Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

September 06 2016

How This Tech Conference Attracted More Than 5,000 Session Proposals

David McMillin


“VR Talks Suck”, “Innovation Women Unite”, “Data Alone Can’t Decode the Fashion Industry”, “Algorithms Don’t Feel, People Do” — those are just four of the nearly 5,300 panels, case studies and presentations that the SXSW community can vote to include in the conference’s 2017 program. Wow, you might be thinking, how does a conference manage to attract such a massive number of session proposals? It’s not just because of the allure of SXSW. Sure, the annual gathering in Austin is one of the most recognized brands in the tech/music/media landscape, but the fuel behind the attention surrounding SXSW also involves a crucial lesson: give your people the power.

SXSW doesn’t follow the traditional approach to selecting sessions: send emails to the audience, invite them to fill out a form with their ideas, have faculty experts select the best ideas behind closed doors and announce the final program. Instead, SXSW’s PanelPicker tool lets everyone weigh in on which topics, trends and ideas are most relevant. “There are a lot of ideas that come through PanelPicker that would never have occurred to us in a million years,” Mike Shea, executive director of SXSW, told Skift earlier this year.

Attendees aren’t the only ones involved in determining the direction of the program, though. The PanelPicker is a modified version of crowdsourcing that gives the community a stronger voice while maintaining some control over the process; the SXSW Advisory Boards and staff members are heavily involved in curating the content, too.

SEE ALSO: SXSW Joins The Medical Meetings Community

Using Session Proposals To Shape The Social Conversation

Because people need to collect votes — the community’s voice makes up 30 percent of the session selection equation — anyone submitting needs to rally support online. The organizers of SXSW know that asking for votes benefits more than the prospective speaker; those requests for votes contribute to the digital buzz surrounding SXSW. With that in mind, SXSW makes the “Vote for Me!” plea easy with customized graphics for Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

It’s clear that PanelPicker is resonating with the tens of thousands of attendees who descend on Austin each spring. Last year, the PanelPicker received over 4,600 proposals. With nearly 700 more for the 2017 program, SXSW will have more challenging decisions to make in narrowing the number of sessions. But too many great ideas is never a bad thing.

MORE: How SXSW’s PanelPicker Works

Looking for more help to make sure your next program is top-notch? You don’t necessarily need to add more sessions. Check out “The Rule You Should Remember As You Develop Your Next Conference Program.”

Stay tuned to PCMA.org for more coverage of what’s happening in Austin as the city prepares for a Texas-sized successful spring. In addition to SXSW, Austin will welcome the leaders of the business events industry at Convening Leaders 2017.

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