Designing the New Conference Experience


Thanks for the invitation to talk about the conference experience.  I’ve written on this topic in the past, primarily to make the point that new and innovative approaches are emerging that, I think, will change the way we think of conferences forever.

Let me start by saying that I have always loved conferences.  I still love conferences, but the reasons have changed.  Early in my career, conferences offered an opportunity to learn and be exposed to ideas that I wasn’t finding elsewhere.  It was an opportunity to hear people either telling their story (case study) or talking about a new approach (concept).  Both were really valuable to me.  But, at that time, there weren’t a billion blogs and twitter and the Human Capital Institute or TLNT.  So, getting access to new ideas and information was a lot more challenging than it is today.  Today, I could sit at my desk to read and watch webinars all day, every day about case studies and new concepts online.  I have access to more information than I can digest–particularly the mainstream stuff, so hearing that same information presented at conferences isn’t nearly as valuable as it used to be.

The other reason I loved conferences in the early days was for the opportunity to network with peers in other parts of the country.  I’d meet other smart, motivated professionals at a conference who loved to talk shop.  Then, we’d schedule phone calls after the conference to talk more and share information.  It was my only reliable way to build a network of peers outside of my local area.  Obviously, this dynamic has changed tremendously as well.  Today, social media has shrunk the world.  I can find and connect to HR peers in all corners of the globe fairly easily.  Not only has social media made it easier to find people with whom to connect, it’s also made people generally more open to the idea of connecting and forming networks.  All good things, but certainly this changes the value a conference creates for the participant.  It’s no longer the primary way to build network, it’s simply another way to meet people.

So, how does the conference look in this brave new world of social technology?  Here are a few thoughts I have about where conferences are headed.

  1. Conferences should becoming a gathering of the tribe.  I think the days of a conference just being a two day event (read learning experience) that happens and then disperses are over.  Successful conferences are going to simply be a part of a larger effort to create a community, or more powerfully, a tribe.  To create a cohesive tribe, it will be important to get very clear about who the tribe is for.  We’ve been at a lot of HR conferences over the past year or two.  In HR, there are different audiences, there are entry-level, mid-career, and leaders/executives.  There are also major HR differences between industries like healthcare versus manufacturing versus professional services.  There are progressive HR folks and traditional HR folks.  Who do you want in your tribe?  Once you define that, the conference organizer needs to create an ongoing way for people to belong to and participate in the tribe (online, in person, etc.).  HR Tech is a conference that seems to do this fairly well (check out their LinkedIn group).  The point of all of this is that the conference becomes a gathering of the tribe.  It’s a chance to get together with people who have common interests to yours, some of who you already know, for the purpose of deepening connections, creating shared expeierience, and talking about content and ideas that are important to the tribe.
  2. Conference experiences need to be carefully designed.  Few conferences do this really well.  Design means starting with the question, “How do we want our participants to feel about this experience?’ and then designing every part of the process to create that experience.  For example, if you want your participants to leave energized, then you need to think about creating an experience that creates and maintains energy.  That means spaces that might be a little small for the number of attendees.  That might mean energetic music playing in the hall ways and conference spaces.  That might mean a compact agenda that moves at a brisk pace.  Contrast that with a conference design where your primary goal is to talk about change.  If your theme is change, then you should work in change throughout.  Maybe you pick a non-traditional venue versus a hotel or conference center.  Maybe you put the speaker in the middle of the room instead of on a stage.  Maybe change the agenda half way through the conference, by design, just to keep the topic of change top of mind.  Design can mean the different between not remembering the name of the conference you went to last year and telling everyone you know about it.
  3. Conferences have to be interactive.  The days of putting on conferences that are an endless parade of talking heads are gone.  It’s still okay to have a few traditional power keynotes on the agenda, but the experience has to be an interactive one.  We live in a world where everyone carries a personal computer and gaming system in their pocket.  And, the popularity of “livetweeting” at conferences has made it okay for people to sit during a session and play with their phone (regardless of what they are doing on it).  People are increasingly treating a conference presentation like a webinar you watch at your desk even though people are presenting right in front of you.  If you are interested, you pay attention.  If you don’t get pulled in right away, you do something else.  I actually witnessed someone at a conference recently sitting in the front row, reading the newspaper while a speaker was talking.  There are two ways to work with this trend.  First, have incredibly compelling content and speakers (easier said than done).  Second, design sessions at your conference to be interactive, shared learning experiences facilitated by experts who are skilled teachers.  You can’t play Angry Birds or catch up on email when you are in a session where everyone is expected to contribute to the discussion.  And, if you are engaged, you are more likely to learn and have a great experience.
  4. Conferences must be more affordable.  If your focus is to make money off of your conference, you will likely fail.  The days of big, juicy profitable conferences are gone–at least until you amass a large, loyal and fierce tribe.  Until then, the conference experience needs to simply be a piece of a larger strategy to build community within the tribe.  Large professional associations and industry groups will continue to cling to the old model for now, because they are profiting.  They have a built in tribe that will attend their show, regardless of design.  But, for those who don’t have that luxury, the cost of attending your conference needs to go down.  Travel is more expensive than it’s ever been and budgets are tight.  If you build a tribe and design an experience that appeals to the tribe, they will come (if you make it affordable).  And sponsors who have products for the members of that tribe will be happy to help you subsidize it.

So, that’s my take on the future of conferences.  I’ll be interested to hear if you agree or if your perspective on conferences is something different.



  1. Hi Jason

    I enjoyed this article and agree with it! As someone who is planning a conference for the first time, some great thoughts. I recommend reading Gawande’s book, Complications, in which he writes an amazing chapter about the conference experience and its impact on the attendees. He emphasizes a lot of these same points, and I reference it often for inspiration in conference design.

    Thanks for the post!


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