For many companies and industries, annual conferences are a critical part of doing business. After all, it’s not always easy to gather employees, clients, prospects and industry stakeholders in one place! It’s easy to take a formulaic approach to conferences, especially if your company’s hosted one for several years. But as strategy plays a bigger role in conference and meeting planning and attendees demand more engaging, memorable experiences, this is the prime time to ditch the traditional conference format and, instead, plan an unconference.
Where a conference is typically guided by a formal agenda that includes presentations and breakout sessions, an unconference is more informal. The focus is on the participants, giving them the power to drive the conversation while collaborating and exchanging ideas. You can still provide structure in an unconference with an agenda that helps attendees navigate the available opportunities throughout the event. Yet instead of focusing the schedule on passive learning opportunities and little free time, an unconference offers a chance to learn, share and engage in a participant-driven setting.
Intrigued about what an unconference could do for your business? Let’s take a look at 5 reasons you should swap your next conference for an unconference.
Make a Lasting Impression
Your annual conference is likely a significant branding opportunity, as well as a chance to get attendees excited about what your company is doing and what’s ahead. There’s no better way to make that powerful and lasting impression than with an unconference. The goal with an unconference is to engage, and that extends beyond the conversations and learning opportunities. That also means an opportunity to capture your employees’ attention and imagination with a mix of insight-driven discussions, collaborative opportunities to learn and build, and experience-focused downtime that provides a brain break without extinguishing the spark of inspiration.
As you consider the art of the possible, it’s important to first ask yourself what you want to accomplish at your unconference, how the event ties into your business goals and what you want attendees to feel and think about your brand. Then, you can begin brainstorming the unconference elements that will get you to those end points.
Break Out of a Rut
If an annual conference has been a longtime part of your company’s event strategy, you might feel like you’re in a rut. And an unconference is the perfect opportunity to ditch the tried-and-true in favor of something that’s new and exciting.
Here’s the thing. If there are elements of your existing conference that work, you don’t have to eliminate them. Instead, look at how you can weave those things into a more participant-driven unconference. Keynote remarks, for example, can be a great way to set the tone for what’s ahead and provide that initial burst of energy and inspiration. Rather than immediately following a keynote with a day of presentations, why not add more workshop-like sessions so that attendees can build on the momentum you’ve just established? Or intersperse a few collaborative discussions—similar to a focus group—that help give attendees with similar interests and challenges a chance to connect. These sorts of opportunities don’t just make for a more interesting and engaging event; they also help give attendees solid, actionable steps that they can implement as soon as they get back to the office, extending the value of your unconference far past the event’s end date.
Less Talk, More Action
It’s time for a little honesty. Conferences can be exhausting, right? You wouldn’t think that listening to speakers for 2 or 3 days could be so draining, but it certainly can be!
Learning elements like keynotes and presentations can still be a focal point at an unconference, but the key is to give attendees more opportunities to act on what they’re hearing and help drive the event format. One way to do that is to give attendees something to accomplish during the unconference. For example, a non-profit that’s focused on empowering entrepreneurs recently hosted an unconference that kicked off with a rooftop barbecue. During the barbecue, attendees were divided into teams and were tasked with creating a team banner that would be displayed throughout the event. Teams were also given opportunities to work together during the summit, including at an interactive science fair.
Learning is a critical part of any conference. But action is equally important. And that’s one of the reasons that an unconference format is so compelling. How can you give your attendees opportunities to take action and do or build during the event? Not only will this help engage their brains in different ways; it’s also an effective way to help attendees connect and build lasting relationships. And speaking of…
Go Beyond Networking: Collaborate
Meeting other people in your industry is always a favorite conference outcome. Yet rather than simply go with the tried-and-true mixer or dinner, why not shake things up? We talked earlier about how unconferences can be ideal opportunities for attendees to collaborate on a shared project. Creating an environment that fosters (and encourages) collaboration can be an equally effective networking tool. After all, there’s no better way to get to know someone than by tackling a project together!
We also mentioned workshop- or focus group-type sessions earlier in the post. Those sorts of collaborative discussions are also a helpful way for attendees to not only learn from others in their field, but also build relationships with industry peers. Those lasting connections—in addition to lessons learned and action-oriented next steps—are one of those most effective ways to provide value to your attendees long after the event ends. And that’s a key consideration. You don’t want the learning and sharing and collaborating to come to an abrupt halt when the unconference ends. Instead, you want to keep that momentum going as you build excitement about what’s ahead, both for the company and the next unconference.
Value Your Attendees’ Time (and Expertise)
When you think about it, conferences are a big ask. They’re informative and (hopefully) fun, but attendees also have to adjust their workload and current priorities to attend. That’s why it’s important to give them maximum value in exchange for their time, attention and commitment. And that’s where an unconference can deliver a significant return.
One of the things we love most about an unconference is that it gives attendees a chance to collectively pool their insight, experience and lessons learned. Think about it this way: your conference attendees are there for a reason. They want to learn—but they also have a wealth of knowledge to offer. Why not tap into that in a way that benefits the rest of the group? That isn’t to say you need to completely eliminate presenters or keynote speakers. But one of the advantages of an unconference is the chance to let participants take a turn in the driver’s seat and guide the conversations and sessions in a way that delivers optimal value for their day-to-day responsibilities and challenges. An unconference is a chance to learn and connect. But it can also be a welcome (and rare) opportunity to think big. What can you and your attendees dream up together? And how can you work together to make that vision a reality? As we mentioned earlier, conferences are a chance to unite a knowledgeable, talented group of people in one place. What can you do to inspire that group to share, discover and build?
Just as you want unconference attendees to have the freedom and space to dream big, we hope this post has helped you consider how you can embrace the concept of an unconference to bring both immediate and lasting value to your attendees. We’ve had some incredible success with helping clients plan and implement recent unconferences, and we’d love an opportunity to do the same for you. Feel free to send us a note and we’ll explore how an unconference fits into your larger events and business strategy.