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How to compete in the digital conference world: keep innovating to keep ’em coming

This article was co-authored by Aimee Gabel, vice president of organizational development, education, and operations at Solar Energy Trade Shows LLC.

Conferences and trade shows have always been a staple of corporate America. For the past 15 years, however, businesses have had to limit their employees’ attendance to only the absolutely necessary events.

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As adult learning channels become more prevalent, many professionals are bypassing traditional forms of certification and education and choosing digital platforms: webinars, podcasts, online videos, WebEx, and virtual conferences. These can provide the same content as in-person conferences and trade shows, but they’re often cheaper and allow learners to vet speakers so they know what they’re getting.

With online learning so accessible, attendees need to know that their in-person experience will be impactful and unique — that their presence adds value. Organizers can’t just think about the event itself; pre- and post-conference interactions with attendees also have to be valuable. Incorporating technology is a must, but every session also has to be geared specifically to the attendees. In short, you need to keep innovating to keep ’em coming.

4 Tips for Conference Innovation

As the conference manager, you need to revamp your events every year. This isn’t easy, but it’s the new name of the game for conference organizers and marketers. Gone are the days of the one main conference everyone attended. Now, you have competition.

From year to year, your specific actions may change, but the process for continual innovation will always be the same. Here are four methods organizers can use to freshen up their conferences or trade shows:

1. Understand your attendees

What’s your event’s mix of generations, professional roles, and participation? Sponsors and exhibitors want to participate in events targeted to their audiences and markets, so you need to know how you align.

Understanding who your regular attendees are will also assist you in meeting their needs and expectations. Millennials want slightly different things from conferences than Baby Boomers. CEOs gain value from different programming than sales managers. Knowing those details and the audience you’re targeting will help you zero in on what changes need to be made.

2. Educate internal staff

Your whole staff should be up-to-date on the latest adult learning trends. No matter their roles in your organization, they can be your best sources for innovation.

All staff should be familiar with what’s already being done and how it’s working. As their leader, you can support their innovation by providing educational material, holding brainstorming opportunities, and rewarding innovative ideas — even if they’re never implemented. To paraphrase Thomas Edison, he never failed, but he did discover 10,000 ways not to invent the light bulb.

3. Identify possible areas for innovation

You and your whole team must continuously be searching for opportunities for innovation. Inspiration can come from anywhere. It could come from another conference or feedback from an attendee evaluation. It could come from inside a pack of bubblegum or under the cap of your favorite beverage.

Can you experiment with topics or speakers? What would happen if you targeted a slightly different audience than in years past? How can you meet the needs of your current attendees even better? Ask yourself all of these questions to identify where innovation is possible. And keep an open mind — it may surprise you.

4. Experiment, experiment, experiment

Don’t be afraid to dive in and try new things. You may not get it right at first, but most people can understand experimentation. Set goals, monitor results, and use them to improve your performance next time.

Conferences and trade shows can’t stay complacent and expect to remain competitive. Tweaking your content and engagement techniques at these events is a good way to hold on to your regular attendees and continually attract new ones.

Assess your audience, keep your staff in the know, and constantly experiment with new educational methods. Take those steps, and before long, you’ll be the most innovative adult learning opportunity in your industry.

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