Your Conference Is Not As Unique As You Think

2013.12.11_Reinforcing the status quo

I’ve got news for conference organizers and hosts.

Your conference is not as unique as you think.

For the past three years, the team at Velvet Chainsaw Consulting has been reviewing, evaluating and analyzing annual meetings and conferences. Almost every one of our 30+ clients has started our review process with the following statement, “Our conference and audience is not like other conferences. We are different from all the others.”

In those 30+ clients, how many of those conferences have been unique and different? None of them!

Sure they may have some nuances here and there. And they may have a different set of opportunities and challenges. And of course they do not all appeal to the same profession, industry or audience. But outside of those differences, those conferences are more alike than they are different. And unfortunately, the majority of them provide status-quo, all too common, average, forgettable conference experiences. Even though their evaluations paint a different picture of attendee satisfaction, their loyalty rate is an indicator that the conference is not as healthy as they believe.

Your conference is not as unique as you think.

Time For Honest Talk About Our Conference Benefits

Too often conference hosts and organizers have a great disconnect between how much they believe their conference experience is unique and how unique their attendees actually think it is.

Frequently a conference’s leadership says their event is unique, innovative and the voice of their industry. But every conference claims to be the single go-to-event for an industry’s movers and shakers while providing unique innovative experiences.

It is time to be honest with ourselves about what really is—and is not—unique about our conferences. Usually we suffer from risk aversion and want to highlight everything that we do at a conference as unique. Unfortunately this just creates a lot of unnecessary noise to our potential customers.

Simultaneously, we squirm at the idea of alienating some of our potential customers by focusing on a target audience or the unique benefits that help our segmented target attendee succeed. We try to focus on benefits that appeal to everyone…and thus the watered-down common benefit war occurs.

What Are Your Conference’s Unique Benefits?

Organizations with a high level of conference attendee, sponsorship and exhibitor loyalty, have a clear understanding of what distinguishes their conference from their competitors. And even more significantly, they know the unique benefits their registrants get as a result of their attendance.

To help your conference provide unique benefits to targeted attendees, consider the following three questions:

1. What does your conference experience need to achieve to be truly unique?

Do you design your conference experience with an eye towards your overall company objectives? Does your conference support your business goals? How is your company vision different from your competitors? And how does that play out in our conference experience? What unique benefits do you want to provide to your target attendees that differentiates you from others?

2. Where can your conference win in the marketplace?

What is your conference’s competitive position in the market? What unique benefits do you want to deliver to your paying registrants through the conference experience? Are great logistics enough to separate you from your competitors? Or do you need to invest in designing an unforgettable experience that is relevant and provides learning opportunities?

3. What is your conference attendee opportunity?

Start by identifying your target market attendee. You need to position yourself as the best at serving this audience as possible. Then think of your attendees’ desired outcomes from participating at your event. It usually revolves around solving their challenges and problems. Once you’ve identified that, design your conference experience around those outcomes and benefits.

Hat Tips to the Corporate Executive Board Company for their thoughts on common and unique benefits for companies that I’ve applied to conference experiences.

What are some unique conference attendee benefits that conferences could offer? Why do so many conference marketers focus on common benefits instead of their unique value proposition to targeted attendees?

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  1. Jeff, I agree 100% I attend between 6-10 industry conferences every year, and they are all very similar. They have pockets of differentiation, but basically are mirror images. Question for you: Do you have tips for organizers that are really close to their conference to step back and look with open eyes? It is a real challenge to see things for what they really are. (Of course we can hire you, but ideas on how to do it ourselves? 😀 )


    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Well, we could say they should hire you to help them reinvent it!!??!! 😉

      Tips for organizers to step back and look with a different perspective…Sure, here are just a few:
      1. Don’t model your conference after the traditional school experience! Ditch that one.
      2. Identify how you want your conference to be different first. What are those goals?
      3. Then focus on designing an experience. What type of emotional journey and experience do you want your attendees to have from the first marketing piece to their first step on the venue. This will get you out of focusing on logistics and trying to change the filling of last year’s conference.
      4. Get with your team and a facilitator. Divide up into small groups and have each group identify a metaphor for their conference experience. Then visually create a map for that metaphor. Example, “We want our conference experience to be like the Texas State Fair…” Flesh out those concepts and experiences. Then start a concept map for that experience. Then consider the logistics.

      Those are just a few…what are some tips others have to look at designing the conference with a focus on unique attendee benefits and not status quo?

      (PS…Thanks Sharon for reading, asking and chiming in with your thoughts!)

  2. […] How unique is your conference? Probably not much. So what unique attendee benefits do you offer through your conference experience?  […]

  3. Yes. So many conferences are not only similar to others, but also are the same year after year. A good wake up call.

    Most people attend conferences not only for the content, but for the networking and sharing opportunities. That’s why we keep going back even with the same content. Good challenge.

  4. Thanks Jeff, this is a brilliant blog and I couldn’t agree more!
    Listening to your audience and then delivering a personalized experience is a key solution to creating a unique conference and there’s no better way than doing this than through a mobile app (after all we do live in the digital age).

  5. Jeff,

    as usual great post. Your clients are fortunate to be working with such an innovative bunch at Velvet.

    I believe your 3 questions should be the basis of each event design process. Also thinking about the caliber of your answers should give you an indication of how strong your proposition will be.

    The stronger the answers the better the cocept

  6. Lisa Bower says:

    Hi Jeff – thanks for sharing. I couldn’t agree more. The other thing that conferences all have in common is they pull attendees away from family and create stress for working parents and nursing moms especially. I’d love your thoughts on Plus One Meetings’ innovative approach. We create programming and play environments on-site for children accompanying their working parents to conferences, and privacy rooms for nursing mothers with connectivity back into the conference so they don’t miss a thing. We also specialize in accommodations for special needs children. We believe we are at our best when our heads and our hearts are in the same place and that the way to stand out as a conference planner is to value the concerns of your attendees by engaging their children so they can focus on the business and networking goals of your conference. And guess what, conference attendees stay longer and spend more money with the host venue.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for reading and adding your thoughts. I so agree that people also attend for networking and sharing. That’s why frequently the education sessions are empty and the hallways full!

      Thanks for adding your thoughts. I see things differently than you do as I’m not convinced that a mobile app makes a conference unique. Nor should the mobile app be the only source for attendee feedback. IMO, all conferences should have a mobile app so it should be the standard.

      Always appreciate your comments and insights. I’m with you that the three questions can serve as a great foundation for event differentiation.

      In the right situations with the right conference audiences, it makes total sense to offer nursing rooms and play environments. I’ve run some conferences that had children’s and youth conferences at the same time as the adult conference. It’s a lot of work and hats off to those of you that can do it well. Thanks for adding that dimension to this discussion.

  7. Hi Jeff, I understand what you are saying. Mobile event apps should be, and are becoming the norm for events, and this includes conferences. My point was that a mobile app can make the conference unique for each individual attendee if used correctly. Especially if the event app collects and serves up the right data. It can be used throughout the conference to serve up personalized push messages, notifications and reminders tailored to the attendee interests, and can be used for email marketing before to give attendees exactly what they want from the conference.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for sharing your opinion. I still see it differently. IMO, a conference mobile app does not provide enough unique benefits to create a unique conference experience. Text messages and notifications, even personalized, do not make a two- or three-day conference experience unique.

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