How to throw a kick ass conference people will love.
When Rich and I decided we were going to throw our own conference, we agreed on a few rules:
- No greasy pizza, no hotel ballrooms, no swag bags
- No pitches from stage, no product demos
- No professional speakers, and no paying people to speak
Sounds easy, right? Well, technically it is “easy” to put on a conference. Anyone can do it. But maybe that’s the reason most conferences really suck these days, because everyone is having their own “-Con” for their own brand and not really for the benefit of the attendees. UserConf is an odd duck in this conferency world because it’s not about us, it’s about our attendees. What do they want? What did they like the last time? What did everyone complain about that we need to fix? We work very hard behind the scenes to make UserConf the kind of conference you forget is a conference, because you’re so distracted by the fun and information.
So if you’re thinking you want to throw your own amazingly authentic, informative, fun, and kick-ass conference, here’s some things we do to make UserConf what it is:
We overwhelm and surprise our attendees. We do this in a few ways. First, we have really cool venues! We rented a pier in San Francisco once, another time we rented the Scholastic Auditorium, another time we actually bought a freaking zoo for the day. (Note: not the best idea, in retrospect.) This year, we rented stages at the historic Second City Theater, and even hired their team to lead an improv class for our attendees.
Beyond the cool venues we choose, we also have good food. Omelette bars for breakfast, lunch that represents the local scene (again, bad if you’re at a zoo!), afternoon snacks like frozen yogurt and gourmet donuts. The food you serve represents a huge part of an attendee’s experience – do you want them to experience greasy pizza boxes flopping over folding tables in a lobby? Or Chicago-style deep dish pizza served fresh out of the oven, or dim sum from the top rated Chinese restaurant in Manhattan? Yes, good food costs more, but cheap food is a cheap experience.
We also do this thing you may have heard about, because it seems to be more well-known than UserConf itself: Our infamous Concierge Team. At each conference, the CoSupport and UserVoice staff takes orders from the audience and brings them anything they want. Wait, what? Yes. Really:
Why do we do this? Well, why wouldn’t we do this?? People come to a conference to learn and grow in their industry and become better people ultimately, so why not reward them for that? Customer support and customer care roles are ridiculously thankless. They. Are. Thankless jobs. UserConf is a day where we get to reward, thank, appreciate, encourage, and uplift people who in those roles. So, you want a coffee from Starbucks? Done and done.
It’s not just coffee and Muscle Milk we’re handing out. In the last 4 UserConfs some of the more memorable Concierge requests have been a burger from In-N-Out (we were in NYC, so we sent him a gift card); blankets and sweaters (I actually gave my own hoodie out to someone who was cold); notebooks, pens, highlighters; Tylenol, Benadryl, cough drops, Band-Aids; a hug from Ryan Gosling that was substituted by our friend who looks like Christian Bale. People are shocked when they figure out we’ll actually do WHATEVER WE CAN to meet their need, and what we find is no one really exploits the generosity. It’s a case of the thought being what counts – the fact that we offer to go above and beyond is more important to an attendee than what they can get out of it.
Aside from all that, we have really amazing speakers you’ve never heard of. One thing that sucks about conferences is it’s the same 6 engineer dudes on stage everywhere you go. Rich and I speak at so many conferences throughout the year that we know who those guys are, and so does anyone following the tech conference scene. We have heard their stories so many times we can recite them for you, and we know that’s not a good sign.
So here’s the deal: The woman answering your customer’s emails all day long and following up with them on Twitter has a really interesting story to tell about how your company does support. No, she’s not a professional speaker and no, people don’t religiously follow her on Twitter. But I guarantee you, 100%, her stories about her job, your company, and your customers are way more interesting than how X company scaled dev while leveraging engagement resources through a pivot.
We do not bring in speakers who are on stage all the time. We bring in people with amazing experiences and interesting stories. It doesn’t matter what your title is, it doesn’t matter how social media famous you are. Do you have a story our attendees can learn from and use to do their job better? Let’s hear it. We’re not going to pay you, because paid speakers are essentially there to pitch and be fawned over, and their story isn’t always the most essential thing. We’ll put you on stage for the lessons you can teach our audience, because that’s what matters.
Finally, the secret: UserConf is a community, it’s not really a conference. Yeah it’s a full day of speakers and slides, but we work hard to connect people all year round through Twitter, UserCentered, and our monthly emails to attendees. We help them find new jobs, we come to their offices and help train their teams, we write books for them to scribble in and highlight and learn from. If you want to produce a conference people are going to remember and rave about, you can’t think of it as a one-day transactional experience. It’s got to become a community event that you curate and take care of and invest in.
UserConf feels different to attendees because of this effort we put in. Because it’s about them, not about us. That’s why just yesterday, Rich and I brainstormed how to get a life-size Jenga set made for UserConf SF, and how to get videos of last week’s talks up immediately. Set your course to do good by your attendees and whatever you do, be authentic. Attendees will know when you’ve made the effort, and say those magic words everyone planning a -Con wants to hear: “This doesn’t feel like a conference!”
Here’s some reviews from UserConf Chicago attendees: