The world of advertising is rapidly being transformed by new ways of engaging with consumers through novel storytelling over different platforms (on and off-line). I firmly believe that conferences should follow a similar trend in order to upgrade their experiences. To learn more about how to do this I met Dan Hon (blog, Twitter, Linkedin), a creative at the advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy (previously co-founder of Six to Start) and a sought-after speaker on topics like “transmedia” and “play”.
Extending the conference experience
As an example on how to “explode” the conference experience out of the physical realm, Dan cites the SXSW Panel Picker, a tool created by the organizers of South by Southwest (SXSW) to manage the submission and selection of panels for the festival.
“This year definitely I’ve seen a lot more people campaigning in social media [...] what they’re doing is they’re extending the conference experience backwards in time [...] up to more than 6 months before [SXSW] actually starts”
The main value of the SXSW Panel Picker is that it anticipates the event experience of several months by allowing attendees (confirmed and potential) to see who is going to speak at the event and what the topics are. From the organizers point view, they can see the reaction to topics through voting and its resonance on social media.
The “corridor track”
A recurrent comment about conferences that Dan and his friends attend is that very often “when you’re at a conference, you don’t really have that much free time” and that “sometimes the [...] corridor track is more interesting than the panels and keynotes”.
As a conference organizer you should be careful to leave enough “leisure” time for serendipitous encounters and other networking activities, sometimes stimulated by a well designed playful experience (see below).
How to add “play” to the experience
Dan Hon has been designing playful advertising experiences that encourage the users to participate without feeling forced and providing some kind of value to them. An example of this applied to the world of conferences could be the big “Lego Pit” at SXSW. It consists of a huge pile of Lego bricks scattered in one of the corridors where kids and adults can gather, either as a meeting point or for recreational purposes.
“The lego pit turns into a number of different things: a signpost for people to meet and they have something to do while waiting”
The secret in this case is that the experience was designed so at it was “ok” to do it (play with the Lego) at the same time as it was an opportunity to meet people (the Lego pit was used as a popular meeting point). Part of the success was also that the experience offered something tactile that people could do (thus stimulating another of our five senses), and presented itself as an interesting alternative to meeting at a bar.
Improving the speaker’s experience
Regarding what can organizers do to improve the experience for speakers, Dan Hon highlighted two things that made his participation at conferences better:
- Provide enough time at the end of the day or after a session for people to find the speakers and catch up with them
- Plan a proper full-on rehearsal (including full speech on stage, lights/audio/video, familiarization with the room, technical setup, etc)