How to run an unconference

Are you ready to run your own unconference? We’re here to walk you through a checklist of things to consider before getting started.

Our advice comes with a healthy dose of hints and tips from two seasoned unconference organisers. Salim Virani has been organising Leancamp since 2010 and Cristiano Betta who runs the popular BarCamp London series.

Let’s start. Close your eyes. Imagine you’ve organised an unconference. People are gathering to share what they know, there’s collaboration, there’s pizza, the projectors are whirring and there’s a buzz of enthusiasm in the air.

Ok. You can open your eyes again. Are you ready to make it happen?

For the people, by the people.

The main point of running an unconference (see wikipedia) is to create a space that helps people make connections, share knowledge, collaborate and create brainchildren. To take part, attendees are encouraged to give a presentation, create a discussion, or even chair a debate.

There are a few different breeds of unconference. You might want to run with your own unique vision, or you could jump on the bandwagon and use a formula that’s already out there. There’s everything from the BarCamp ‘sleeping under desks in a sleeping bag’ style to a one-day gathering in an office.

An Ask Us Anything session at a BarCamp

The basics.

Now that you’re ready to start organising, you need to make sure you have the basics in place. You’re going to need:

  • at least ten hours to organise it and a sensible amount of lead-time (Cristiano suggests six weeks for a BarCamp)
  • a team of volunteers who all have a strong sense of their responsibilities
  • a place to gather and space to collaborate that caters for your attendees’ human needs
  • a way to fund it, whether it’s from your own pocket, through company sponsorship or ticketing
  • a clear plan for how to market your unconference and communicate with your attendees

1: Find a place to gather

You can be as creative as you like with the location. Unconferences have been held in abandoned buildings, university campuses, regular office blocks and even campsites - but you might want to ask yourself a few practical questions before settling on anything too unconventional.

If you’re planning to organise an overnight unconference you need to do some serious thinking before you sell any tickets. As well as observing basic human rights to sanitation, ability to exit the building freely etc. you need to be sure that you can adhere to any health and safety requirements, security procedures and fire regulations. To figure out what’s possible, you must have a close tête-à-tête with the people who are responsible for the space and make sure you clearly manage their expectations. If possible, get the constraints in writing.

Here are some of the basic questions that you need answers to before going ahead:

  • What’s the level of security access? (people may want to come and go as they please)
  • Does it have several rooms of different sizes?
  • Are there toilet, washing and kitchen facilities?
  • Is there access for disabled attendees?
  • Is there access to power, wifi and audiovisual equipment?

2: How to fund it?

As the chief of the whole endeavour you’re going to need to keep your wits about you when handling the budget. One of the major pitfalls when it comes to money is where it gets stored. Beware that PayPal and Google Checkout sometimes like to hold onto some of your money until the event is complete. Make sure you have enough cash in your hands to pay for the essential stuff, and that includes the pizzas.

The sponsorship route

You’re probably familiar with the tiered sponsorship structure, where you offer sponsors varying levels of publicity throughout your unconference. Sponsorship need not just be about money though, sponsors can also contribute food, drink or other supplies. Cristiano’s hot tip is to “keep in mind that most companies have at least a 4 week payment period. If you want to get paid before the event you better start early”.

Whether you take on the role of seeking out sponsors, or you delegate the task to a volunteer (preferably a well-connected experienced community member), your main duty is to be consistent in acknowledging your sponsors and making them feel like they’re getting the love they deserve.

Charging for tickets

Salim has chosen to make Leancamp a paid ticket event. This is his rationale.

“If participants are willing to pay, it allows the organiser to focus on the event itself. It also can shorten the time it takes since you don't have to depend on sponsorship approvals. Also, events proceed more smoothly because the cashflow is positive, rather than negative while you wait for sponsors to pay. When we did have sponsors, it was down to cold-calling and asking other organisers for introductions.”

3: Get the word out there, get bookings.

