Another BIG event going on this week in the M365 world: M365 Conference 2023 in Las Vegas. It’s a 3rd party conference, though heavily invested and involved with by Microsoft by way of speakers, keynotes, sponsorship and other content. Lots of big announcements.
But not everyone can attend.
Not everyone can get there. Not everyone *wants to* attend or go to Vegas. And with a looming recession and/or economic outlook for many organizations, it might not be a great time to send folks to out of state costly conferences.
Now, I’m not trying to poo-poo these big events. They’ve got a ton of value. I speak at some of them. They’re a fantastic opportunity to step away from your day-to-day responsibilities (if you can…) meet with community (topic-wise, not geographic community) folks, spend time chatting, building broader networks, or meet and connect with Microsoft and vendor contacts. The coverage that larger events offer is also extremely important in that you can see so many sessions, workshops, vendors, and more in one spot. In addition to this week’s event, there are events like 365 EduCon that offer options in more cities throughout the year.
What I am saying is that local – usually community-run – events have a place, an important one – for many folks.
Community events like our M365TwinCities event (working on a Fall date…), the upcoming MN M365 User Group Spring Workshop, or even frequent M365TC #CoffeeCrew events fill important gaps in our communities. In upcoming weeks here in Minnesota we’ll be reviewing this week’s big announcements from Microsoft, offering more in depth coverage with workshop sessions, or just having a coffee and connecting with others. Similar groups will be meeting all over the US and the world doing the same thing.
SO. Get familiar with your local community. Join it. Take part in it. Contribute to it with your time and experience. And if there’s not a community you’re looking for – consider building one!
The posts I’m writing about community events are my opinions. Just one opinion of many that are out there. Heck, it’s just one opinion on my team – ask Sarah or Tamara what they think. These are not “Do it this way or you’re wrong” posts. I’m attempting to give my perspective for folks to hopefully glean something useful from when considering, or running, your own events. You should also seek other opinions. 🙂
Understand your own context… your community. When considering hosting an event, do your best to understand the context you’re working in. That context is going to include things like the communities you’re a part of, the technology you’re working with, the organizations that are a part of the area you’re in, and the organizational cultures you’re working with as well.
I’m a consultant that’s worked with consulting firms of all sizes and as an independent. Before that I worked for a large retail organization where I had my first exposure to SharePoint. I’ve been working with SharePoint, Lists, M365, Teams, the Power Platform, and a lot of the rest of the Microsoft tools since then – almost 20 yrs. I’ve been a Microsoft MVP since 2009. I’ve been speaking at and organizing user groups and community events throughout that time.
I’m not trying to toot my own horn. I merely want to establish that I’ve got some background in this stuff.
I’m in the Twin Cities – Minneapolis, St. Paul – Minnesota. Our metro area is home to a large and healthy Fortune 500 community of organizations in addition to the largest private company in the US. There’s also a significant representation of government organizations from the state, county, and city levels. All of these public, private, and governmental organizations use the Microsoft suite.
The Twin Cities is also home to a number of user-driven groups around technology. User groups, meetups, consulting company-driven groups, Microsoft-driven events, and community events like our M365TC group. Lots to choose from and enough where we’ve got a track record that attendees can count on and are comfortable attending.
Our Event – M365 Twin Cities
Our event has been an all-day Saturday event – in the style of SharePoint Saturday – now Community Days – events. We generally run two events per year – in the Spring and Fall. Part of our context in Minnesota is weather – so as mentioned in the Pick a Date post – we don’t (usually) mess with Winter scheduling or compete with Summer scheduling. Winter does still like to mess with us – even with Spring and Fall events… Our event usually draws 300-400 attendees – which is larger than most SPS-like events.
We’ve been able to keep it free to attendees so far with company sponsorships covering event costs.
You can see more details about the most recent event in our recap post.
All in all, it’s a relatively fantastic environment – and context – to run successful events in. We’ve got an eager and interested audience, a fair number of folks willing and interested in speaking, and a combination of local and national companies willing to invest in events as sponsors.
Why am I posting about community events?
I love helping folks skill up on technologies, solutions, productivity, and more. Community events are a great (and usually free!) way for folks to learn and grow.
I’ve been part of a group running events for many years and want to help others do the same.
You don’t have to be a long-time participant in a technical community. In fact, we readily welcome and encourage new folks to get involved. It does, however, help if you have spent some time in the community – meeting people, discovering groups, and getting a feel for what works and what doesn’t in your area. That’s where I recommend starting.
