An Introduction to Planning and Running Tech Events

Kara Sowles and Francesca Krihely gave an afternoon workshop at OSCON on how to plan and run tech events. I’m hoping to be doing more and more of this at work in the near future so I was sure to take copious notes.

A successful event is one that feels like magic – that everyone and everything is running smoothly and you never notice the organizers. To create a successful event you just nee the passion to do it.

So let’s get started! First things first, you need to create a document. A shared document with you and your collaborators where you have a ‘single source of truth’. This document has to be kept up to date – it should not just be a series of email. We started with a sample document provided by Kara and Francesca.

Purpose and Goals

ProgramsThe first thing we need to do is come up with our purpose of the event. Next you want a mission statement for the event and to set some goals:

Examples:

Purpose: to meet and connect w/ users of software
Goal: 25 qualified leads – users to reach out to after

Purpose: Teach girls to code
Goal: Have 100 girls attend and 50% of them finish the projects

Constraints

While this is all great, you also have to think about your constraints – things you can’t do. For example if you want to host at your office you might not be able to have 200 attendees. You’re constrained by the space. Your budget might also be a constraint you have to work within. The amount of time you have to plan needs to be defined and will constrain how you accomplish your mission.

Structure

Logistics and FormatOnce you have this outlined (the goals and constraints) you can talk about the structure of the event. Some example event structures:

  • Networking event: bring people together just to chat with each other. This can be a launching point for a bigger event.
  • User groups: pretty informal and easier to run than some events. These continue over time though
  • Office hours: a simple way to get people together to communicate at specific times
  • Online events: work as a great resource for communities that are worldwide. This can be collaborative or one person talking to everything.
  • Hack-a-thon: a great way for people to understand new ideas, interact with new technologies and meet new people. These can be collaborative or competitive – so you need to decide what you want.

The key is to think about your community and what kind event they need.

Work with a Team

Once you have the structure in place – how do you get help/work in a team of people on the event. When building your team you want to give people the opportunity to get involved (sometimes people don’t know you want help), establish clear roles in order to empower them and make sure there is something in it for the volunteers (WIIFM – What’s in it for me).

Once your team is in place you need to use them/work with them. You need regular checkins, refer often to your document and always remember to delegate and be a good leader.

Content

You’re now ready to talk about the content to be covered at your event. This might be speakers, collaboration, workshops and/or activities.

Hack-A-Thon content is a little different from other events because usually in other events content is chosen ahead of time, at hack-a-thons the content is being created on site and is the entire point of the event. Content produced at these events can be extremely valuable to your project. These are also opportunities for sponsors because people see their products being used in a real way. You can also have people share their work on sites like Hacker League to make the event more open.

For the other events you the main source of content is usually the speakers. The first way to get speakers is to invite them. When you invite people you should let the speakers know what you’re going to provide them – honorarium, expense coverage, free registration, etc. The other way to get speakers is to submit a call for speakers. The nice thing with this is that you get a ton of submissions, but that’s also a downside as you’ll have a lot of content to wade through. Make sure that your call page is clear about what you’re looking for along with examples.

In the end when choosing your speakers you need to go back to your document and review your purpose for the event and hold yourself to that purpose.

After doing all the work to get speakers on your agenda, you then need to ‘handle’ them. Speakers are often very busy and you need to give them all relevant information in one document/email. It’s most likely that they’re not going to want to wade through a bunch of emails to find all the information about their talk. You also want to be sure that your speakers actually accept [personal story time – I was once on a conference program and had no idea I was on the program because my confirmation email got lost in the mail].

In addition to speakers you are going to need great facilitators/MCs – this is the person who shares announcements with the attendees throughout the program.

Think about whether or not you want to record the talks at your conference. If you do plan to record sessions that can be very costly. If you do record videos make sure you share your content widely. Share on your website, blog, github, or other sites.

Venue

When you start searching for a venue you want to go back to your constraints to see how many tracks you want, what your budget is, and how many people will be attending. Some places to look:

  • 20-80 person event
    • Tech company offices
    • Universities
    • Libraries
  • 80-150 person event
    • Tech offices (less likely)
    • Universities
    • Co-working spaces
  • 150-250 person event
    • Universities are still an option
    • Fun local spaces (movie theaters, art galleries)
    • Professional venues (conference centers)
    • Hotels

When looking at venues remember to think about amenities. If you’re doing a hack-a-thon you need tables and power and internet.

