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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Social Conference Tools - Expect Poor Results

I saw a post by David Warlick - Reaching Out With Your Conference where he suggests that conference organizers should:
  • Consider a social network for your conference. Although I remain skeptical about social networks, social networking is essential, and a few conferences have made brilliant use of them.
  • Give presenters a wiki page to spread out their session descriptions, post presentation commercials, and generate discussion through the commenting feature.
  • Give exhibitors a wiki page to spread out their description and to add special offers, schedules of booth presentations, and codes for door prizes.
  • Establish and CLEARLY advertise conference tags for bloggers and photographers.
  • Either aggregate photos and blog entries, or set up a conference page on Hitchhikr and link to that. (I’m considering doing a major rebuild of Hitchhikr.)
  • Generate a tag cloud that represents the conversation that is the conference.
  • If you have a social network or are connecting to profiles in some other way, ask attendees (physical & virtual) what’s on their radar, and post that, perhaps as a tag cloud.
  • Keep the conference web site going. Continue to maintain it. Post videos and audio podcasts of sessions. It’s good for your community, and good advertising for your conference.
A lot of these I think are really good ideas in theory and I'm constantly waiting for them to take off. Actually, I'm continually trying to figure out how to make conferences more effective use of time. And I've actually talked about this quite in posts such as:
I think there are some really good ideas in David's post and in some of these other posts. And, I've been happy to see various conferences about some of these practices - and I encourage them to keep it up.

However, ...

My basic feeling is that there's a fundamental flaw in all of these ideas that lead to poor results. The flaw is that it appears that people are quite willing to attend conferences without any up-front effort, back-end effort and probably the minimum effort during the conference. I posted how to Be an Insanely Great Professional Conference Attendee, but the requirement is to do some work to figure out what you really are trying to get out of the conference. It takes some time (but not a lot). Do attendees do this? It's rare.

In addition to the lack of effort, there's another big problem - lack of skills and experience. I've questioned before Conference Networking Tools - Do They Work?
and the answer is that most of these tools are not very good. I've recently tried to use the one associated with the ASTD conference. It's not going to help me connect with people. I feel I'm relatively adept at networking via online tools, and have talked about how I use tools ahead of events Secret for Networking at Events - Prenetworking it's still really tough.

Based on what I've seen, I question whether it makes much sense for organizers to spend time on these things.

Let me try to summarize - these ideas are great, but they are social solutions that require participation and we don't get participation because of lack of effort and lack of skills.

11 comments:

Sue Waters said...

Okay lets just keep it simple. All conferences really need to do is provide us really good wireless Internet with locations to easily charge our batteries if needed. We will do all the rest ourselves :) .

Not really asking much and the conference will get good results -- provided those with the skills attend. In the education sector they are now lots with the skills.

All I need is people sitting at the conference on twitter, ustream or Skype and now we have it happening. I've attended so many conferences virtually this year by attendees placing their computers at the front near the presenters and broadcasting using Ustream. Meanwhile we are busy using chat and twitter to communicate our thoughts.

Last year we used twitter and Skype -- my magic moment was catching a key note presenter out by a conference participant asking the presenter a question that I had twitter -- the person was blown away that we were listening in with Skype and Twitter plus able to ask questions that were relevant to his presentation.

At mlearn last year, which I attended, many of the sessions were broadcasted using Elluminate and I shared as much information on my own wiki as possible using RSS. My friends were able to contact me via skype and I was able to connect them with the people they wanted to ask questions instantly.

Simple really -- give me Internet. Trouble is most organisers of conferences have minimal understanding of the tools and how to use them to benefit their participants. Just give us the mechanism and we will make it happen. Our social networks are powerful if you know how to harness the energy.

Brent Schlenker said...

Hi Sue! Great comment. You came through beautifully on the AG|08 TWITTER channel last week :-) You are a great example of what I call "high geek". (BTW -That's a good thing)

Its important to step back and understand that these technologies are gaming-changing on many, many different levels and we are ALL still trying how to apply them in effective productive ways.

At AG|08 last week I did not expect so much buzz around the social tools we aggregated together at pageflakes.com/ag08. I believe we used all of the items from Dr. Warlick's list except for the wiki. But honestly, I would have declared it a success if only 5 people used the tools. Not only did we get more than 5 contributing, we got a lot more lurking and mentioning how much they enjoyed watching the conversations...and that they would "give it a try next year".