Do you have an audience? Can you find it? Can you build it?
Is there an existing group or event you can spin off from? Maybe a slightly different topic or audience where a new event may expand or complement the existing group or event? Most recently we’ve seen Power Platform groups spinning up in areas with thriving M365 groups as one example.
Do you have folks willing to invest time and energy in running an event? Can you find them?
Do you have local companies willing to invest $ in supporting events?
Is there an event you’ve attended that you might model your event/group on? Speak with the event organizer and see if they’d be willing to answer questions, etc. to get you started.
You don’t have to start big. Find a group of peers and start a user group that meets on a monthly basis. There are lots of variations and paths to building communities, groups, and events.
Find them. Join them. Create them. Build them.
I’ve listed ours and others below. These are just a sampling.
You’ve got a team, or maybe just a few folks to get started. Now it’s time to pick a topic for your event. You can’t talk about *everything*. Well, you could, but it would be a lot harder to attract attendees, speakers, and sponsors without defining a scope.
For me, a “topic” is both a subject and audience. The combination of these will give shape to your event for attendees, expectations to folks submitting sessions, and a scope for potential sponsors that want to understand what products and services your audience will be interested in.
Picking a topic shouldn’t be too hard for your team. In many cases, it’s the unifying subject that brings you together.
What subject matter are you passionate about? SharePoint, Dynamics365, Microsoft Teams, Power Platform, ServiceNow, Workday, or something like a specific integration between two products – niche subjects are certainly welcome if there’s an audience. etc.
What new topics do you want to get the word out about? Cloud-based products change so fast that it’s challenging for folks to keep up. The flip side to that might be maintaining a community for legacy products that still have customers that need attention (on-premises products potentially a few versions back…)
What specific pain point do you want to address? Is there a particular product + audience combination you want to target? For example: Law Offices using Microsoft Teams or M365
What underserved audience needs addressing? e.g. UX best practices across the M365 platform… You don’t have to start a community or event that has events on a regular basis. Events could be as needed or develop into regularly scheduled once the community grows to sufficient size.
Is it some or all of the above?
A topic your team is interested in should be a minimum for you and your team. The event and the effort lose some of its energy if it’s not something your team is excited about or invested in.
How broad or narrow do you want your scope to be? All of M365, or a specific product or group of products? All of the Power Platform, or just certain ones? All of Azure (ouch) or something more manageable?
Do you want to focus on one or more roles related to the topic, or open to any? We started with traditional roles like IT Pros, Devs, and Users… but roles have expanded and evolved. Each product might have its own set of roles as well. Project managers, site administrators, channel administrators, and so many more.
What’s your vision?
Topic and audience is a good place to start defining your vision for the event. Once you have those narrowed down, you can start to get into practical decisions about how the event will run, be scheduled, be hosted and paid for, etc. We’ll cover more about the vision in future posts.
Your topic and scope will also contribute to your event name. If you’ve got something in mind, great! If you don’t, you could default to using a name/brand consistent in the community like the “Community Days” brand. Just make sure it’s a brand and name that’s available for use, that you follow rules that may come with the name, etc. There’s a lot of value in using a known name in that it can come with built-in expectations for attendees, speakers, and sponsors. We can talk about the specific benefits of Community Days in another post.
Gaps and Overlaps
One other thing to keep in mind when considering your topic, is what groups, topics, and events already exist in your market? Do you want to compete with other events and groups? Do you want to offer complementary content or events? Do you want to fill a gap or offer something a little different to differentiate from existing groups? Knowing your market will help you find a place in it to be successful without negatively affecting other groups.
It’s been quite a while since I thought about this topic from scratch.
For many of us in the Microsoft M365 and SharePoint space, we started doing events around the SharePoint product. Our event started in 2008 as a “SharePoint Camp” for IT Pros, Developers, and users. It aligned with the “SharePoint Saturday” brand shortly after and then evolved over the years as SharePoint grew with content expanding to include technologies and products that integrated with SharePoint as well. Now, in its current form we’ve switched from “SharePoint” to “M365” to accommodate how the platform has evolved and products are marketed. The roles have changed a bit as well, adding executives, managers, decision makers, citizen developers and more.
What’s your topic going to be? Reach out to other local event producers and organizers or regional leaders if you want help in figuring out your event topic!
