Radically Relational: The Social Conference

The Conference As A Distribution Center

Typical conferences, events and seminars can all too easily become a distribution center, a place where attendees can come and get stuff and the conference organizers can dump stuff.

The attendees receive education, information, new contacts, and swag. The conference organizers secure speakers to dump their presentations, vendors and exhibitors to dump their marketing messages, and sponsors to dump their tchotchkes.

Often everyone leaves satisfied. The attendee feels as if they gained a lot of new knowledge, business cards and free stuff. The exhibitors feel as if they’ve added new prospects to the funnel and advanced some existing relationships. The sponsors feel as if they have gained a lot of new eyeballs and increased mindshare. The conference organizers feel good about the “smile factor” evaluations they’ve collected.

The Conference Factory Assembly Line

Yet, did anyone leave the conference transformed? Was a new radical community formed? Was the existing community nurtured, developed and challenged to change?

The conference experience has been boiled down to a sterile, predictable, transactional encounter, similar to a factory assembly line. Everybody enters into a room, inputs received, everybody exit, outputs expected. And, it’s condensed into short-time frame, often at hyper-speed. The more we can cram into our minds and time, the better we are…or so the belief goes.Little time is given to people building relationships, to stop, chat and look one another in the eye and listen to each other. Little thought is given to individual’s uniqueness, their preferences, their expectations or their insights. All attendee’s don’t want the same cookie cutter conference experience.

The Expectation Shift

Today, businesses and organizations have seen a shift in society’s expectations of them. People crave social interactions and community. They want to connect on a basic level, hand to hand, shoulder to shoulder, mind to mind, heart to heart, soul to soul. People yearn and hunger for engagement with others.

They don’t want to talk with a nameless person at a company. They don’t want to call a contact center and speak to a person in another country. They don’t want broadcast, push messages from human-less brands. People want and need radically relational connections. People also want radically relational conferences.

The Radically Relational Conference

A goal of the social conference is not just to set up a new program but to create and develop community where attendees, exhibitors, sponsors and vendors come together in relationships. And these relationships grow and flourish whether new or well-formed.

And this new sense of community spreads like a disease–through touch, breath, proximity, connections and life. It is spread by conference attendees infected with the passion of a radically relational social conference with a renewed vision and outlook. One where meetings and events really can change the world.

What I’ve been thinking about is that when we divorce our conference attendees from building and maintaining relationships, by scheduling too many presenter monologues, too many panel dialogues,  too few peer-to-peer discussions, and too few peer collaborative sessions, the natural transformative power of lives connecting has been stripped away. It’s time to start thinking about everything we do when planning, preparing, staging and implementing an event in the context of relationships. All of our logistic and strategic planning must serve as a catalyst for attendees to build transformative radical relationships and social connections.

Whatever else we may do in our conference environment, let it first lead to radically relational social conferences.

What do you think? How could you implement Radically Relational Social Conferences? Share your thoughts with us.


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  1. What advice do you have for speakers and sponsors to participate in the paradigm shift?

  2. Traci Browne says:

    Great post Jeff! There’s been so much talk about how the old model of conferences need to be ditched completely and then recreated. This is the first I’ve seen that’s talked about what is right and how to improve on that.

    I’ve often come home from a conference that had great information but felt as though I had very little time to actually network and exchange ideas with those present. The best sessions I’ve been to are where my peers had the opportunity to talk about what worked for them in their organizations. Adding more dialog is easy to do but requires good moderator skills. The good news is, this can be taught.

    I’m looking forward to seeing these changes begin to take hold.

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  4. kate mytty says:

    Good point.

    In the past, conferences could get away with focusing only on the information provided. Now, when information is everywhere, conferences are the new connectors. It’s so rare that so many people gather in one place face-to-face — if conferences can bring them all together, provide valuable information and help them converse, all the better.

    That means – as you mentioned Jeff – giving attendees space to go and meet other people.

    Sponsors can help by bringing together different spaces for people to gather. Instead of sponsoring a table — sponsor a room with coffee gatherings, or perhaps a series of people at the event that are doing interesting things. Use sponsorship to help connect people and highlight what’s interesting.

    Speakers can help by using twitter, socializing at the conference (some speakers only stay on for the main event and leave after), providing a forum for people to interact after the speech, and also highlight the people from the event on your blog/twitter account with photos or videos. Again — it’s about the audience.

    / kate

  5. Adrian Segar says:

    Jeff, I couldn’t agree more. As you know, the Conferences That Work approach to conference design that I’ve written about in my book leads precisely to events that support attendee relationships while simultaneously providing the content that participants want.

    When we provide sessions that reflect actual participant needs and desires, and real opportunities in the formal conference for attendees to connect and reflect, both individually and as a group – amazing things happen. I’ve been running events like this for eighteen years now, and they are a joy to be a part of; not because of the hard work that goes into organizing each one of them but because I see the “transformative radical relationships and social connections” they generate, and that’s very satisfying to me.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Great question. I believe conference organizers must think about more structured networking and peer engagement sessions. Presenters need to talk less, and allow attendees to talk more with each other. One of the simple shifts is for vendors to sponsor specific areas within the event where attendees can go, meet with others and converse with each other. Vendors would also be smart to sponsor specific discussion sessions after a general session for example. If they limit the amount of broadcasting of their messages and allow attendees to talk, those sponsors will get farther.

      @Traci – thanks for adding to the discussion. I agree the old model served for a time. Now people want engagement with each other, engagement with the content, engagement with the vendors, engagement with messages. That requires intentional planning on the part of the organizers.

      Excellent points and thanks for sharing them. I really like your suggestions for new sponsorship ideas and ways to have attendees get involved.

      I’ve not read your book yet and it’s on my “to read” list for sure. Whether it’s a traditional conference of the peer conferences you suggest, both require planning and intentionality. Yes, amazing things can happen when we allow radically relational conferences.

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