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