As event producers, we can use our events to grow the community in many ways. The most obvious is bringing news, updates, and training to attendees. But we can also use these event opportunities to elevate speakers – of all levels.
Be deliberate and open to adding new speakers to your event roster. It’s easy to select known speakers – folks with a track record of good presentations that score well with attendee feedback. At the end of the day, these veterans usually offer timely topics with practical experience and polished presentation skills.
But how did they get that way? Someone let them present for the first time. Why not keep the cycle going and give folks a chance when you can. Start with earmarking a few session slots per event for new speakers – either folks new to your event or folks new to speaking. It’s often easiest to choose folks that are local to your event as you’ll have more opportunity to work with them if they want help.
New folks might need some nudging, a bit more attention and energy than veterans. First, we’ve got to identify folks. Some of them will be upfront with a willingness to present when they make a point of chatting with organizers during the event. Others might mention a good case study or topic they’ve dug into that we as organizers know would make a great topic. So, we have to find these folks, identify them, and encourage them to consider submitting sessions. Speak up. They need to know. They need the feedback.
If you can, offer to mentor new folks if they’d like input on topics, writing abstracts and titles, building presentations, doing demos, and public speaking. Just sitting down to chat about the whole process might nudge them through that impostor syndrome many of us feel and make them feel less anxious about submitting topic ideas.
Mentors might come from your leadership team, or other speakers. When you’re connecting with folks that have presented, check in to see if they’d be interested in helping new folks. Mentoring might be a quick call, something they can do over coffee, or a series of meetings depending on what works for them. It’s a great networking opportunity for everyone involved as well.
I’m not going to explain the benefits of diversity in your speaker lists – there’s tons of content about that. There’s a lot of value for our audiences in hearing different perspectives from speakers. So, take a look at how you’re doing, keep an eye out for folks that might offer another perspective.
Note: It helps to have a leadership team that also has a range of perspectives.
I won’t go as far as recommending you come up with a quota, but as you’re going through your speaker/session selection process, take a look at the speaker list before you lock things in and consider tweaking where needed. If you don’t find the balance you’d like to see, leave some slots open and maybe request changes or new submissions from folks. Your attendees will notice and appreciate a spectrum of voices.
As a group we’ve been talking about this one for a while. We haven’t done anything like a workshop yet – though I’d love to figure out how to make that work. Challenges here are things like speakers generally are already busy, they’re already giving their time up to attend and present, and it would be hard to find a time to get a bunch of them together. However, it would be nice to offer this type of thing as a service to speakers that are interested. So, something to consider.
In our case, we’re lucky enough to have a Power Point MVP – Sandra Johnson – locally here in the Twin Cities. She’s also part of a group called the Presentation Guild that looks like it has a ton of useful materials for speakers.
Even the most polished and experienced presenters could probably do with a review of their materials and suggestions how to make them better. I know from experience that we rarely have the opportunity to get feedback from peers while at events. Also, aside from a general workshop I know a few individuals reached out directly to Sandra though and they’ve been super excited about how that coaching/experience worked for them.
For some folks, public speaking is a hurdle. They might have some good ideas for a topic or a case study but might not have experience or be comfortable speaking in front of a crowd – even a small one. For this, there are a few options.
Find someone to co-present with – preferably a seasoned speaker – they can balance a session with. It’s a great opportunity to get your feet wet without putting all the pressure on your own shoulders. Many event organizers should be able to recommend folks that would be interested in working with new folks. It’s often an opportunity for both parties to learn something.
Another option that’s been available for quite a while, is an organization called Toastmasters. It’s kind of like a support group for speakers (my description). But a great place to work on your speaking skills and comfort level while also doing some networking. Here in the Twin Cities, we had a technology-focused group as well called Tech Masters though I’m not sure if they’re currently active – possibly another COVID organizational casualty.
One last thing to consider is keeping up with updates in the tools themselves – from Power Point Designer to Microsoft’s new Copilot functionality to speaker insights available through Microsoft Teams. There’s a growing opportunity within the tools we use for speaker upskilling and updating how we each present our content. This might also be an area where we could leverage experts like Sandra who know those tools well.
No, I’m not talking about choosing a person to attend an event with – though I suppose that perspective could also apply… Now I’m wondering if anyone’s ever met a significant other at a technical community event. I digress.
I’m talking about choosing the date you’re going to host an event. It sounds easy, doesn’t it? Looking at checklists and documents about how to spin up events makes picking a date look easy. It’s a simple task, a single item on that task list. Unfortunately, it’s rarely as simple as you’d hope.
