Last month we asked “How do you design the Ultimate Conference Experience?” We posed the question here on our website, on our Google Plus community, on the DPG community, at the last weeLearning meetup and in various LinkedIn groups (nobody replied on any of the LinkedIn groups – go figure.)

We were a little overwhelmed by the quantity and creativity of the responses we received (except on LinkedIn). We feel we have a responsibility to do something with all these great opinions and ideas. We’d love to take them all and go and create Ultimate Conference-zilla, but there is probably more value to the community if we just share them all in a relatively digestible format here. Of course if they get ignored then we might just change our minds and do something after all…

Analysis of the comments we received last month produced three problems to solve:

  1. How might we improve the networking experience at conferences?
  2. How can we make content sessions more engaging?
  3. What alternative session formats could be incorporated into the standard conference?

This is the first of three posts looking at each theme.

Why do people go to Conferences?

Basically two things draw people to conferences:

  • Content
  • Networking

Networking beats content in terms of personal value, but content, or rather the speakers that deliver it, sell tickets. This rings true even at small events like weeLearning. We get more people when we focus on speakers than when we focus on discussion. Less formal formats like Unconferences also struggle to attract people outside of the established online social community. The value of the experience they offer is unclear to the majority of people in the field.

The L&D community is overwhelmingly conservative and change resistant. The noisier elements of this group mask the reality. We estimate that only 10-20% of the people at the last Learning Technologies conference contributed to the Twitter back channel. The conference back channel is not the sole indicator of being connected, but it does provide the most visible evidence.

Improving networking

The speaker content at L&D conferences appeals more to less experienced, less connected participants, but we make little effort to help them meet more experienced people in the community. So the more experienced, better connected people, hear the same recycled content and spend the coffee breaks complaining about it to the people they already know. This leaves them feeling like they’re in an echo-chamber which they/we also complain about. Meanwhile the new faces nervously sip their coffees while checking their phones trying not to care that no one is talking to them.

Regardless of experience, most people going to a conference want to expand or strengthen their network, by meeting online acquaintances face to face, by meeting completely new people, or catching up with old friends. However, very little is done to facilitate this. Large conferences can be intimidating to newcomers. It can feel like you’re the new kid at school and nobody wants to play. People feel invisible. If you’ve paid up to £1000 for this experience, it’s reasonable to expect the organisers will make an effort to include and connect you.


Diversity at conferences is extremely important. Not just gender, race and age, but also experience, organisations and sectors. We go to conferences to hear about new ideas, stories about what worked or what didn’t and frustrations that we share. The best examples of these often come from unexpected sources. We need to nurture opportunities for serendipity. The majority of conference attendees will naturally be drawn to sessions about their own sectors and delegates from similar organisations. This tactic rarely supports innovation or insight, which means opportunities are being wasted.

What can we do to connect the unconnected, the people who aren’t on Twitter, or Google Plus, or even Linked In. And how do we break the connected people out of their comfortable cliques?

Pre-Conference Networking

If you use Twitter you know that it’s easier to start a conversation with someone you’ve never met, if you’ve already had some interaction with them online. So what role should conference organisers play in facilitating online connections before the event?

Tools like Lanyrd and Epilogger allow people to see who is going to an event beforehand (and much more besides), but they are rarely used by L&D conference organisers, even though they provide an extra channel to market events and they can help to connect attendees before the event.

Conference organisers could promote them to attendees to start connecting people weeks or months before the actual event. This is especially useful to people new to the scene, who are unlikely to know about such sites unless someone tells them. Conference organisers have a great opportunity to build and extend the community by integrating them into their marketing, communications and online presence. Why not offer incentives for people to log on to Lanyrd or Epilogger? Instead of offering free gifts to everyone, offer them exclusively to people who register for these services.

Centres of Gravity

Part of the solution is down to the layout and setup of breakout areas. Centres of gravity, like tea and coffee stations, influence networking because people are naturally drawn towards them. The shape, size and position of these points has an effect on how easy it is to start, join, or leave a conversation.

Networking at the Conference

Buddy systems for experienced and newbie conference attendees are another way to build connections and increase the odds for serendipity. The Lift conference research, carried out by Frog Design, also suggested pairing people up at random during queues like registration, lunch etc.

Conferences could benefit from applying gamification techniques to help facilitate networking. This could be fairly superficial like adding unique QR codes to name badges and challenging people to connect with as many people as possible, to more elaborate and challenging quests that encourage people to collaborate to solve some sort of relevant problem. (here’s an example Designing Events as Gameful and Playful Experiences)

Ollie Gardner shared some interesting facilitation exercises that she has witnessed at Norwegian conferences. With some planning and imagination these could lead to richer conversations during session interludes as well as wider networking.

Here’s an example:

For every break there was a different approach to get people connecting. One which stood out to me got us all to:

  1. Write down a statement (1st time: greatest challenge/frustration related to the content of the session. 2nd time: something you would like to see how others have tackled) on a A3 sheet
  2. Mingle (in silence) reading each others statements for a few minutes.
  3. Make a note of the people with statements which interests you and search them out when the timer goes off. You get about 5 minutes with your first “date”, before you’re asked to find someone else to chat to.
    Simple, but surprisingly effective.

Informal Talks

Why do we limit the speakers to formal sessions? Short informal talks in common areas could provide extra centres of gravity and increase the diversity of topics and speakers. No slides just a flip chart maybe. We could also introduce conversation lounges with different topic areas that worked like a face to face Tweet chat.

Post Conference Networking

It’s challenging to keep the conversations going after an event, but it’s important to the overall experience because it helps to cement the new connections and it helps people to reflect and share what they learned and how they plan to implement it. This could happen via any of the existing social networks, event specific community sites and/or webinars.

Better still, why not run a free follow-up event as an unconference or use meetups to host regional gatherings of attendees to reduce the need for travel and strengthen local networks?

We think that any conference that adopted even one or two of these ideas would immediately stand out from the crowd and dramatically improve the overall experience for many attendees.

We’d love to know what you think.

In our next post we’ll look at how we can improve the main speaker sessions.

Thanks to everyone that contributed to all the conversations. In no particular order they were:

  • Barry Sampson
  • Clive Shepherd
  • Julie Dirksen
  • Mike Collins
  • Gill Chester
  • Mark Sheppard
  • David Havis
  • Andy Nock
  • Dan Roddy
  • Sarah Moran
  • Robert Weeks
  • John Curran
  • Alexei Hnatiw
  • Rebecca Gibbs
  • Brett Gillman
  • Craig Wiggins
  • Craig Taylor
  • Pedro Fernandes
  • Phil Green
  • David Lindenberg
  • Andy Wooler
  • Tia Carr Williams
  • Hayley Brown
  • Adam Harwood
  • Lorna Matty
  • Luke Hutchison
  • Martin Couzins
  • Ed Bernacki

We would also like to acknowledge and recommend this excellent report by Frog design carried out for the 2010 Lift Conference.

Post by: Sam Burrough (39 Posts)