Using an intricate mélange of Eventbrite (the current ticketing system of choice), Twitter, Facebook, MailChimp, relevant group mailing lists and a website (perhaps knocked together in blog-style with a basic tool like Tumblr) you’re ready to start getting people to book tickets… and, ahem we think Lanyrd is a great way to notify people and bring the community together before the event kicks off.

According to Salim, this is the most challenging part of the job. He believes in attracting attendees through word of mouth and his personal network. He says: “we aim to create knowledge sharing between different communities and disciplines. We’re constantly inviting people from new groups to participate”.

There are two hard and fast rules when it comes to putting the word out there:

  • Rule 1: Make it ultra-clear how people can book
  • Rule 2: Give it a great description that inspires people and helps them recognise whether it’s relevant to them.

A small digression about preventing no-shows

‘No-shows’ are an unfortunate side-effect of offering free tickets, perhaps because people sometimes value free things less. Here are some ways to reduce the number of people who take their ticket for granted:

BarCamps often use the timed-release method – this means only dedicated individuals make themselves available at a particular time to snap up tickets as soon as they are released. This is great for attracting people who are ‘on it’.

The paid ticket – this is a controversial one in the unconferencing world but it works for Salim’s Leancamp. He says “We have almost no no-shows. Charging means you know the participants are committed.”

Pre-investment – set up collaborative tasks, pre-event competitions or other ways to lure attendees into feeling like your unconference is the chance to show off their work. Use Lanyrd to publish this info, and get people to publish little blurbs about their planned talks.

Cristiano ran a genius scheme with Spreadshirt: “We gave attendees vouchers to get their own shirts printed, which led to a higher turnup rate for people that had created their shirts.”

Pairing up with another event – if there’s another conference in town, your unconference could be the perfect fringe event, particularly if you want encourage people from out of town to stay a day longer or if you’re hoping that industry hot-shots will come and share their expertise.

4: Before the day: The walk-through

You’re going to find that you’re building up quite an eclectic shopping list of things to buy, borrow or rent (hopefully not steal) for your unconference, so the best idea is to do either a mental or physical walk-through of the space you’re going to be using. Try thinking about the day from start to finish and make notes as you go. Think about some of these things:

  • How people will display their talk details (the grid system is the most common)
  • Food and eating equipment
  • Stationery
  • Furniture
  • Electrical equipment: extension leads and adapters etc.
  • First aid
  • Badges and Lanyards (of course)

Setting up the grid

Natalie Downe is a veteran of dozens unconferences, and helped organise (and select stationery for) BarCamp London 2. Here are her tips on setting up the perfect unconference grid:

The grid view starts out as a blank schedule for the event, with rooms along one axis and times along the other. Most weekend BarCamps I have seen have split Saturday and Sunday into two separate boards and put rooms along the top and time slots down the left. Next to each of the rooms you should mark the capacity so that people can choose an appropriately sized room for their talk. You should also mark which rooms have projectors and whiteboards.

Mark out the breaks and the introductory and closing talks with masking tape or athletic tape (so as not to damage the walls), then leave spaces for each of the sessions. You should expect at least 75-80% of people going to give talks (everyone is supposed to but you will have people that won't). The slots should be 30 minutes or at most 45 - encourage attendees to "hack the grid" - combining similar talks in to one slot, or even merging two slots if they think their session demands the extra time.

Leave gaps for the talks and provide each attendee with an index card, some Blu-Tack and lots of colourful stationary to decorate and personalise their slot with. Encourage the attendees to include the title of the talk, their name and Twitter handle as well as the names of anyone else presenting the talk with them. Information about topics covered and and level of experience required is also good.

Don't open the grid until after the introductory talk, to ensure everyone understands how it works and has a fair chance at grabbing the right slot for their session.

A BarCamp Grid

5: Keeping it real. During the event.

According to Cristiano a great conference organiser is “A good mix of beloved community manager and benevolent dictator”. You’re the event organiser, so it’s important not to exude too much stress during the day. Be nice to everyone, especially your team of volunteers.