Note: I’m talking primarily about in-person events. Some points here will still apply to hybrid and online/virtual events as well, but the main focus is in-person events.
Choosing a date can be simple. If you limit external factors as much as possible, you can keep things as simple as that. Pick the date. Put it on the calendar. What’s next?
It’s also easy to fall into “analysis paralysis” – trying to consider all the options to find the “perfect” date. Well, there isn’t one. Get over that now. As with many of the choices you’ll be making along the event planning path, you won’t be able to please everyone. But you can do your best to balance the factors you control.
With that, let’s look at some of the factors, impacts, and variables to consider when choosing a date for your event.
Make sure you’re planning far enough out for you to get all your tasks done without too much stress. Speakers need time to submit and create presentations. You’ll need time to pick speakers and sessions. You’ll need time to get sponsors. Sponsors need time to figure out staffing, travel, swag and more. Swag needs time to coordinate and get ordered. There’s a lot to do. Make sure you leave your team enough time to do it well.
Day, or Days, of the Week
When we were doing “SharePoint Saturdays”, the day of the week was a given. Years later that’s still our go-to day, but there are definitely reasons to look at other options as well – especially with the push for work/life balance not cutting into personal time (weekends). Most business and technical conferences are during the week. Now, there are plenty of community groups hosting events during the work week. It’s a legitimate option to consider. I suspect that the audiences for weekends and audiences for weekdays might be slightly different as well. Something to consider.
Along similar lines, are you going to run a single-day, or multi-day event? While I’ve primarily run single-day events, I’m confident that multi-day events add a whole new batch of variables and multipliers…
I’m not saying that the planning team is top priority over attendees, speakers, and sponsors – but it’s definitely got to be a consideration. These are the folks that put in all the work, want to be at the event, and motivated to make it successful. So, you want a date where most, if not all, can be there. This is one of the few places where having a larger team can work against you a bit. The larger the planning and organizing team, the more schedules you have to juggle.
Plenty of factors to consider when selecting a venue. Maybe we’ll tackle that in another post. Venue availability is one you need to consider when choosing a date. We usually come up with a few date options, then start having a conversation with the venue contact to see which dates work, which don’t, and which might have other things to consider… like other events, construction projects at the venue, staffing availability, etc. Keep them in the loop as you progress towards a date.
Some venues, like technical and community colleges, may work for weekend events but not weekday events.
Keep an eye out for other community events on the calendar. Events like yours (Community Days, etc.) as well as first party (Microsoft Build, Ignite, etc.) and third party (365 EduCon, M365 Conference, etc.) events will draw attendees, speakers, and sponsors to their events and directly impact your event. You might want to give some events even more space on the calendar if it has travel impacts as well. Regular travelers like speakers and sponsors need a break too.
Do you have other similar groups that host events locally? Coordination between groups can go a number of ways. You might want to put buffer time between similar events and plan connections with others. For example, it might be convenient to have your full-day event the same week as a monthly user group meeting as it may allow out of town speakers or sponsors to visit both.
Local and Regional Events
Do you have other groups in your area that have overlap with your topic area or audience? Are there other things happening in your area that might impact attendance?
In Minnesota we have things like the State Fair that would definitely impact our event if we overlapped with them. Do a quick check to see if there are general happenings you don’t usually consider that overlap with potential dates. Think outside the box. Do some searches. Lean on your planning team with different backgrounds. One year we accidentally overlapped with the University of Minnesota’s Homecoming game. Whoops.
Holidays and National Events
Avoiding traditional national holidays seems pretty obvious, but also consider other national or religious holidays and events. For example, stay away from Super Bowl weekend. Once again, leverage the diversity of your planning team and audience to consider holidays or other impacts outside of your personal experiences.
The broader the scope you consider, the more impacts you’ll find so balance what impacts your event and which variables you might need to decide to lessen in your calculations.
Yep, you need to consider your audience. 🙂 This might not be high on your list when first starting an event because you’re just starting to figure them out and will be excited for whoever you can get to attend. But as you have more events over time, you will come to know your target audience a bit and understand how their needs impact your event planning. You’ll likely find some will only attend on weekends or weekdays. You might have different sub-audiences to consider. In our case we have fairly distinct groups/roles that attend, and they each have their own preferences. If you switch days of the week, you might find you lose some regulars, but gain a whole new crowd of folks.
