Last Friday (May 29th) we hosted our second annual User Conference, Extract, in London, and while we don’t want to toot our own horn – we have to say, it went pretty well. This is our third conference of this type (we did one in London last year and one in San Francisco) and after all that, we’re getting to be pretty old hands at this. Now that all the stress and frantic running around has passed, we thought we’d share our “lessons learned” – the good and the bad, so you can learn from our experience when planning your own conference!
Get Good Speakers
The first thing you need for a good conference is a strong main stage lineup. The main stage should be your crowning glory. It’s where the majority of people will spend most of their time – or at least that’s what you should be aiming for – and it needs to be entertaining.
Remember when looking for speakers, that it’s not all about you! It might be your user conference, but no one wants to spend an entire day listening to you talk about yourself. Reach out to other leaders in your industry and aim for a wide range of topics. As long as there is a similar thread running through all the talks, your audience will be happy to sit and listen to a good quality speakers even if the topic is not 100% relevant to them. The Extract main stage lineup included Data Scientists, Founders, Authors, Evangelists and even a former 90’s DJ (who’s now a lawyer)! The variation was meant that there was a little something for everyone.
Have a Breakout Space
Inevitably, you won’t be able to entertain everyone all the time with what’s happening in the main stage, so it is crucial to have one or two breakout spaces and other smaller talks for people to wander in and out of. At Extract, we had a small 50 man workshop room running alongside the main stage as well as a “Lab” where attendees could go and ask questions about our products.
When you’re looking at venues, you want to look for breakout spaces that are easy to access from the main stage (people won’t have too much time to move between rooms) and that are self contained (you don’t want any noise pollution).
You should also consider your scheduling. If possible, try to run your main stage and your breakout rooms on the same time schedule and if one runs over, make sure the other space waits – otherwise you end up in a situation where people don’t get to see what they wanted or miss the first 5 minutes of a talk. Workshops and labs are also a great way to get your whole company involved in the conference, giving talks or helping users one-on-one.
Keep it Short
In today’s high velocity world, few of us have the attention span to pay attention to anything for longer than a few minutes – especially at a conference where a lot of what people want to do is network. Keep your talks and activities short and sweet to keep your attendees engaged throughout the day.
We’ve been playing with our timing over the last 3 conferences and at this past one we held everyone to 20 minute time slots, which really helped keep up the pace (and energy) of the day. In general, you should try to hold everything to under 30 minutes (preferably less). When you’re scheduling, keep in mind that almost everyone will go over at least a little bit (no matter how long you give them) so build in some leeway in between your speakers.
There’s nothing that brings a big even down quite like an empty room. Even if you charge, and you probably should, there will always, always, ALWAYS be a drop off. People say they want to come and then don’t turn up. Don’t take it personally, it happens. You just need to plan for it. The best way is to oversell your tickets. Typical drop off rates for a paid event are anywhere from 20 – 50%, so make sure you have at least that many people over subscribed to your event.
Discount codes are a great way to start filling up your event if you have left over tickets. Give out group discounts, Friday discounts, for a limited time only discounts – feel free to be creative here. Another good way to get ticket sales is by encouraging the people who are already registered to invite their friends.
Not everyone who wants to attend will be able to make it, and even those who do may have to miss some of your talks. It’s always a good idea to record as many of the talks as you can (at least the main stage ones). Not only can you use them to re-engage with attendees, but they make great pieces of content by themselves that you can use to attract new readers to your blog.
We highly recommend using a professional company to do the recording. You’ll get a much better sound quality than trying to do it yourself. We recorded our main stage talks and we’ll be posting them here on our blog for anyone who’s interested!
No matter how short you keep your talks, your audience is still going to get itchy feet, or want to get up and use the bathroom. You don’t want them doing this during your talks, so it’s important to give them plenty of breaks to get up, stretch their legs, grab a coffee, chat to other attendees and check their phones.
In our experience it’s best not to go more than an hour without at least a quick 10 – 15 minute break. We also recommend a full hour for lunch. If you like, you can use one of the breakout spaces to do a quick lunch time slot. We used ours to invite some VIPs to a special presentation from out CEO.
Brief Your Staff
The people you use to staff your event make a big difference to how smoothly the day runs and the general vibe of your conference. Whether you invite your whole office (as we did) or only a select few, make sure that you fully brief everyone on what their role is, who the VIPs are, the layout of the venue, the schedule and any other relevant information you can think of. Nothing will make your event look less professional than the staff not knowing where something is or asking one of your speakers for a ticket.
When staffing your conference think carefully about the ratio of staff to attendees. You don’t want to oversaturate the space with your own employees, because they won’t have enough to do; but at the same time it’s important your attendees don’t have to wait ages to talk to someone from your company. Another note, make sure your staff is recognizable – we put ours in bright pink t-shirts!
The most important thing you can do to have a successful conference? Have fun with it! Think about what you would want to do, see and hear if you were an attendee. Keep the atmosphere relaxed and you can guarantee your attendees will be relaxed as well. Once you realize that your attendees are just people like yourself, it becomes a lot easier to anticipate their needs and wants.
Go to a few conferences yourself and write down what you liked and didn’t like about each. Or if you don’t have time for that, poll your co-workers – odds are some of them have been to a conference before.
Have something you’ve seen at a conference that worked really well (or really badly)? Or want to share your favourite part of Extract? Share it with us in the comments!
P.S. A Big Thank You!
We’d like to say a huge thank you to everyone who came to Extract and helped to make the day such a success. It was a stellar day filed with high-quality talks, hands-on workshops, food, drink, networking and so much more. We hope that everyone enjoyed it as much as we did and we can’t wait to see you all next time!
COMING SOON: Keep your eye out for the announcement of Extract San Francisco!