TED 2009 Faces

In print, in person, online…” the mantra used to go. Across most media businesses, and to a lesser extent, consumer media websites, you’ll generally be able to find a phrase to this effect. And yet…

If you work for one of these companies you’ll probably notice a massive transformation in the print and online parts of the business – but most conferences and exhibitions businesses feel like they’ve hardly changed in twenty years.

A couple of months ago I attended a media technology exhibition. You know the score. Share a huge amount of demographic information with the organisers. Collect your badge. Walk in to an overly bright expo hall past various “booth babes” and noisy demos. Attend a free seminar in a poorly lit “showfloor theatre” with terrible acoustics. Feel slightly disappointed with the content. We’ve all been there.

The final straw was when I was pounced upon by a stand representative and asked “if I used e-mail?” Really? That’s your opening line to develop new business? My visit to that show was over and all I came away with was a headache and a feeling that I had wasted my time.

I was thinking again about this experience as I attended the Conference Summit last week in London. One of the panels featured senior representatives of Informa, Green Power Conferences, Campden Wealth and Terrapinn who all agreed that in general the conference experience was “deathly boring” – and they were talking about their own events…

So, how should the events industry evolve? Here is a seven point checklist to get you thinking:

1) Embrace social media

Many of the speakers at the Conference Summit talked about how crowded their markets were becoming. They said that previously their competitive advantage had largely come from proprietary databases of contact information. Now it was much easier to use social media to build positions in that space. Lots of upstart events companies were springing up. In spite of these threats it constantly amazes me how backwards events organisers are in their use of social. Look for the leaders of events companies on Twitter for example and I bet you’ll find very few who really understand or leverage these platforms.

2) Think community first

It’s no longer good enough to deliver a great event and then walk away from your community for nine months before you speak to them again. This is where the brand media companies who also do events have an advantage but I still think they make little of it. At TheMediaBriefing we build long-term and daily interaction with our community via the site and a series of daily newsletters. This keeps the audience fresh and means that when we go to them with publicity about an event it is generally something they feel part of. Our upcoming Digital Media Strategies conference in February 2013 is a case in point (you should come!).

3) Vary the format to keep the energy going

Our starting point for the events we organise is that we try to identify the major questions our audience want answers to and build the programme around answering them. However, we do this in a variety of ways: Keynotes, panel discussions, roundtables, analyst views, case studies, future thinking etc. eConsultancy structure their Future of Direct Marketing event into a “this year/ next year / and beyond” format. For the “and beyond” section they introduced a 7/7 rapid fire presentation slot – seven speakers, seven minutes each in the final hour.

4) Keep up to date with, and apply technology well – even if it’s gimmicky

We all know that at the heart of a great event – expo or conference – is the right combination of audience, speakers and commercial partners. However, it is often the little things around the edges that make a difference to your perception. To give your event that feel of being different try to experiment with some of the new tools that are now relatively cheaply available. Here are a few you might want to look at to give your events a bit more ‘zing’:

Storify – summarise and communicate your event beyond the confines of the room as we did here for Mobile Media Strategies. Storystream, Scoop.it and even Pinterest can be used in a similar way

Twitter – set a hashtag for your event and take questions to the moderator of panel sessions via Twitter

Oleapark – check out this online networking tool that links delegates at your event without the need for new handsets. Bizzabo does something similar

Slideshare – a simple way to share the presentations from your event with non-delegates & give the event life beyond the actual days on which it was held

Facebook – at the eConsultancy Jump event they posted all of the photos of delegates on their site and asked people to tag themselves. This then broadcasts their attendance to their networks

YouTube – set up your own YouTube channel and curate presentations and profiles of your commercial partners – how about an escalator pitch for your sponsors like this one we did for SES?

Lanyrd.com – Allow speakers, sponsors and delegates to network online before during and after your event. Lanyrd allows people to connect via Linkedin instantly; it can used as marketing tool to get more people interested in your event, or as a method of recruiting interesting speakers.

5) Give your delegates a sense of AWE

Robin Dhara of TEDx London spoke at the Conference Summit about changing the events experience. At TEDx they do not allow sponsors to take a standard booth. Instead they are asked to bring some form of installation for delegates to engage with. Robin also suggested that you should mix up the standard staging and look at things like 3D light installations behind the speakers rather than standard backdrops.

6) Offer your commercial partners more

In a difficult economic climate your sponsors and exhibitors need even more reasons to justify spending money with you. Make it easy for them by spending time to understand their individual objectives and loading packages with value. Tweet about their support. Do a video interview with their head of sales and feature it on your summary. Allow sponsors a quick fire, one-minute presentation from the stage. Ask them to nominate five people they’d like a personal introduction to from the delegate list.

7) Introduce a sense of exclusivity

If we have learned anything from successful e-commerce companies we should recognise that the experience for all delegates and sponsors doesn’t need to be an equal one. Flatter egos with targeted marketing – eConsultancy created a “Jump 250″ list of key opinion formers and sent a series of themed goodies in the post to them. You can give delegates a VIP area, table nearer the stage at an awards, free car parking etc. It all gives that feeling of exclusivity.

We are also experimenting for a new launch with the idea of a vetting panel for exhibitors and sponsors who will have to apply to see if they are allowed to spend money with us. The vetting involves them explaining clearly the products they are looking to demonstrate and how they are going to do so. It should lead to a more relevant experience for our visitors as well.

The events industry is a powerhouse industry in this country. Companies like IIR, Informa, Terrapinn, Reed, Emap and others have built huge businesses off the back of innovation and adaptability. Exhibitions in particular seem to have weathered the downturn pretty well but this industry still needs a massive kick up the arse if it is to continue to thrive and prosper in a media world that allows delegates and sponsors to meet and share ideas across many new platforms.

How would you like to see the industry innovate? PLease leave your comments below.

Image via Veni Markovski on Flickr via a Creative Commons license.