Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

March 03 2014

How One Conference Reinvented Its Call For Education

By David McMillin
SXSW

Plenty of organizations invite the members of their communities to submit proposals for education sessions. However, the traditional send-an-email-and-wait-for-responses approach still leaves the ultimate decision-making power in a very small number of hands. In some cases, they are the same hands that have been choosing programs for many years. Unfortunately, that can easily lead to the same speakers and topics year after year.

If your organization falls into this troubling situation, don’t worry. It’s an issue that plagues plenty of meetings. The good news? One conference has figured out how to avoid it.

At SXSW, held in Austin, Texas in March, organizers do more than ask constituents to submit proposals. Using a proprietary tool called PanelPicker, SXSW community members can vote on which sessions and speakers should actually be approved for the conference, too. Rather than telling them what they will see, learn and do when they come to Austin, the PanelPicker lets attendees help shape the experience.

SEE ALSO: SXSW Brings New Meaning to Engagement

Crowdsourcing Critiqued.

So, it’s crowdsourcing, right? Not quite. While plenty of brands and businesses have made crowdsourcing ideas a common practice, this process isn’t a free-for-all. Conference organizers stress that PanelPicker is a way to keep a finger on the pulse of what matters to the audience, but SXSW staff and Advisory Board members still play a crucial role in curating content.

Getting a session chosen isn’t as simple as asking every friend and colleague to vote for it. Instead, the PanelPicker uses three weighted votes to determine whether it should be included in the program. The final score is tallied from 30 percent of public votes, 30 percent of SXSW staff and 40 percent of an advisory board.

SEE ALSO: Harness The Power Of Crowdsourced Video At Your Events

Early Bird Education.

While SXSW doesn’t officially kick off until March, picking panels and sessions starts much earlier. For the 2014 conference, the PanelPicker launched on July 1, 2013, and users cast their votes between late August and early September. However, the conference is not completely programmed when voting ends. In today’s fast-packed breaking news climate, last-minute topics are crucial, and organizers leave some slots unfilled until January and February to deliver on the promise of the most up-to-date learning opportunities.

Voting On More Than The Material.

Every meeting professional knows the dangers of too many talking heads and lecture formats, and the PanelPicker helps weed out ho-hum speakers, too. This year, organizers added the requirement of uploading videos or presentation slides for any proposal authors hoping to secure a slot at the conference’s Interactive or Edu portions. As more attendees demand speakers who do more than read a canned presentation, this previewing ability helps up the ante on two essentials: interactivity and engagement.

SEE ALSO: How To Supercharge Your Speaker Prep

What This Means For Your Meeting.

SXSW is probably much bigger than your next conference. In fact, with more than 65,000 official attendees, it’s bigger than any other conference I’ve ever experienced first-hand. Still, PanelPicker presents a lesson for all sizes of conferences and trade shows. While you’re uniting thousands of attendees with different backgrounds, different needs, different titles and different responsibilities, they all want to feel like their opinions matter. Making them part of the education selection process can make them feel more invested in your meeting and your organization.

Have you taken any steps to change the way you pick educational sessions? Go to Catalyst to share your insights into other ways to reinvent the traditional approach to selecting session proposals.

This educational article was brought to you by Austin, Texas. Right now, the city is preparing to welcome an estimated 65,000+ official badge-holding SXSW attendees for 10 days of independent film, cutting-edge interactive media and showcases from some of the biggest names in music.

As SXSW continues to soar in popularity, its official home is always ahead of the curve when it comes to technology, connectivity and sustainability. Click here for virtual tour of the LEED Gold certified Austin Convention Center to see why groups like the National Community Pharmacists Association, the American College of Chest Physicians and DELL are going to Austin this year.

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