Conferences Need a Strategic Purpose

DCF 1.0

Does your annual conference have a documented purpose or strategy? My experience is that most organizers either don’t have one or haven’t updated, or used it, in quite a while. With competition for attendee time and share of wallet reaching new degrees of complexity, revisiting this strategic step should be a high priority.

Defining the Conference Purpose

Here’s a guide to help you down the strategic path of articulating your conference purpose:

  1. Owners – Identify task-force or committee members that will be charged with the responsibility.
  2. Strategic Alignment – Assuming your organization has a strategic plan, start the process by asking “What three strategic objectives does our annual conference best support?” Facilitate an exercise where these are forced into priority order.
  3. The Money Question – You can’t ignore this one. The most common buckets I’ve seen include:
    • Significant net income is generated to fund other programs and services to advance our mission.
    • A modest profit is desired. Customer intimacy, improving our brand perception and advancing the profession trump profitability.
    • The conference is our investment back into the profession.
  4. Audience – Is your conference going to try to be all things to all people…kind of like that $11.99 all you can eat buffet? Or, must you attract a clientele who enjoys a fine dining experience with limited, fresh and expertly prepared dishes? Identifying who you are designing the conference for is as critical as the conference purpose itself.
  5. Education Differentiation – Is your content going to serve early, mid-career or experienced professionals? Should content focus on emerging issues, best practices or evergreen topics? Can we accomplish this through session submissions or curation? Do you want the learning design to be participatory or one way? To what degree should the content focus on technical skills, soft skills or sharing of information? What will be the measures of success – attendance, session and speaker ratings, work place improvement, etc?
  6. Networking Differentiation – Do we want networking to be organic or do we prefer to accelerate it? If we say accelerate it, how do we best accomplish? Is it easy for first timers or solo attendees to get plugged in and find their tribe? To what degree should our leadership be available and participating in these experiences?
  7. Exhibit Differentiation – Should the vibe of our show be about buying and deal-making or should it be more of a solutions based learning experience? What do our attendees want? Is that in alignment with what our exhibitors want? (Tip – If not aligned, the attendees are right and the exhibitors are wrong.)
  8. Energy Level – Will our conference provide a steady stream of emotional highs or are we all business and academically sterile? Do we want to create “selfie” or highly shared experiences? If we were to plot our emotional high moments are they bunched together or spread throughout?
  9. Capture and Amplification – Should our conference content be captured and amplified to benefit the profession? Should it be available to the live participants or would a larger audience benefit? Do we do this in real-time or do we extend the conference experience through scheduled replays, articles, learning prompts and archives?

Sound Bites

An exercise worth considering is to challenge your task-force or committee to write sound bites of what you desire various stakeholders to say after your conference. This should be done for a number of stakeholder types. What would we want a first timer to say about our conference? How would that differ from a veteran attendee? What would we love to hear from our exhibitors or sponsors? These sound bites should be used as inputs of your conference purpose. Will the purpose developed give us the sound bites we want?

Who do you charge with creating your conference purpose? Are you developing it with your attendee in mind? What are some additional things you consider when defining your conference strategy?

Adapted from Dave’s Forward Thinking column in PCMA’s Convene. Reprinted with permission of Convene, the magazine of the Professional Convention Management Association. ©2016.

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