7 Ways to a Better Call for Content

Widely used by associations as a tool for crowdsourcing the meat-and-potatoes education content for annual conferences, the call for speakers and sessions can be an arduous process — but it doesn’t need to be. We’ve compiled the current best practices to achieve efficiencies, which — more importantly — result in better-quality educational offerings.

Some organizations do — and more should — institute blind reviews. This puts the reviewers on more equal ground with the paying attendee in terms of how they evaluate which sessions to attend. When volunteers are asked to score a rubric on a submission, ratings can and will be greatly affected by whom the submission is from. Mask the speakers’ name and company. Add a field so staff can indicate if they’ve spoken before and their session-evaluation scores.

In the submission form, ask if this session has been presented at another industry conference. To differentiate, you want your conference to be the first. Also consider leaving 25 percent of your sessions open for slotting emerging topics two to four months prior to your conference.

If you’re like most meeting organizers, you receive 90 percent or more of your total session submissions in the last week of the timeline. Take a page from agile tech developers who now do multiple sprints for complex projects. Break up the process into several major themes, and open submissions for two to three weeks max for each. This will deliver improved marketing value, increase relevance, and chunk the pro-cess for both staff and volunteers.

For most conferences, the call for sessions or speakers should not open any sooner than seven months before the event. Any sooner extends the process and, even worse, decreases the chances of relevant, timely session submissions.

Make it clear that the submission must be made by the person or people who will be presenting. Don’t allow submissions proposed by a corporate market-ing department or public-relations firm.

No single volunteer should ever need to review and score more than 25 submissions. Keep the ask to a limited number, and encourage them to be more thorough in their vetting. Con-sider having staff do the first cut to decrease the number of submissions that are peer-reviewed. 

We find that most submission processes do not attract the most progressive sessions or speakers. Conference committees should be leveraged to identify the most pressing problems to solve or opportunities to seize for the conference’s target market. Identify these topics in your call-for-session communications, and curate for any remaining gaps.

In 2013, when Velvet Chainsaw and research and consulting company Tagoras conducted speaker research with 120 associations for The Speaker Report, we found that nearly 77 percent use a call-for-speakers/-sessions process. Associations value member input. One-third of these organizations accept 60 percent or more of the proposals, indicating either a low number of submissions or very forgiving quality filters. About 62 percent close off submissions eight months or more before the conference. These longer timelines were created when information moved a heck of a lot slower.

How does your process compare? Let me know in the comments section.


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