What is an unconference?
An unconference is a conference-like gathering whose organization excludes or avoids one or more aspects of a traditional conference, such as a formal program before the event. The many BarCamps conducted around the world are good examples of successful unconferences.
In many ways, an unconference is easier to run than a traditional conference. Some say the “un” refers to unorganized, but be assured, there’s still a lot to do!
Why run an unconference?
There are already user group meetings and there are plenty of conferences, so why run another event?
User groups are a small group of people that listen to a talk or two and have a beer before heading home. Conferences have a couple of hundred people that listen to 20 or more talks, have a bevy each night, and then head home.
Conferences have a low impact on attendees, who might find only 10% of the talks of much value. User groups, conversely, tend to have a high impact on attendees; with only two talks taking place the attendees will likely be interested in at least one of them (to be motivated to attend), hence a 50% success rate.
For networking opportunities, conferences offer greater scope; it’s often impossible to talk to everyone during a conference. User groups, on the other hand, are usually limited for networking as 80% of attendees are typically regulars.
The mix of speakers for user groups comprise the new and experienced, with talks being interactive and audience participation high. Conferences have mostly experienced speakers and talks are typically less interactive, with a couple of questions at the end of the presentation.
User groups are about the sharing of knowledge, experience, and ideas between people. Conferences are about bestowing knowledge, experience, and ideas upon the audience.
User group attendees are active. Conference attendees are passive.
So where’s the middle ground? Let’s say you need an event where you can meet everyone, but still expect to see a fair few new faces. You want more than two talks and you want to have a say in what those talks are. You’re after active participation and interaction, where those who typically stay silent at conferences feel encouraged to join in. You want to learn from the group, and share your learnings with them.
What you need is a two-day user group meeting. An unconference.
I decided to run the first Australian BarCamp because it sounded like a great event, the type of event I’d love to attend. Whatever your reason, it must be solid enough to keep you going through the stressful times leading up to the event itself.
What to Cover …
The beauty of unconferences is that there’s no need to call for papers, review submissions, plan a schedule (yet), or reject people because you’ve run out of space. The talk schedule is defined on day one of the unconference.
You’ll need to define the topics well enough for people to know whether or not to come though, and the granularity at which you define these topics depends on the number of participants you wish to have.
BarCampMelbourne has always been about business and technology, and we typically have 70-100 people wanting to participate. If we wanted to run a smaller event, we might narrow the field down. It’s a fine balancing act.
But I’m only really interested in running a non-technical unconference …
No problem – there have been unconferences on many subjects such as food and wine, mobile and email marketing, library speakers and trainers, and even fashion!
So where do I start?
There’s no point running an unconference if no one is likely to come, so before you start looking for sponsors and a venue, or working out how much this is all going to cost, find out what interest there is in your area.
Remember that the distance people will travel for an unconference is likely to be less than they would for a big conference, but further than for a user group meeting.
If you’re thinking of running an unconference, chances are you have some contacts in the area of interest, via mailing lists, forums, and user groups. Contact everyone in these groups, but be careful to stick to the rules though; some list owners reject advertising for such events, in my experience.
Before you do, create a mailing list for people to join. There are plenty of free mailing list providers available to choose from (Google Groups, for example). Remember to create an announce list for those that just want updates, and a team list for discussion with anyone that wants to help organize the event.
You’ll probably also benefit from having a simple web site to tell people more about the event. A quick and easy solution is to create a free wiki with a group like Wikia.
Of course, if you want to spend the time making this a little more feature-full, you could implement your own systems. BarCampMelbourne uses Mailman and WordPress, plus the BuddyPress plugin for WordPress.
So now you have your home on the Internet, encourage people to sign up to the announcement list. This will give you an idea of how many people want to come.
I’ll be honest with you. If this is the first unconference you’ve run, you’ll probably do most of the work yourself. I’d love for you to prove me wrong, and perhaps the conference model is now well enough understood that others will jump at the chance to help, but be prepared to run the show by yourself at first. But hang in there – it is feasible, I’m living proof and still doing it, so it must be worthwhile!
Find a Venue
You’ll still need to make some assumptions about turnout, so when looking for a venue, find a place that can easily scale from 10 to 50 participants. Good places to approach include:
- Camps (the types you went to for school or summer camps). These are particularly suitable as they solve the accommodation issue and typically have a lot of space. Plan to go out of school holiday season.
- Offices. Find a company that shares the interest of the unconference’s topic and see if it’s willing to open its doors for a weekend. It’s unlikely that it will let you stay overnight, as it probably will be without contents and liability insurance, as well as needing staff to be available out of hours. Perhaps try your own boss – an insider has a much better chance of making this happen.
- Community and city halls. Most local councils will have a list of halls that you can book through them that are available at competitive prices. You might even be able to access them for free if it’s for a community, not-for-profit event.