Web2.0 adoption requires patience...and LOTS of it. The key learning here is that implementing these tools at conferences is NO different than the struggles you will have implementing these tools within a corporation. Any consultant that has attempted this with a client I'm sure will agree...to some extent. Starting with small enthusiastic successes is HUGE!

(NOTE: check out Web2.0 conference "stay connected" section)

Also don't forget that the learning field is filled with a follower's mindset not a innovator's. We wait until the technologies have "proven" themselves so we can show some manager/administrator arbitrary data on why we should implement it.

I've been on both sides of the conference fence and now see the world through a different lens. I never could understand why conferences were called boondoggles until I heard how many people would "go to a conference" on the corporate dime and then play golf for 3 days. By actually attending all of the event activities and actively participating I was considered to be "doing conferences wrong". But again, this attitude is left over from the industrial age model of corporate lifestyle. ALL industrial age and even information age attitudes are changing FAST! Hold on tight and enjoy the ride.

At AG|08 last week we were able to provide our attendees with FREE wifi which was VERY well received and probably was a major factor in the success of our AG|08 Live implementation. (AG|08 Live - That's what we branded our collection of aggregated social tools) Sue is right - ACCESS is key. This new brand of conference "participation" will soon be considered as mandatory as the obligatory TRIP REPORT. Who needs a trip report when your co-workers can simply follow your twitter feed, or your blog posts, or your flickr images of the event.

Patience my friends and colleagues! We've created a spark and now its time to fan the flames a little. The bonfire of social tools will soon be blazing!

Tony Karrer said...

Sue - couldn't agree more with you about free (included with conference charges) wireless internet ... with good speed. In fact, that was the top request when I polled people.

Interesting to see you and Stephen Downes talking about the blogging, skype, etc. for people not attending the conference as much as for other attendees.

I personally have not seen such participation - like back channel twitter at corporate conferences. Maybe it's just the crowd as Stephen says.

Tony Karrer said...

Brent - "I would have declared it a success if only 5 people used the tools." - Really? I would have thought - hmmm - less than 1% participation - not much interaction. Better to spend time at the bar with people live.

Clearly I don't have the patience you suggest it needs.

BTW - it was interesting to see the chatter by live bloggers of the event. I don't think it was any kind of approximation of being there. (And I missed all you guys.)

Oh, and, very nice that you had free wifi. I'm sure I'll see you in San Fransisco at DevLearn. :)

Sarah Stewart said...

I love the idea of making conferences more accessible via tools like Skype, Twitter etc. But I am wondering how that will affect the cost of attending, which can be prohibitive.

In my field, health, conferences are valued mostly for their function of providing face-to-face catch up/networking opportunities. I cannot see health professionals getting excited about doing a lot of online 'work' additional to attending the conference.

Sue Waters said...

Sorry Tony can't miss this opportunity to talk to Brent first.

Brent - I'm still cringing (in a nice way) after checking out your AG|08 TWITTER channel when I was totally dominating all twitters -- wish I had taken a screenshot now.

Now "high geek" definitely ROFL (or LOL) about that one. Contrary to popular belief I'm not a geek even if Nick Hodge (Microsoft's Professional Geek) has declared that is my title. I'm glad your conference went well -- although why aren't you in my twitter stream (perhaps I'm too noisy for you?).

Tony - regarding corporate conferences. I'm thinking I need to get you to spend some time online networking how we do it. Perhaps both of us seeing two sides of the sector may be able to see alternative ways to make the shifts happen.

These tools are going to increase in importance because as Sarah highlights its not always practical or feasible to attend conferences. And now with the tools available we can be at conferences 24/7 no problem without ever having to travel. Plus I learn more than I ever do being in a conference when I often expected to power down :) .

PS only you need is a small amount of participation by skilled people at a conference and now have a conference with a global audience. For that reason the level of participation that Brent is talking about is definitely a success -- well done Brent.

Dave Ferguson said...

"Expect poor results."

Tony, you're such an optimist.

How about MIXED results? Depending on the conference, the participants, and the presenters, your networking mileage will vary. Greatly. (As it did in the days before most people had laptops... or, more precisely, before those who've had them a long time thought that most people have them.)

My hunch is that the average corporate grunt (like I was for many years) feels fortunate to finagle one conference or seminar a year. That was true for me, and I worked for a company whose annual profit was larger than Microsoft's annual revenue.

So, from that perspective, it's harder for a person to identify and then apply those good-conference skills. He doesn't get to that many, and when he does, it's a very rich environment; it's not always easy to discern how best to move in it.

