I’m looking into what it takes to make a great conference and there are many different views. You want to put on an event that:

  • People not only want to go to, but they want to tell their friends about.
  • Sponsors not only want to pay for, but they want to use in their marketing campaigns.
  • Speakers want to present at, and tell all their clients about.

To create such an elusive event, especially for the first time, you have to know your audience, understand that the odds are stacked against you, and come up with something creative and new that people have not done before. (As an aside, this is one of the reasons all the “Web 2.0″ companies have been creating hype because they are new and producing actual results instead of just a promise of results.)

Many people have written about the evolution of conferences including Robert Scoble’s thoughts on how “Big conferences are dead“, Brady Forrest’s (O’Reilly Radar) thoughts on unconferences. While fighting against these odds like a salmon swimming upstream you need to keep your customers happy (what in the world do customers really want??) So, I throw in a little Hugh MacLeod on “the elusive customer manifesto“.

Ok, so that’s the theory we are starting with, now let’s see how to put on a great conference. Now when I say “conference” I mean a real conference, not a micro-con like BloggerCon (however I like what Dave Winer does), O’Reilly FOO Camp, Bar Camp, or Seattle Mind Camp. I mean something like Web2.0Con (rename to: Web2.0Summit) or RSA Conference (having an expo is a bonus.)

So here are my top 5 thoughts on how to build a killer con.

  1. If you build it something-really-amazing, they will come. New conferences are like new consultants/clients/customers/bosses/etc. in that you don’t know if they will be great or suck. (And you don’t want to be the first one to find out.) This is why you need to build something that is not just OK or Good, but it really needs to be the event of the year. In fact, it needs to be more than event — it should be an experience that continues throughout the year. Think about building communities and networks more than just a day or week long event.
  2. Stop we-we’ing on your attendees and answer their questions. Are you focusing on you-the-event or them-the-attendees? FutureNow has a Customer Focus Calculator that determines if you are “wewe”ing or “youyou”ing. Stop talking about what you will provide and start telling them why they should go, what they will learn, and who they will meet.
  3. Give your sponsors something tangible. It is a well known fact that conferences (almost) never give the attendee list to the sponsors. Arrange for sponsors to get things such as: speaking slot, sponsor the evening cocktail hour to present their product, or qualify leads for them by having participants participate in surveys. The surveys can dovetail into ongoing research you will do throughout they year and does not need to be limited to on-site participants. (Don’t even think about using the “B” word unless you have a major event. Nobody wants to sell, staff, or pay for booths!)
  4. Get A-list speakers. How does someone know an event will be good if they have not heard about it before? They read the speaker lineup and determine if they want to hear what those people have to say. This is why you need A-list speakers or people the attendees want to network with. If you don’t have this, it’s going to be a hard sell.
  5. Build your network. (Promote viraly and Get channel partners.) More important than your attendee list is that you build a positive relationship with them, your sponsors, and your speakers. Did all three have a good time? get value from the event? have ongoing post-con activity? It is very important that you build an experience that is talked about throughout the year, provides them ongoing resources, and activities. Think beyond the event to research, local small-group activities, presentations, content, partners. Your event should be partnered with the key players in your industry such that you can be their single source of solutions. Those partnerships will be much more valuable in the long term.
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