The Coming Backlash Against Event Innovation

Changing your event is never easy

William Thomson is quickly becoming one of the people that I hope to sit down with and have a couple of drinks with in real life some day. The reason is simple, he challenges the way that I think and how I view the value of innovation in the event industry.

Yesterday, William sent out this tweet

William Thomson Gallus Events Tweet

Of course, being called out, I had no choice but to wander over to his blog and have a gander. Here are the opening paragraphs:

Conference innovators beware!

I’ve read a lot recently (especially from our American colleagues) that innovation in the world of conferences is the key, the secret, the future. From new session formats; to the fluid structure of a days programme; to the use of new event software and new media, we are in a world where everything on the registration desk and the cabaret table is up for grabs: but innovators beware. And here’s why.

You can ignore the basics

In too many event departments where I have done consultancy I see organisations not focusing on the basics; like good speakers; great content; keeping their database up to date or thinking about the price of competitor events. No, they are off chasing the ‘next big thing’. This could be their own TV station at their exhibition, or voting panels at the ‘great debate’, or wondering how to engage an audience with social media. I have seen ‘innovative’ events crumble and ‘cutting edge’ event businesses shrivel. We have to realize that innovation comes at a certain point of the life cycle of your event and your event organiser. Sometimes keeping up with the neighbours leads to two bankrupt, garish houses.

I encourage everyone to head over to his blog and finish the post, it is quite good and William makes some very valid points.

I have said in an earlier post that Content is King and that you should always stick to the basics; both are good ideas. But I think that I may have missed something, the opportunity to point out what William sees with clarity, that your event may not be the right venue for Pecha Kucha, becoming hybrid or Twitter-Thons.

In fact, some conferences and events may be trying so hard to be cool that they are neglecting the basic necessities of planning like making sure your event is competitive; your lists are spot on and making sure that attendees are actually learning something.

William’s point is well taken and I can see how we could have an attendee backlash against innovation in events because we are forcing the issue with populations of attendees that, quite frankly, are not ready for this type of event.

For events where you are unsure how change will be seen by the attendees, I would stick to my general rule of 80/20.

  • 80 % standard content that attendees are familiar with
  • 20% of new style content such as Pecha Kucha

Why 80/20? Because this opens a world of opportunity –

  • If 80% of your content is familiar to attendees, they will have a comfort level at the event that will enable them to relax, enjoy and learn.
  • By adding 20% new style content you can keep people excited, learn what they are willing to accept and what they really like so that you can, over time, create an event experience that is exactly what your attendees want.

You are introducing new ideas at their pace, not your pace.

In our rush bring our events into the future, we cannot forget to give attendees what they want, which is something I mentioned last week. Giving them what they want is the only sure way to make your attendees happy.

  • Twitter will not make attendees happy unless they want it
  • Pecha Kucha will not make attendees happy unless they want it
  • Nothing makes attendees happy unless they want it

Although I am convinced that most events do better with change, it does not mean you have to cram change down attendee’s throats and I think that is William’s point.

Rather than rushing to change, perhaps you should take a minute and introduce new thinking over time.

Rome was not built in a day and your event need not change overnight.

One thing that I would hate to see however, are valid strategies for event innovation that get tossed aside because some planner makes a decision for their attendees and the decision is based on laziness, under valuing the attendees intelligence or by simply not reading what the attendees really want and understanding their own market.

Another reason that change may backfire on some events is that the event sucked in the first place. This is the case of a popular industry event that I regularly attend (yes, I am a glutton for punishment). This industry event sucked in 2004, it sucked in 2008 and after they introduced sweeping changes including integrating social media….. it still sucked. Bad is bad.

Innovation will not save an event that is, for lack of a better term, crappy. On the flip side, you should not allow sweeping innovation to ruin an event that is already doing well.

It is far easier and less risky to stay the same year after year, but that is a strategy that has doomed empires, crippled businesses and ruined some events. The trick is to know when to act and to what degree.

Photo: Busy Puchi

Keith Johnston

Keith Johnston

Keith is the Managing Partner of i3 Events but is most widely known as the outspoken publisher of the event industry blog PlannerWire. In addition to co-hosting the Bullet List and Event Tech Pull Up Podcasts, he has been featured in Plan Your Meetings, Associations Now, Convene, Event Solutions, and has appeared on the cover of Midwest Meetings Magazine.

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