantly surrounded by the people who chose the same program as them), schedule conflicts are avoided because the program is holistically designed plus they learn more if there’s a good mix of theory (talks) and practice (classes). Attendees would still be free to switch programs if they want, or cherry pick presentations if there’s something outside their program that they are really interested in and you can still hold the traditional conference wide party/networking event so that there’s opportunity to mingle with people who’ve chosen different programs.

    The rub is this requires a lot more care, consideration and effort from the organisers – where’s the pay off for them? Well this might garner bigger revenues from vendors because it allows organisers to sell them qualified leads, rather than exhibition space.

    i.e. each program could include one or two 15 minute vendor presentations per attendee per day, when vendors can speak to attendees on a 1-1 basis. Conference organisers could sell/auction these slots to vendors. As a result vendors would only pay/bid for slots that align with their business e.g. Agile vendors only buy slots with the people on the “switching to Agile” program. This would mean less cold selling & gimmicks on the exhibition floor, vendors can prepare great presentations because they know in advance who they’ll be presenting to and they can tailor their presentations to fit into the context of the conference programs i.e. Vendor: “So in this morning’s “switching to Agile” program presentation you learnt about SCRUM planning and story estimation. Let me show you how our product can help your teams do that effectively…” etc.

  9. -

    I spoke at (& attended for the first time) CAST, Agile & StarWest last year. I came away from all of them thinking the same as you – the conference formula is ineffective and ripe for disruption.

    FWIW my thought was conferences shouldn’t just sell tickets to attend, but rather specific programs that are a logical group of presentations, classes, meetups and vendor interactions designed to meet a goal. That way attendees could buy for example the “switching to Agile” program or the “advanced context-driven testing” program etc. where these programs take place at the same conference concurrently. Think conference tracks but much more thought out, holistic and purposeful.

    Attendees get more out of the conference by picking the best program for them, networking is easier because attendees have something in common (they are constantly surrounded by the people who chose the same program as them), schedule conflicts are avoided because the program is holistically designed plus they learn more if there’s a good mix of theory (talks) and practice (classes). Attendees would still be free to switch programs if they want, or cherry pick presentations if there’s something outside their program that they are really interested in and you can still hold the traditional conference wide party/networking event so that there’s opportunity to mingle with people who’ve chosen different programs.

    The rub is this requires a lot more care, consideration and effort from the organisers – where’s the pay off for them? Well this might garner bigger revenues from vendors because it allows organisers to sell them qualified leads, rather than exhibition space.

    i.e. each program could include one or two 15 minute vendor presentations per attendee per day, when vendors can speak to attendees on a 1-1 basis. Conference organisers could sell/auction these slots to vendors. As a result vendors would only pay/bid for slots that align with their business e.g. Agile vendors only buy slots with the people on the “switching to Agile” program. This would mean less cold selling & gimmicks on the exhibition floor, vendors can prepare great presentations because they know in advance who they’ll be presenting to and they can tailor their presentations to fit into the context of the conference programs i.e. Vendor: “So in this morning’s “switching to Agile” program presentation you learnt about SCRUM planning and story estimation. Let me show you how our product can help your teams do that effectively…” etc.

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