Meeting Innovation: Conference Agendas and the Paradox of Choice

Conferences and the Paradox of ChoiceConferences and trade shows have long been regarded as the premier place to connect with industry thought leaders and colleagues. These events have served as valuable hubs to catch up-to-the-minute insight on future trends. Then the Internet came roaring in and in time, some people hesitated before choosing to attend.

After all, I can access a good deal of this information (and connections) via the web.

This prompted some conference organizers to cast their marketing nets wider. If we can't grow our current audience segments, why not pursue a few new targets?

At first glance, it appears to be a reasonable response, but with each conference cycle, agendas grow larger and more scattered. In short, we do our best to please a multitude, but never manage to connect soundly with any one audience segment.

Unfortunately, our well-intended actions are leading to a new conference disorder...

Attendee Overwhelmed Syndrome (AOS)

No sooner do attendees enter a conference and they're deluged with dozens of learning tracks, countless receptions, meet-ups, tweet-ups and the like. Many are challenged to figure out where they fit in amid all the hoopla. How many pages of that 100+ program guide are they actually reading?

Make no mistake. More doesn't always lead to better. In fact, in some conference circles, it can lead to less meaningful, less intimate and less valuable conference experiences.

In his book, The Paradox of Choice: Why Less is More, author Barry Schwartz explores our obsession with choice. Whether it's choosing a 401K plan, a pair of jeans or even a cup of coffee, today's consumer is getting hit with an overabundance of options in their personal lives. Now, we're replicating that same dynamic at our conferences.

What happens when we're hit with too many options? We retreat. We get stuck in "no decision."

Some of you may be thinking. that's all well and good, Donna, but we serve 15-20 different attendee segments and we're not about to turn away any one of them.

Got it.

Now, consider this question: What are your 3-5 most important audience segments?

If you were forced to choose no more than five segments to serve at your conference, what would they be? No sandbagging. Aim as high as you can and identify the most influential groups. Who are your conference VIPs? The people your attendees most want to network with and learn from. The people your exhibitors and sponsors most want to see. 

Design the majority of your conference content with these people in mind. What are their most critical challenges? What's keeping this group up at night? How have these issues changed since your last conference? Be as current and relevant as you can be.  

Offer fewer sessions but make sure the bulk of your agenda lasers in on critical issues for this crowd. Include plenty of agenda white space, so these people can mingle and engage in some good conversations with others. Deliver on your promise to help these influential people solve their biggest problems and others will follow... in droves.

There's no one-size-fits-all remedy to AOS, but for some conference planners, the "quality over quantity" path could be a game changer.

For more conference content guidance, read Conference and Team Building Tips: Catering to Diverse Learning Styles and Meeting Innovation: Sharing Stories to Secure Conference Sponsorships.

(photo by maistora via Flickr)

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