To help create buzz, get messages out there, build enthusiasm and a greater sense of community, make sure you encourage your attendees to share their innermost feelings online:

  • Use a Twitter hashtag – make sure everyone knows what it is before people get there
  • Use Flickr – make sure people know where to post their photos too
  • Document anything remarkable on your blog – particularly in the run up to the unconference
  • Use Lanyrd – make sure people have publicised what their talk is going to be about

You may also want to consider taking videos and podcast recordings for posting online at a future date. This will do wonders for publicity and can help encourage future sponsors, particularly if you hope to run another one. Encouraging your attendees to collect their slides, notes and videos on Lanyrd (see BarCamp London 8's coverage for a great example) is a useful way to build an online record of what happened at the event.

6: Ready, set, get started.

Right. Now that you have the tools, it’s time to get started. When we asked Salim how best to get started, he replied:

“Start now. Just go for it. Experiment with the format as you go. Make sure each event is maximising your learning about how to it better next time. Don't be afraid to try new things, or to reject the status quo.”

Good luck. And don’t forget to post your unconference details on Lanyrd.

Michael Mahemoff commented…

Nice roundup. One suggestion is to publicise the hashtag as soon as the event is announced to help planning and build publicity in the lead-up. One that's friendly and unique.

Commented at 1:01pm on 26th March 2012

David E commented…

No question about it; that these two guys know what they are doing.

Commented at 1:07pm on 26th March 2012

Simon Willison commented…

Yes, absolutely agree. Picking a good hashtag is important too - something like #myevent2012 is a very poor choice as some attendees will use the full tag, some will truncate it to just #myevent and some will end up using both which leaves less room for the actual tweet.

Using just two digits for the year is OK provided the rest of the hashtag is short - a three or four letter prefix should work fine, but longer than that and you risk the same problem as you see with the full year.

Commented at 1:08pm on 26th March 2012

paoladm commented…

Thanks for sharing!! This article is full of factual errors, and is not a valid reference To start with, unconferences do not have attendants
but participants!!!

The article points to wikipedia, and then deviates
substantially from what wikipedia states

etc etc

I do not have time to carry out a detailed review now (under deadline), but anyone who is familiar with unconferences should be able
to spot the many fallacies of what the author says. This article is misleading !!

Commented at 3:15pm on 26th March 2012

Scott Berkun commented…

Good summary. A few questions / additions:

1. How many people do you recommend are on the organizing team? 5? 10? Are there specific roles? It seems there is typically 1 to 3 people who are the primary drivers, and often they are co-workers or friends, and they drive organizing the organizing.

2. On no-shows: some camps have gone with deposits. You pay $5 or $10 online for a ticket, and get that back when you show up.

3. Its a great idea to go watch someone else's camp before doing you own, just to take notes on what they do well or what can be improved. You can avoid many mistakes by seeing someone else do it first, and given how many there are, it shouldn't be hard to plan for your organizing squad to attend something together.

4. A camp is only as good as its sessions - give those considering to give a talk some guidance: http://www.scottberkun.com/blog/... - Even a short tip sheet of things to avoid goes a long way. Organizers should definitely recruit ringers, people they know are good presenters, to speak early in the day and help set the vibe and tone for the event, and other speakers who may be inspired by what they see in the early sessions to do one in the afternoon.

Commented at 3:36pm on 26th March 2012

Eva Amsen commented…

Love this! I've been organising SciBarCamps in Canada and the UK, and last year (my 3rd time organising) did a very meta talk about organising science unconferences it at SciBarCamp Cambridge. Two of the people there then went on to organise SciBarCamp Vienna, so I think I managed to get the concept across! I also wrote down my tips, which largely overlap with what you have here. http://blogs.nature.com/eva/2011...

(And if anyone is interested in science unconferences, the next SciBarCamb is in three weeks, and there are still slots available.)

Commented at 3:25pm on 28th March 2012


Time 1:46pm

Date 26th March 2012


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