If your venue lacks overnight accommodation for participants, consider finding a nearby caravan park or youth hostel that you can book en masse. This will keep participants together for the duration of the event and allow discussions to continue late into the night.
Make sure that whichever venue you select offers public liability insurance, so there’s one less important item to worry about.
Once you have your general topic, web presence, mailing lists, venue, and a rough idea of attendance, you can work out how much this event is going to cost. Remember you also have to feed the masses, and the type of catering you choose will affect the cost. You can easily assume that a two-day event with four meals (lunch, dinner, breakfast, and lunch again) will cost US$50 per head to cater for.
Take this magic total cost and divide it by about $400. This figure is how many sponsors you need.
Why $400? If you can entice one company to sponsor the whole deal, that would be great, but it could also bias the conference towards the sponsor’s stipulations. Ask for too little and you’ll need to find dozens of sponsors.
In my experience, you’ll often find enough sponsors willing to provide $100 to $500, and 10 of those have covered our costs.
Of course you still have to make it worthwhile to the sponsor. Most will happily hand over their cash and ask for little in return; they see the value of supporting the community, but it’s only fair that they receive a reward in return for their support.
Design some sponsorship plans with value increasing in line with cost. For example:
- your logo on our web site
- your logo on our web site
- ability to distribute goodies at the event
- named and thanked at the event
- your logo on our web site
- ability to distribute goodies at the event
- named and thanked at the event
- ability to put up posters/placards/poster-boards promoting your organization
It’s important to be specific, to avoid confusion or resentment later on. Keep the sponsors happy, and they’ll be back next time.
Before the Event
What’s missing? What do you need to make this event successful? You have your venue, participants, sponsors, and food sorted.
If you’re running a technical unconference, you’ll probably want to make sure you have Internet access.
There are again many options, the easiest of which is a venue that comes with a broadband connection. Remember to find out if they have a wireless network though; you might need to bring your own equipment otherwise.
If there’s no Internet access on site, you can talk to your local ISP to see if they’d be willing to sponsor the event by providing connectivity for the weekend. The cost of connecting, supplying for two days, and disconnecting is likely to run to about $300, but give them the same privileges as a top value sponsorship.
By the way, being sans Internet access is fine; your event might actually work better without it, but make sure participants are aware of this so that any presentations that rely on access can be updated to work offline.
Desks, Chairs, Screens, Projectors
Participants will want to sit down at a desk for their laptops or notebooks. Presenters will probably need a form of projector, and a blank wall to project onto. Does the venue have sufficient facilities, or will you need to bring your own?
Projectors can quite readily be sought from participants – just send out a request a few weeks before the event and ask for volunteers – and white walls or sheets can make great impromptu projection surfaces. Just make sure you know where the sun shines and project onto shaded areas so that participants can see the screen!
Lanyards, pens, sticky notes
People will need name badges and pens to write their names on those badges. Fat markers are ideal so that the name is legible from more than 10cm away. Masking tape, sticky address labels, or lanyards are all appropriate as name badges.
TIP: Many attendees will have attended conferences before and so have a handful of lanyards or badges at home. Send an email to the announce list asking people to bring spare lanyards and badge holders with them for recycling. There’s no need to spend money on them then!
The scheduling session – planning who talks when – is best done on sticky notes.
So you have a list of interested people on the announce list already, but remember to make contact with all the original lists to remind the members about the event. Once the event has a venue and date, people will take it more seriously and you’ll probably receive some more sign-ups.
How to take registrations is up to you, but the simplest method is via a wiki page on the Internet that asks people to add their name to the end of a list (and to remove their names if they change their minds). Delegates are then taken from top to bottom to create the list of participants, until the maximum venue capacity is reached.
Hang on a minute! I thought unconferences were free?
Well, yes, normally. There are two reasons you’ll want to have some form of payment facility though. You’ve probably heard the old adage that people will place greater value in an event that costs $10 than one that is free. You can use that to your advantage.
What I learned early on is that many registered people leave their name on the list, even if they’re unable to attend. It’s too much hassle to go back and remove a name. They might only decide a couple of days prior that they won’t go because they’ve had a hard week.
To alleviate this problem I started charging for registrations, with a promise of a full refund on arrival.
The second reason you might want to charge is to cover costs in the event you’re unable to secure sufficient sponsorship. If you do take this route, as we did for the last event, you can promise to return all of the registration fee, less a proportionate amount of funds required to break even.
Wow – it’s all happening. You’ve stuck by your belief that this is achievable and people are actually turning up! It’s quite a feeling, I’ll tell you.
In keeping with the unorganization of the event, have a pile of name badges or lanyards and a fat marker. As people arrive they can fill out a card, place it in the holder, and attach the lanyard. No need for you to do that!
They then move onto the pile of sticky notes, and enter their name and talk title. There’s another job saved!
