If you've considered putting on a conference at your company, you might glean something from our experience. My company, Gnip (a social media company), held its first conference this summer (Big Boulder). You can also read about it on the Gnip blog. It worked. Here's why.
For years we wanted to pull some sort of industry conference together. Early on we'd held technically natured meetups with some regularity. We sponsor, and speak at, a bunch of stuff. But, we'd never actually hosted something that tried to define the overall marketplace (something we tirelessly work on internally day-to-day). Until this summer, the timing just wasn't right. Our ideas weren't solidified enough. The threads that connected the various contributors in the ecosystem weren't strung through strongly enough. We waited, not until everything was perfect by any means, but until enough of the macro picture was clear that we could hang a consistent and clear message on the wall. We needed that message to be concise, and we needed the relevant players to understand it (and organically believe in it); the only way for the broader public social data ecosystem to reach its potential, is to ensure the social Publisher's motives are aligned with the commercial consumers of the activities they disseminate.
We also needed the right people to craft the message, and the event itself. Over the past year or so we'd added folks to the team who inherently understood how to do this. While I knew they'd nail it on paper (the plan, the message, the aesthetic), execution was a huge question mark (at least in my mind); no-one had taken something like this all the way across the finish line before. We were brining in (invite only) hundreds of participants; from speakers to attendees. Logistics weren't going to be easy. We didn't vend anything out (except venue, food, and a/v). We pulled it all together ourselves. I'm still in awe at how smoothly everything went. A testament to everyone's passion, skill, and commitment to what we're doing here at Gnip!
The conference was done "panel style." Moderators engaged in Q & A conversations with the panelists/speakers. Getting the list of speakers right was a challenge. A few people we wanted to talk couldn't/wouldn't (you'll never know which it was in some cases) talk. That sucked, but we managed it by having a broad set of folks we wanted the audience to hear from, and accepted that churn was just part of it.
The sessions themselves were planned weeks, and in some cases months, in advance by vetting topics with the speakers and getting the right conversation sketched before we sat down live in front of everyone. I didn't get the value of this at the time, but it is clear to me now that it was a huge contributor to the conference working. We had two full days of material to cover. If it wasn't coordinated effectively, we'd have a disjoint mess on our hands.
We Kept It Simple
No presentations! There were one or two exceptions, but as a rule, we didn't put slides up. This helped ensure the audience didn't suffer slide fatigue and just drift off into the conference oblivion we all know and hate. It kept everyone engaged; everyone.
We Mixed It Up
We brought in an MC that wasn't directly related to our space. Some of the topics can be intricate and heavily policy related. Lindsay Campbell brought a fun, light, comedic, yet professional, educated, and authoritative air to the room. She's awesome and can crush an enterprise event as well as she can a more consumer oriented production.
We sprinkled in various activities. Yoga, hiking, and biking to keep things active. I thought these would be too corny, but participation levels were high and people really enjoyed everyone one of the activities we planned.
We did the event in Boulder, CO. This geographically challenged location from a travel logistics standpoint actually helped, instead of hurt us. Boulder has a great locale reputation, and many of the audience members hadn't been here before. The event was geographically unique as opposed to the same old venues many folks are accustomed to visiting.
We're in the throws of deciding whether or not to do the event again.