If you want to look for spaces you can go to a site called Cvent – don’t just trust their site though, do your own research. When looking at hotels remember that while they’re easy to find, they can be really expensive (food and av for example have to come from in house).

When talking to offices you really want to make sure you send them all your details and requirements (# of attendees, date and time, entrance fee, length of event, food, etc etc) – these places are usually dong your a favor and are not prepared like hotels for hosting events.

When it comes to AV, make a wishlist but also know what you really need versus want. Some places you can’t bring your own stuff in – so keep that in mind.

How much does it cost?

TSample budgethis section was a series of awesome slides with sample costs. It all boils down to deciding what you want to spend. You can see my full set of images in my OSCON album on Flickr.

Sponsorships

Sponsors are a positive part of your event. It can be a lot of work to find these sponsors and make sure they follow through on their promises. You have decide how large a part of your event they want them to be. For some audiences, over-exposure to sponsors can be annoying.

Here are some reasons sponsors might want to contribute to your event:

  • recruiting and hiring
  • branding
  • lead generation
  • community building
  • they believe in your mission

To get sponsors you should have a sponsorship prospectus that you can send out with all the info needed to convince sponsors. In your prospectus you want to have:

  • attendee demographics
  • who is the target audience
  • purpose/mission of event
  • format of the event
  • what sponsors get

You need to decide ahead of time what sponsors can ‘buy’ and can’t. Can they have a talk slot? can they have the branding control of your talk? etc etc.

Sponsors love booths! These might not always be the best thing for your event though – if there isn’t a ton of movement of the attendees they might not be the best option.

Social spaces

When thinking about your attendees back from your purpose, plan your space. If you have a lot of people who might have to charge their batteries – for electronics and for their brains. Think about your activities with your audience in mind.

Also remember to ‘map your flow’ – see where people will be walking and make sure their pathways allow for easy movement.

Part of that social space is the food you’re offering. How messy is it? How accessible is it?

Diversity

You want your event to be accessible to all. First it’s key to set your expectations right on the events page:

  • Code of Conduct
  • Accessibility Info
  • Parking

From that list – you must have a Code of Conduct. You need to train your staff on handling CoC violation reports, list this clearly and publicly for all to see and make sure it’s sent to the speaker confirmation emails.

Think through if you want your event to be family-friendly and/or parent friendly. You might want to provide child care or events for children.

Promoting your event

Go where your attendees go to announce your event, post on newsletters, post on local websites and of course social media!

Use incentives to get people to come to your event.

Logistics

Most of our event is the planning process, only a small part is onsite at the event – keep that in mind.

Goals + Constraints = Logistics

So, for example, if you have a goal to host 200 attendees you want to be sure you have enough food and a room big enough to fit them.

To tackle logistics you want to stay organized from start to finish with your document, use calendars and remember to delegate! You can also pretend that you’re launching a product – your event is the product. You need project managers, milestones, deadlines and tasks – just list you do with a product release.

Francesca gave us another handy doc we can use for this.

Remember that not all attendees will have smartphones so a printed out schedule is a great thing to give out. OSCON does a daily schedule they print out and hand out on the day of. You can also get standing banners for $150-$200 online and it feels much more professional. Signage is really important as well to get people where they want to go.

If you’re looking for cheap swag take a look at Sticker Mule for stickers! Remember that swag should be so people remember the event and maybe thank yous for your speakers or staff.

Once you’re onsite you want to have a few ‘events kits’ – for example you want to put in batteries, tape, pens, rubber bands, etc. in a bag so you have it on hand at all times.

Day of

It’s now the day of the event!! Remember what we’ve said a bunch already – DELEGATE! Make sure everyone has everyone else’s phone number so you can reach whomever you need to reach. And no amount of prep will prevent something from going wrong – just stay calm and be ready to tackle the problem.

Post-Event

Finally the event is over … and it’s all a blur of adrenaline and fear. You’re not done yet! Go back to your document and update it. Make sure you met all of your goals. You also want to give yourself a break – either a work from home day or a day off completely.

You’ll want to think about a post event survey. You won’t get everyone to respond so make sure you have some multiple choice and text fields where you can get a genuine response. Using the survey you can measure if you got your intended audience. If you want people to fill out the survey you can have a prize associated with the survey to get more answers.

Finally, you do need to do a post-mortem with your team.

If you want to see the whole talk you can find the slides online.

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