Admittedly, it takes some desire and curiosity. And a sense that stuff's going to connect to your needs or interests.

I saw a videocast in which a teacher was showing other teachers creative ways to use PowerPoint and similar tools. At the outset, he said he'd just been told he had 25% less time. He displayed a link to del.icio.us that had all the URLs for his examples. You could sense the "oh, wow" among his audience. "del.icio.us" as a term meant nothing to most of them -- but "I can put a bunch of links someplace and let others get to them with a single link" did.

In a chicken-and-egg effect, I wonder how well the average conference center / hotel could handle a couple hundred more uses of its network than it currently has? These things are possible, but the site needs to identify the need and balance it against its other possible expenditures, like food service and lighting.

I think Brent makes a great point that the learning field is filled with a follower's mindset. I'd go further and say any field is. A field with nothing but leaders is the National Federation of Anarchists.

Tony Karrer said...

Dave - I am (mostly) an optimist. But, I have to be honest that I've been generally disappointed in the uptake of these kinds of solutions (or even easier things). I think your point is well made about why participation varies greatly.

Sue - that's actually quite a good point. We should be looking at how 1% participation can work at the conference!

How do you reward the 1%ers. That's a great reframing of the issue. And, if it was done right, maybe I would be more positive about the result.

Sue Waters said...

I'm not sure we are really talking about 1%ers when we are talking about the f2f participants and what I'm talking about. While I'm not a "high geek" how many people at at a conference would you meet that are like me? Lot less than 1% but it doesn't really matter you only need a few.

Brent Schlenker said...

...just now catching up on the conversation.

Hi Sue! I'm going to get you on my Twitter stream...I promise.

Hi Tony! The tools are still very very new. You haven't seen them used because they simply haven't existed long enough for our audience to pick up on them. There HAS to be a first time for everything and the first try is rarely perfect or even good.

These conversations have a tendency to become either/or and I think we need to start defining the conversation around these tools as complimentary.

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Brent - "I would have declared it a success if only 5 people used the tools." - Really? I would have thought - hmmm - less than 1% participation - not much interaction. Better to spend time at the bar with people live.
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YES! Why hang out at the bar with 5 maybe 10 people, when you can be "connected" with 50 or more and encourage them to join you in the bar, or meet up somewhere else? It was a huge success, actually. You will not fully understand until you experience it.

As you know, even though there are 1000 people gathered in one hotel, what are the chances of meeting everyone you want to meet? And lets say that you do, you don't get that much quality time with ALL of them. For many its 5mins in the hall way between sessions.

The back channel allows more highly engaged conversations as well as passive conversations. I now know exactly what BJ Schone thinks about the sessions he attended without having a 2 hour conversation with him after the event. I was also able to hook up with BJ, Mark Chrisman, and many others for dinner that I had not planned. How? I simply sent out a tweet and everyone following the stream said meet us at the dinner signup board and join us...cool! Serendipidy!

I can think of many examples but will leave it at this...you will never understand it until you give it a try.

I'm psyched for what we will have at DevLearn. Its going to be very cool when it comes to these tools. I'm looking forward to making you the ceremonial Guinea Pig and helping you see the light ;-)

See you there!

Tony Karrer said...

Brent - I completely agree with you on the promise of using social network tools, but the reality seems to fall far short.

You said, "As you know, even though there are 1000 people gathered in one hotel, what are the chances of meeting everyone you want to meet?"

My point is that if only 100 sign into the system and only 10 are active, then am I going to meet the right people. By the way, chances are that those 10 people are you, me, Sue, Clark, etc. People who are already doing this through other means. I'm not truly finding the people out of the 1,000 that I should meet. That's what I'm saying is part of the problem. We can't assume that we are going to have 1,000 on there. We have to figure out what works when it's 50 or 100 - and maybe we are better off when it breaks because it turns into 250.

I do agree that having the blog posts going on and the web page helps. It's taking advantage of the actions of the few. So that's cool. I hope they all felt they got value as well. But, that's not what a lot of organizers are doing. Kudos for doing that. And it's a good exemplar right.

I'm happy to work with you on being a Pig at DevLearn. I think Heidi should plan to give you free drink tickets or something like that to be used as bait for activities in Social Networking. And, I would be very curious what you plan to do to engage.

In fact, on the other discussion around this (reframing post) Mick is talking about exactly that.

Is this worth making a Big Question?