Conference and Event Planning Insights from Inbound 2016
The following is a guest blog post by Patty Dickerson.
Conferences and events are an important part of most marketing strategies, so as marketers it can be a special treat to go to a conference as an attendee. A few weeks ago, I was able to attend HubSpot’s Inbound Marketing Conference in Boston and came away with quite a few insights I’d like to share with the HITMC community.
First held in 2011, the conference has grown significantly in the last five years with close to 19,000 attendees as well as over 170 sessions and eight different topical tracks this year. I haven’t been to Marketo’s Marketing Nation Summit or Salesforce’s Dreamforce so I’m not sure how HubSpot’s Inbound conference compares to them, but I did attend last year and am a regular HITMC attendee. Compared to HITMC, Inbound can seem a bit overwhelming. It is primarily geared toward digital and inbound marketers, but in this first post, I’d like to share some ideas and observations from Inbound that can help those of us who plan events and conferences.
Inbound16 was held November 8-11 with the main conference kicking off on Wednesday, November 9th. Date ring a bell? Yup- that’s right, Inbound officially kicked off the day after one of the most polarizing elections in U.S. history. An interesting day to start, while half of the population was elated the other half was despairing, and the mood of the conference that first day was very odd. Additionally, the kick-off keynote speaker, Ta-Nehisi Coates, switched up his talk to directly address the election results. As a content marketer, I respect his decision to do so, as he was being authentic, transparent, and relevant in his content delivery. However, it did seem to polarize the conference, as well as the conference conversation on twitter. I’m sure HubSpot will think again about hosting Inbound the same week as a presidential election.
- If any of you are planning big user conferences, be sure keep in mind any sort of external events that could impact your event.
Session Organization and Selection
Inbound 2016 had a variety of “Inbound Itineraries” to help plan which of its 170+ sessions to attend. This is a great idea for larger conferences with a variety of session options. Since I wanted a broader experience, I ignored itineraries and tackled my schedule one day at a time, focusing instead on sessions that were geared toward marketing strategy, lead generation, social media, and email marketing. Unfortunately, within the full agenda, there wasn’t a clear way to tell if the session was for beginner, intermediate, or advanced marketers, so choosing sessions based on skill level was a bit difficult. I hope that next year Inbound notes skill/experience level within a session description. This is a good idea for any large conference with overlapping sessions.
- Group agenda options into common topic themes
- Label sessions by skill level
One big improvement at this year’s Inbound was the ability to pre-register for sessions. This meant that if you planned your schedule in advance, then enrolled in sessions the week prior to the conference, there was no problem getting into the sessions. This was a big problem at last year’s conference and there were one or two sessions that I missed because the rooms were full. Compared to last year, I was able to get a least one interesting insight from each session, though the quality of one or two of the sessions I attended was a little disappointing.
- Provide pre-registration to popular sessions or make sure that there is room to fit all attendees who want to attend
Conference Website and Mobile App:
For the most part the conference website, Inbound.com, was easy to use, and attendees could login to create a customized schedule from the agenda. The recommend itineraries were easy to find, but if you didn’t use them, the daily sessions weren’t listed in chronological order. This made it harder to see which sessions were being held at same time. You could tag sessions to “My Interests” then go back and view a shortened list, but the lack of chronological ordering made the session planning a little harder, which was also complicated by an automatic log out if you were inactive for a short period of time.
- Make website easy to use
- Order agenda sessions in chronological order
- Provide ways for attendees to tag sessions of interest
As I mentioned previously, the session pre-registration worked well. In addition, I was able to download the calendar to my google calendar, which was vital the first day because the mobile app didn’t initially sync personal schedules from the Inbound website. The full agenda from the desktop site was available, but this required logging into the conference website within the app. Though frustrating, it was corrected the first afternoon, and personal schedules were available on the mobile app with session notifications for the duration of the conference. For any of you considering mobile apps for your conferences, it is a good idea to test the app before the conference to make sure it is set-up properly.
- Ask attendees for feedback on the conference app before the conference starts
- Test conference app prior to the start day
- Fix app problems quickly
Lunch is also quite unique at Inbound, as HubSpot arranges to have local food trucks parked next to the Boston Convention & Exhibit Center where the conference is held. Attendees with All-Access and VIP passes could scan their badge to get lunch at any of these trucks, but food was also available for purchase to those with Community passes. Most of the trucks parked within “the Lawn on D” that is located on the east side of the convention center, a bit of a hike from the west side, but doable. Having lunch outside was risky, given that the conference was so late in the year, but the weather cooperated and while a little cool, it was mostly sunny.
- Don’t be afraid to try something different for food, but have back-up plans.
While no lunch session or break was scheduled, food was served from 11am-2pm. This helped spread out the lines for food. I would have liked a list of the food trucks and their location so I could plan my meals efficiently, since my goal was to be able to attend sessions during the 11am-2pm time frame. Regardless, the food was great; my favorite lunch was the Green Muenster Grilled Cheese from Roxy’s. It was a little hard to eat without a lunch area, which along with the spaced-out lunch time, made networking a bit of a challenge. Just some more food for thought (pun intended) as you plan networking opportunities into your own conferences.
- Consider how to best optimize mealtimes for attendee networking.
In addition to these event planning takeaways, I was able to get some great insights from Inbound’s content sessions. Although I did get a lot more out of the conference this year than last, the price was high, especially when you pay out of your own pocket. Travel expenses would also be a factor. I’ll likely go only if I can get one of the really low discount rates, which means booking far in advance. However, if I’m paying for the conference on my own dime again next year, I might be tempted try a new conference like Content Marketing World. Of course, this would be in addition to HITMC which is my must attend conference.