Welcome to the world of the unexpected where restaurants, stores, and classrooms pop up overnight with the spontaneity of a pimple on prom night. While impromptu conference sessions have yet to appear in the traditional conference setting, there are signs that instant gatherings of like-minded people tipped off by the lightning fast transmission of messages over social media channels could be coming to a conference near you.
Here’s how a pop up session might look: Let’s say Chris Brogan, Gary Vaynerchuk, and Seth Godin attend BlogWorld. Shortly before lunch they tweet to their followers that they will be in Room 2204 to talk to anyone who wants to listen about how they made millions of dollars blogging (or their biggest blogging blunders). The tweet (or Facebook post or text message) also informs readers that Ford Motor Company is providing lunch for everyone and a cherry red Ford Mustang car for the first person through the door (OK maybe just signed books from the speakers to the first 200 people). Who wouldn’t want to go?
Flash sessions, “unpanels,” and impromptu meetups are the logical next steps for conference producers looking for viral “sugar.” The fact that many conferences have tweetups (CES had over 1,000 people show up at their tweetup last January) demonstrates that attendees respond to informality. The flash mob phenomena, which gives the appearance that people just spontaneously start dancing together in the middle of a conference center foyer, garners YouTube love every time a new video appears. Pop up panels like the one with Jeremiah Owyang and friends on the future of content creation during SXSW was covered on a number of blogs. In fact, SXSW conference organizers presided over a number of instant initiatives: flash mobs, pop up stores, unpanels, and lots of user-generated publicity.
In addition to the yen to experiment, conference organizers would need to plan ahead of time to perfect the look and feel of spontaneity:
- Non-programmed blocks of free time when attendees are available to attend
- Speakers, topics, and incentives with broad appeal to attract followers
- Forward-thinking and flexible sponsors to underwrite costs
- Open spaces capable of accommodating large crowds
The Takeaway: With all the talk about unconferences, barcamps, and other self-organized gatherings, pop up conference sessions seem like a natural fit for organizers looking to breathe new life into an old format or attract the newly social hipsters who have outgrown the rave parties but still crave the excitement of the unexpected. They’re also a great way to get more followers using the conference’s social media platforms. Who knows, could pop up trade shows be next?
Jeff Hurt says
Flash learning and Pop-Up sessions have already been occuring. At ASAE’s annual event in 2009 in Toronto, empty rooms were equipped with Flip charts at the door. Someone could claim a room and then tweet or text that they would be having a conversation about a specific topic. in 2010, there were flash learning mobs where a well-connected and influencer would tweet that they would be holding a discussion in room x or a specific area.
Many conferences have acknowledged that the conversations happen in the hallways after a session. ASAE & PCMA both held “Continuing the Conversation” where people could gather for impromptu discussions, sometimes moderated by a facilitator and sometimes not moderated. They intentionally created areas where people could have these informal discussions.
Ultimately, conference organizers should realize that attendees will take learning into their own hands if what is being provided is not enough.
Thanks Jeff. Were those ASAE and PCMA endeavors successful? Are they still doing them? Were the pop up sessions meeting-, conference-, or association-related or could you sign up to learn about wine making or motorcycle repair? I have to think that as more attendees use social media channels to communicate during the event, the more successful these flash learning sessions will be. I would love to see more of these types of things going forward. How do you feel about them Mr. “Stop the Boring Conferences”?
Jeffrey Cufaude says
As Jeff H noted, many are already experimenting with just this approach. It would be interesting to learn hat the draw is for folks at different conferences: the topics or the conveners. I’d likely sit in on anything Chris Brogan convenes and there are certain topics I’m always interested in hearing more about. But in other cases I’d want to know more about who the convener is in order to have a sense of whether or not is a conversation i would find of value.
Jeffrey Cufaude says
One more thought: pop-up restaurants and stores have significant planning behind them to ensure the integrity of the brand and the quality of the guest experience. They are not fly by night operations. If we are going to use that term to describe learning opportunities, I think we might want to adopt the same standards. Otherwise we are just talking about impromptu or ad-hoc convening.
I heartily agree about needing to plan the “impromptu” sessions. The element of surprise or the unexpected is only half of the equation. Attendees will only talk about it if the experience is something memorable and valuable. Is there such a thing as a planned surprise? I guess so–look at flash mobs. Thanks for your comments. I would love to know more about new ways to learn and experience conferences from your perspective.
Sam smith says
We organized popup workshops at a corporate event last year. We hired facilitators and gave them a corporate challenge and 4×8 felt boards with super sized index cards and some markers. Then we gave them a space in our experience area where they should go and start their workshop. All topics were geared around the event objectives. The facilitator arrived in her space, announced her topic and asked everyone around to join in. Some stayed and had fun, others moved on – while some passers by decided to stop and check it out. The workshops were about 30 minutes in length. The ideas generated in the workshops were codified digitally, synthesized and shared with the leadership teams.
The hardest part was identifying and selecting the right topics that would stimulate cross-functional groups of employees to work together.
You are describing an activity that is more user-generated. I was thinking about learning opportunities that are more or less planned by the event organizers with specific topics in mind, led by a recognized thought leader (so people would come), and communicated virally–sort of like a flash mob (looks spontaneous but actually well planned). Have you planned or seen anything like that?
Pete Modigliani says
Interesting discussion. Glad to see you’re challenging the norm and seeking new ideas. Along the lines of bar camps and unconferences, I think exiting conference structures can foster innovation via Innovation Booths. Take a standard conference booth, add a projector and white board, and allow people to pitch an idea, issue, or challenge for 5 minutes, and whomever in gathered around the booth can provide comments, draw on the board, and spur ideas. See my blog post for more info. http://digitalpentagon.com/2011/09/26/innovation-booths/ What do you think?
As I mentioned in my comments on your blog, I really love your idea. As I thought about it more throughout the day, I was thinking about how show organizers could use innovation booths as sounding boards and to get feedback from their attendees. Either someone from the conference needs to man the booth (which I think is a must) and/or the white board is a smart board that records the notes from each session. Either way, it’s something that our industry needs–we are sort of like cobblers with shoes in need of repair.