While few associations are totally bailing on the traditional RFP-and-review-committee model to develop conference content, pressure to innovate is building. Many organizations are unleashing content planners to venture into new methods of creating the learning experiences today’s attendees demand. The kicker? Sometimes less is more.
Speaking animatedly, MBA graduate students and young corporate professionals filled small tables and began brainstorming how to get Target customers to utilize more reusable bags. The discussion was not a random college assignment.
Participants were attending the 2013 national conference of Net Impact, a nonprofit community of young corporate leaders and students committed to using business to create positive social change. Leaders from conference sponsor Target were taking notes. It was real-life, real-time design thinking—and a long way from the typical three-person “expert” panels that jam most conference agendas.
Net Impact is one of many organizations revamping their models for developing high-quality conference content, driven by neurological research into how people learn, shifting attendee expectations, and the proven success of alternative learning formats.
Examples of this evolution can be found at association conferences of all sizes, sectors, and professions. While stories and angst about changing models vary, a few common threads are emerging:
The one-month RFP process is a thing of the past. Content development for conferences has become a structured year-round process that takes more resources and effort because great content can be complicated, and front-burner issues change fast.
More staff are being dedicated to content development. Conferences are top revenue generators, and associations need to ensure their success as valued member benefits. In other words, content development is no place to be chintzy.
Staff-driven content creation is gaining favor over RFP-based content curation. Increasingly, content development is being reclaimed in-house, even as staff expand the diversity and numbers of people they tap for ideas or speakers.
While 25 percent of Net Impact’s sessions are crowdsourced via a Workshopper platform that taps the group’s broad network, and another 25 percent are proposed by chapter partners around the conference’s host city, half are staff-driven based on input from speaker interest forms and staffers’ professional networks.
Similarly, the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) took a hybrid approach this year, having skipped the RFP process in 2013. It ran a call for speakers, rather than topics, and asked their areas of expertise. The planning team accepted some but reached out to other speakers based on their field work and alignment with meeting topic “strands.”