Obviously, you can’t plan for specific weather. I live in Minnesota. Winters can be harsh and unpredictable often making folks less interested in leaving home or traveling if weather is threatening. Summers are so valued that folks won’t give up their free time – so planning events during the summer definitely impacts attendance. With all this in mind, we tend to schedule our events during the “shoulder seasons” in Spring and Fall.
Speakers and Sponsors
Many of the variables listed above may also impact your selection and availability of speakers and sponsors. Religious holidays may make them unavailable. Larger conferences may pull both speakers and sponsors. You might need to allow for travel between your event and other events.
Whew. Seems like a lot, doesn’t it? Don’t let it scare you. Figure out what works for you, which considerations have larger or smaller influence on your event, and make the call. The world is too big and busy for you to not have any conflicts. Find your balance and get the event on the calendar so you can get the content out there that your audience needs.
Once you’ve chosen a date, and if you qualify for Community Days, get your event added to the public calendar so others can use it when considering their planning. It’s also important and useful to get your event registered there for lots of other reasons (yet another post…).
Am I missing anything you can think of? Let me know.
Technically, sure, you can do it. But don’t. It’s not worth the pain, frustration, stress, and anxiety.
If you’ve got a desire to produce an educational event for a community, there are a lot of details to pull together to be successful and managing those tasks requires a lot of time and energy. So, before you dig into that task list, build your team.
Building a team not only distributes the workload, but has the potential to bring diversity of thoughts, perspectives, and ideas – all contributors to more successful outcomes.
Our current organizing team has six members, though we’ve had as many as eight people involved. There are countless ways to spread out responsibilities. You’ll likely find that assignments can align with team members’ skills, though roles may also evolve over time. Each person brings their own skills, experience, and strengths. Leverage what you can, grow the skills you don’t have, and lean on other folks in your community or the broader community when you can or need to (see info below about MGCI).
The following is an example of how an event team could delegate tasks and roles. It’s just an example of how our team does it, not necessarily a model for everyone.
We have a person that manages sponsorships – They determine sponsor levels, assemble documentation and materials, communicate with sponsors running up to the event, connect with sponsors the day of the event, and following up with them after the event.
We have a person that manages speakers – They organize the call for speakers, coordinate and moderate the speaker selection process (a group of as many of our organizing group as we can get together), manage communication with speakers, coordinate speaker gifts, post session details and assemble the agenda, pull together and distribute speaker and session feedback, and more.
We have a person that coordinates food for the event, pulls together a speaker dinner, and orders all of our swag. Preparing the food requires talking with potential vendors, pricing out options, coordinating delivery, and more all to keep our attendees fed. The speaker dinner requires coordinating the location, menu, invites and RSVPs. Event swag varies event to event but involves selecting items, managing timelines, and more. Note: Sounds like a lot of for one person, and it is. These could easily be delegated to three separate folks, but we’ve been lucky to have this person around for years and she’s got it all figured out.
We have a person that does all the money and legal stuff. It’s a short description, but pretty specific and requires its own experience.
We have someone that coordinates our venue – Finding the venue when we need to move, communicates with the venue host, handles contracts, maps and materials for the event and signage for attendees to get around, and more. Details here include what rooms, resources, and staff are needed and available for the event. They typically coordinate set up and tear down, putting up a giant session “wall” (agenda for the day by room), communications for the team during the event, and AV for keynotes, opening, and closing sessions.
We have a volunteer coordinator that figures out what we’ll need help with, comes up with a plan, and organizes a call for volunteers prior to the event. During the event she wrangles all the volunteers, sets up and staffs the check in desk for attendees.
Don’t let the number of words or the length of the descriptions above fool you either. This doesn’t capture everything we end up doing. We all have our hands full. Our team is pretty flexible, so there are often responsibilities that jump from one person to another as time and availability dictate. There are all sorts of variations out there on how to run an event, where to invest your time, and more. This is just one example.
The main point is, there’s a lot of work to do and having a team in place helps spread the work around without (hopefully) overwhelming any one person. You have to divide to conquer. Build a great team.
In the Microsoft space, the Microsoft Global Community Initiative is working to make organizing Microsoft community events easier by providing tools and resources for leaders to put on successful events. Keep an eye on MGCI as this effort matures, grows, and more resources become available to help you be successful.
