It’s safe to say that conferences have come a long, long way in the past decade. An industry that has felt more than a little homogeneous in the past, has evolved into a packed calendar of diverse events which have as much emphasis on entertainment, as they do education – with organisers now understanding that to successfully communicate their message, it's essential to first engage their delegates.
The proliferation of these less traditional conferences comes hot on the heels of music festivals growing increasingly popular. Whereas festivals were once solely the realm of the comitted music fan, it’s now common for people with just a passing interest in music to spend hundreds of pounds for the experience.
It’s hardly surprising then that many conference organisers have sought to integrate elements of the festival experience into their events. Live-music and stand-up comedy are slotted onto stages alongside keynote speeches, and traditional exhibition stands make way for tech showcases and interactive experiences.
This has been dubbed “festivalisation”. And these are the trends you’ll need to master if you want to get it right in 2018:
1. Going Green
Since millennials are the people responsible for festivalisation, it seems fitting to open this list with a trend that’s mostly being driven by young people – sustainability.
A recent consumer report by Neilsen revealed that nearly three-quarters of millennials are happy to pay more for eco-friendly products, despite coming of age in one of the bleakest financial climates in the last 100 years.
Whether it's a cynical cash-grab or a genuine concern for the planet, some of the UK's biggest music festivals are becoming more sustainable.
Shambala, for example, has many schemes devoted to going green, like banning the sale of plastic bottles on site, offering money-back to attendees who recycled their rubbish and entirely powering the festival with renewable energy.
There are many ways you can go about promoting sustainability at your conference:
- Choose a venue which utilises “green architecture”
- Cut down on paper use by replacing timetables with an event app
- Replace the usual conference "swag" with sustainable options
- Go vegan with your food and drink
2. Big Programme Reveals
One of the biggest similarities between festivals and conferences these days is how organisers treat their event programmes. The fervour that was previously reserved for the announcement of Glastonbury or Reading Festival line-ups is now being caused by events like Hubspot’s Inbound and Oracle’s Modern Customer Experience.
Although your event might not have the pulling power to enlist huge names, you should still be treating the reveal of your line-up as a big deal. Social media is a great way to create some buzz about your announcement, especially if you have a unique hook, like Bonnaroo often does!
Another way that you can use festivalisation to increase interest in your conference’s programme is by asking your delegates what they’d like to see at your event. The achingly hip South by Southwest puts an interesting spin on this by allowing anybody to suggest ideas for presentations using the SXSW PanelPicker. After a community vote, the most popular suggestions are bought to life.
3. Event Apps enter a new reality
By now it's hardly news that the majority of your audience are glued to their smartphone – so why aren’t you doing more to engage them on their devices?
In 2018, you can expect to see event apps begin to offer access to unique content, building on pioneering festival experiences like:
- Biffy Clyro's VR HyperCube that allowed attendees to get up, close and personal with the band
- Coachella's app that challenged fans to hunt down AR "easter-eggs" hidden around the festival grounds
- Brisbane Festival's mixture of AI and AR that connects delegates to festival previews around the city
- Heineken's use of QR codes to help festival-goers meet new people
Combining this trend with others on the list will help deliver unique moments that can't be had anywhere else in the world. This might seem daunting, but you can free up customer-facing staff to help out by outsourcing customer support to your mobile app.
Apps with AI-chatbot integration are smarter and more common than ever, with users rarely aware they're not talking to a human. They can be trusted to deliver simple event information, answer frequently asked questions and help delegates find their way around your conference.
A great example of a conference chatbot in practice is Abby from SXSW 2017, who answered more than 56,000 inquiries over the week.
4.Celebrating Live Experiences
Right now, experience is everything in the world of conferencing, as attendees increasingly shun cookie-cutter conferences in favour of unique and memorable experiences – especially those that make the most of your event being live.
This means you should be adding moments of interactivity to provide experiences that simply aren’t possible when watching a video, listening to a podcast or scrolling through an article. Above all else, delegates want to be able to ask questions, voice their opinions and collaborate in real-time with real people.
This should easier than ever to facilitate because live interaction has been the focus of almost 1/3 of events technology created in the last two years.
Implementing new technology that enables audiences to actively participate in presentations, not just witness them, is only the beginning though. If delegates want to give a talk, start a breakaway discussion or workshop new ideas, there should be room at your conference for this to happen.
At the very least, you should be using social media to provide delegates with a platform to connect with conference speakers and other attendees, whether that’s through hashtags, Facebook pages or group chats.
5. Attendee-Created Content
24% of marketers believe that social networks will impact events more than anything else in the future. And, with 25% of traffic to ticketing and registration pages coming from social media, it’s difficult to disagree.
It's no secret that sharing content created by delegates is overwhelmingly more influential (85%) than sharing branded content. But new research reveals that attendee-created content doesn't even need your help to provide exceptional value, with nearly half (46%) of festival attendees discovering a festival they attended through social media.
It's not surprising then that festivals go to extra lengths to encourage social sharing.
For example, La Route du Rock has previously utilised a SocialWall to display appropriate social posts that use the event hashtag. This gives festival-goers the opportunity to see their content on big screens that surround the stage and in return the festival ensures a far greater social media presence.
Another incredibly successful strategy was Bonnaroo's use of RFID wristbands that could be registered online by attendees before the festival and connected to their Facebook accounts. When the wristbands were swiped at check-in kiosks found around the venue, a picture of the attendee was snapped and could be posted to Facebook at the touch of a button.
Wristbands were swiped more than 200,000 times during the festival and generated an estimated 1.5 million social impression.
Unfortunately, only a third of event delegates say they post about their experiences on social media. So, in 2018, it’s going to be your responsibility to create moments that delegates want to share with their social networks. There are many ways you can do this, but some of the most popular are:
- Having a photobooth that enables social-sharing at your event
- Make it more worthwhile for the audience with a competition
- Creating unique Geofilters solely available for your conference
- Highlighting areas that are perfect for capturing 360-degree content
Even after your conference has closed its doors for the year, it’s important you keep the conversation going in the digital world. Attendee generated content is the epitome of evergreen content, because there’s never a bad time to share examples of delegates enjoying themselves and it tends to be something that’s universally understood.
There are three questions that your organisation needs to ask when managing your conference and developing your festivalisation strategy in 2018:
- Is this providing an experience that’s only possible in the flesh?
- Is this creating a “buzz” about the event?
- Does this align with my target delegate’s beliefs?
If the answer to all of these is an emphatic “yes”, you can rest assured that your conference is moving in the right direction – further away from the cut-and-paste conferences of yesteryear.
By Anthony Kelly
Anthony began his marketing career back in 2008 after studying marketing & business management at the University of Stirling.More articles by Anthony Kelly