During the Event
Even if you organized this unconference by yourself there’s no need for you to run the show alone. Ask for helpers during registration. Helpers can assist by ensuring schedules run to time and introducing presenters.
However much you try to keep talks on schedule, they will run over. Inexperienced presenters will need more time than they imagine, discussions will draw the presentation out, and socializing during breaks will slow the proceedings down.
Unlike traditional conferences, don’t worry too much about this slippage; instead, encourage the interaction. Implement a flexible schedule (I have the schedule online and update it as delays occur) and allow for an extra 30 or 60 minutes at the end of each day.
This is where following the conference model works well. Gather all participants together in the largest presentation area and give a short closing speech.
Thank all the participants and helpers, and of course the sponsors. If you have prizes to give away, this is the time to do it. Perhaps you can have a “best presentation” award. I also ask for all lanyards to be returned and have a random name badge pulled to win a prize; this is a great way to stock up on your badge holders for the next event!
Invite people to sign up to the announcement and discussion lists. Give participants a rough idea of when the next event will take place – next year, 6 months – and ask for volunteers to help with organization.
More importantly, this is the time when you ask everyone to pitch in and help pack up. There are cables to be rolled, tables to be placed back in their original location, the kitchen area to clean, projectors to be packed away, and more. Participation keeps going long after you step down.
After the Event
Once you’re all cleared up and ready to leave, you’ll have a few remaining pieces of administrivia to perform. Firstly, you and any other unorganisers should already have planned to come together to discuss the event and how it went. This should be a relaxing debriefing session to allow the adrenaline to subside, while being soon enough after the event that you still have thoughts fresh in your mind.
You’ll also want to create thank-you letters or certificates of appreciation for all of your supporters and sponsors. Include a separate letter detailing the events at the unconference, its successes and key outcomes, and the date of the next event if known. While I dislike printing unnecessarily, a well-presented, dead-tree certificate is a nice touch: it feels more real, and the sponsor might even put it on display, creating a little extra advertising for you and making it more likely that they’ll support you again next time.
It goes without saying that you should send an email to the unconference discussion list thanking everyone for making the event so successful, asking presenters to make their presentation available online (with slideshare, for example), and discussing the next event. It’s also a great time to repeat your request for volunteer organizers for the next event.
The Next Event
Yes, there will be one. Despite the hard work required to make this one happen, the moments of despair when you considered giving up, the fact you hardly listened to any talks because you were making sure everything was still going to plan, and the realization after the event that unorganization still is about organization, the urge, or pressure from participants, to run another event will be irresistible.
My advice – unless this event was such a roaring success that you found a dozen people willing to help with the next – wait a year. This will give you enough time to be proud of what you achieved, have a break, think about the next event, plan for the next event, find sponsors and a venue, and send the word out again. I find I’m unable to even start thinking about another unconference for at least three months.
Coping in the Face of Uncertainty
I’ve mentioned this already, and I’ll mention it again. You will feel uncertain at times. You’ll consider sticking your head under the pillow and pretending you hadn’t started all of this. Here are some suggestions on how to cope with these momentsâ€“ (some are a reflexive form of blackmail, which tend to work well for me):
- Announce the event early and spread the word; it’s hard to back down when 50 people want to go.
- Find a venue and pay the deposit out of your own pocket; now you need a way to repay yourself.
- Start an announcement mailing list or a blog for the event, post frequent updates, and never check the number of subscribers; this will encourage you to keep momentum.
- Open registrations as soon as you have a venue and take a $10 deposit for a spot; you now have an obligation to follow through.
If you’ve read this and are still considering running your own unconference, I wish you all the very best. It’s quite possibly the most noticeably rewarding community activity you’ll take part in, and I’d be unsurprised if you’re still organizing sequels in years to come.
BarCamps in Melbourne are now a twice-yearly occurrence, and the reason I have continued to run them is because I receive a huge buzz from people’s energy during the event, and the groups and activities that follow on from them. Unconferences are far from being an isolated event and BarCampMelbourne has spawned a number of smaller interest groups that continue to this day.
If I might provide one last piece of advice, it is to accept help when it’s offered, and if you’re in luck you’ll find gems. BarCampMelbourne is lucky enough to have a person on the organizing team who’s process-oriented and meticulous about detail, and no matter how often we remind her it’s an unconference, she’s unable to stop organizing.
I’ve only used a selection of the services referred to in this article, so I’m unable to personally recommend all of them. When choosing providers of these services, look into data ownership and licensing terms, and make sure you’re comfortable using those services.
Ben Dechrai was born in Germany, grew up in the UK, lives in Melbourne, and brews his own beer. A software developer and open source community liaison by day, Ben is Treasurer of the Open Source Developers' Club and convener of the Melbourne PHP Users Group and BarCampMelbourne. He frequently speaks at Australian and international conferences and events on a broad range of topics. He also drinks a lot of coffee.