Now that the conference season has paused briefly (excepting CES), it's a good time to reflect on what's working and not working at events. I attended several shows last year; some impressed me and others were lackluster.
There are always tangible ways for event planners to make attendees happy, such as ensuring enough seating and free booze. But the digital offerings at live events have also taken on a more important role, particularly if your audience is a plugged-in crowd, typing away at their smartphones and iPads throughout the panel sessions. Rather than begrudge the distractions, it's time to own them.
Here are five tips to digitally improve a conference, from offering the basics to experimenting with emerging strategies.
Most event organizers have caught on to using the Twitter hashtag
to aggregate buzz about their event. It's the cheapest, easiest marketing trick any conference can deploy.
But plenty of organizers forget to make it clear to attendees what the official hashtag is — resulting in a variety of tags made up by attendees — and defeating the purpose of the hashtag to capture all the chatter in one spot. I'm impressed when conference organizers display the hashtag in a huge font on signs in conference rooms. E-mailing it beforehand can also help to create buzz before the conference begins. To make the most of hashtags during the event, display the stream on a website widget and/or a projector screen in the conference venue.
Other ways to encourage interaction include live polls. Using handsets, the audience can be polled on the spot and the results are woven into the presentation.
It seems obvious, but wireless access is still not a given at many events (undoubtedly because of the expense). Consider offering wireless if you aren't already. While smartphones make the Internet less relevant, plenty of people still want to take notes on their laptop ― not to mention the fact that conference venues don't always have the best reception.
Offering attendees a good Internet connection will not only make their lives easier, but it could help the marketing of an event by encouraging social interaction during the conference.
If you do offer wireless, make sure connection information is displayed prominently ― maybe next to the Twitter hashtag.
Supply digital notes
It's helpful to send conference PowerPoint decks and any other research to attendees after the event. This way they can enjoy the conference, updating their Twitter feed rather than ferociously writing down every little piece of research. You can do this by mailing an annotated agenda to attendees, or by making it available on the website afterward.
Videos and recordings are another helpful way to make the presentations continue to live on after the conference. However, the ROI of doing this won't be there for every conference organizer.
Make it easy for the media
If you want press coverage, then make it easy for the press to cover or even live blog
an event. Digital tools can help almost as much as free coffee. At the Business Insider's Ignition
conference, panels were streamed live into the press room, allowing the press to take notes and write stories without bothering everyone. And outlets for power cords were plentiful.
Even if wireless isn't provided to everyone, you have to give it to the press if you want blogger buzz.
Another way to help out the press corps (speaking as a member of it) is to offer a press information section right on your website.
Get creative with apps
Some conferences are taking digital a step further, using mobile to offer creative ways to engage their audience. Big events can partner with Foursquare to create a badge, like the Consumer Electronics Show
did last year.
Giant conferences like South by Southwest are even creating their own apps. SXSW's iPhone app
works both online and offline for participants to manage the events schedule, maps and digitally send their business cards. Thousands of users downloaded the app in the first couple months after its January launch. Creating timely apps like this isn't yet a seamless, easy thing for every event organizer ― but customizable, mobile information is on track to someday replace the conference information packet.
Your turn: Are you using any digital tools to improve your conferences? What do you think conferences could do better digitally?