Conference booth
I can hardly wait for your free lanyard.
My, how things have changed. I attended my first education conference in 2004 as a sales representative with a big publishing company. It was my job to cajole teachers to stop at our booth (or lure them in with a big bowl of chocolate bars), and give them a 5 minute elevator pitch on some groundbreaking yadayadayada, then invite them to enter a draw for which they’d only be selected winner if deemed influential enough.

These, my friends, were the days before random winner generators, online entries, and the power of quiet influencers with more followers than the Pied Piper using social tools to share their expertise. Biggest school in Ontario? Pssssssshhhhh. How about the elementary teacher from Armpit, SK, who has built a digital program for her students that gives them reach for their ideas that they’ll benefit from for years to come, and tweets her experience to 5000 like-minded followers? I’d rather learn about the platform that makes that notion of global collaboration possible for kids, as opposed to who’s bought (and wasted the most money on) the biggest gargantua of a conference booth (check out the eco footprint too, yo).

But at SXSWedu, there was no vendor showcase. Companies had to be sneaky and infuse their sessions with clever product pitches, sessionbomb by planting product-focused operatives during question time, or be not so sneaky and incur the deserved wrath (Hi, I’m a #conferencehashtag. People use me.) Teachers are getting much better about standing up to the disruption of their learning. They pay out of pocket to come to these things. It’s not cheap. Don’t invite them to a session about innovations in critical thinking applications and pitch your app.
Amway called. They want their strategy back. Ugh.

I talked to several teachers during and after the conference, including Jac de Haan. Jac coined the phrase “sessionbombing”, so I was excited to hear his opinions and insights. Jac is a grade 5/6 teacher who specializes in digital identity, the intersection of technology and learning, digital ethics, and gamification. He’s a smart cookie. And he gave me the goods on how he views the fine balance of networking and product pushing in the context of a learning event. Jac was subjected to sessions that were “bombed” by inconspicuous company reps, and panels that were co-opted by overzealous vendors. He spoke out about it here. He was also able to make some meaningful connections with vendors that took the time to connect with him on Twitter ahead of the conference – vendors that genuinely sought his feedback as opposed to just collecting his name. Jac also spoke about SXSWedu’s sophisticated approach to facilitating conversations and feedback from the panel picker to the ability to talk outside of the scheduled boundaries (like providing wifi everywhere). He confirmed my
conference bag
Respect my pants.
suspicions that as a progressive learning professional, the vendor booth model is not engaging and that “nobody cares about the crap in the bags.” 🙂

Like any conference in any other industry, education vendors need to step up their efforts, and step away from interrruptions that turn their customers off. At some conferences, we’re seeing an increase of events and parties, which take the place of dry and forced conversations on the convention floor. Delegates can either choose to show up, enjoy a glass of wine in exchange for the elevator pitch, or venture elsewhere for their professional networking. There are a lot of ways to build buzz months before the event, and truly make it the talk of the conference – connecting teachers to teachers, teachers to new initiatives, companies, companies to funders etc. We’ll explore additional interesting options in a near-future post, but here are some big ideas:

1. Create an Experience
At ISTE 2011, several companies including Edutopia and Collaborize Classroom putbanana stand their collective resources together and hosted an Ed Tech Karaoke Tweet Up. It was fun. It was memorable. It connected customers and companies in an informal atmosphere. Freshbooks (mentioned here a lot, because Saul is Yoda) frequently creates amazing experiences for their customers- including themed BBQ’s complete with mechanical rodeo animals, airport pickup, and yes, a Banana Stand. Sure, it takes creativity, budget, and lead time in social media to make these stunts happen. But I’m still talking about it.

2. Give Stuff that People Want
We don’t really need more pens. We won’t feature your branded coaster on our coffee table. Your cheap bag that leeches black ink onto my trousers is going right in the garbage. And you know what happens to the glossy brochure you spent $5K on, right? Swag wants to be landfill free. Check out Rightsleeve for great ideas beyond the ordinary. If you know your market, you’ll know what tools and treats will make their lives easier. Using Freshbooks as an example yet again – they created a hangover kit that may have saved a morning meeting or three. Give, give generously, but give stuff that people actually want.

3. Respect Your Customers’ Time
Got a new product to launch? Create an engaging experience for the debut, and be very transparent about what attendees can expect by attending. When they show up, they are giving you their time. Give away beta access, and make the experience sharable. Use social media to build fledgling introductions, and then deliver meetings of informational value when you connect in the flesh. Give your customers time to tell you what they think – good and bad. As mentioned previously, conference attendees frequently pay through the nose to attend learning events. They sleep 4 to a hotel room. Some even bring their own snacks. Do not trick them into sitting through your pitch. Come. On!

4. Be Fun
If I have to tell you what this means, then you might want to expand your event marketing department.

There’s room for everyone at a conference. We need sponsors to foot the bill, and vendors to subsidize registration costs. We need engaged delegates to build buzz and show up in eager droves. We need products that solve our problems. Why shouldn’t we all be in the same room? We’re all in the innovation business, aren’t we?  We’re a community. But if we’re a community, then some of the “big boys” need to take a hard look at their citizenship and realize that their marketing efforts are seen as interference as opposed to building connections for the betterment of all.

Have you seen a conference stunt that either made you jump for joy or cringe in horrorish dread? Comments below, yo!