Note: I was recently named a Regional Leader for MGCI. What does that mean? Stay tuned… 🙂
No. “Direct action” buttons aren’t a new feature or button type. It’s just a term I’ve used in conversations and sessions talking about Power Apps and more often than not SharePoint lists or Microsoft Lists.
The default experiences users see with Lists or wizard-created apps in Power Apps are to act on a record or item as a whole (see image below). This by itself is fine as it accounts for plenty of use cases. However, there are also times where users want to take a specific action on a record. For example, in the case of managing requests, users may want to take ownership of a request, quickly assign a priority, or close a request. These can be accomplished with buttons build specifically for those use cases.
In the default experience, operating on items in a data source (List, or other) the “close request” activity requires both technical knowledge and business knowledge.
The technical knowledge they need looks something like: Find the item, open/edit the item, change the value for the specific field from one value to another, and close/save the item.
The business knowledge users need, at a minimum, is to change *which field* to *which value*.
You’d hope both of these activities would be intuitive, but in many cases they are not. In most cases the process and user experience can be improved – even a little bit. Enter “direct action” buttons.
What does a simple, typical example look like? How about this? In a work request list, setting a request priority with a button click:
Logically, the example image probably has its priorities messed up (please rescue the raccoon before mowing the grass), but it illustrates a user wanting to take specific changes to an individual item.
The above items are in a Power Apps gallery. So, the code – in the OnSelect formula for the button might look something like this:
Once you get started down this path, there are so many options for makers to fulfill business needs with these approaches.
Intake lists (a generic term for request lists of all types) often evolve over time. These lists might start simply where “closing” a request is literally changing a status field from “open” to “closed”. As these processes mature, closing a request might turn into something like:
Change a status field to “closed”
Store the name of the person that closed the request (in a field separate from the modifiedby field)
Capture the date/time the request was closed (in a field separate from the modified field)
Send a notification to someone about the ticket closing (send an email, post to a Teams channel, etc.)
While the requirements get more complicated, all of these tasks can still be dealt with using Power Apps formulas or other approaches.
Alternate – JSON
There are ways to create buttons and actions within the List interface using JSON to implement view and column formatting. This is, by some, billed as another “no-code” approach, though it is not in my opinion. It is, however, an approved approach within the platform.
The formula roughly translates to: If the item is already set to high priority, disable the button. If not, enable the button.
Refresh as needed
I haven’t looked into the details of the mechanics behind how screens and data sources work, but sometimes the screen updates right away after a Patch, other times it doesn’t. So, try the Patch and see if the screen and controls update the way you want. If they do, great! If the data doesn’t update quickly, you could add a Refresh to your button to force the data to refresh.
The “trick” here is that the refresh isn’t of the controls, but of the data source: Refresh(DataSource)
I’ve been trying to figure out why it’s taken me so long to get a post out. It’s not technically challenging. In fact, it’s quite simple from the Power Apps perspective. From an experienced maker or pro-dev perspective, creating buttons is second nature. Power Apps offers plenty of power and flexibility in this department.
I think I just wanted to give enough context for makers to understand that while the concept is simple, the potential and implications can be huge – both in the capabilities makers have and in the improved experience for users. For makers, using something like Patch is a next step after working with the default form and the Save/Cancel options that come with the default experiences offered by Lists and wizard-created Power Apps.
It’s not rocket science. But plenty of folks just haven’t gone here yet. After almost every session where I mention “direct action” buttons, people are super excited about the possibilities. When they figure it out – it opens up so many cool options. Just a small step of growing in the Power Platform.
Note: The Patch function does NOT bypass Microsoft (and SharePoint) Lists updating the Modified date and Modified By fields. These fields do get updated when the Patch function updates anything in the item/record.
Our first post-COVID M365 “Saturday” Twin Cities event was on January 21, 2023. Not our normal time of year, but we (the organizing committee, attendees, sponsors, and speakers) have been chomping at the bit to get back in-person so here we are. 🙂 Normally, we host our events twice a year – in the Spring and Fall. Our schedule is primarily dictated by living in the upper Midwest, where Winter can be harsh, and Summer is dedicated to being outside. No one wants to give up summer weekends. So that leaves us with the “shoulder seasons” where we have plenty of other variables to deal with, but we’ve historically had success with. However, we wanted to get back as soon as possible – so here we are. All things considered; I think the event went off well for all involved.
Coming back post-COVID for this event had its own new variables to work with. Specific to the pandemic, were people willing to come back to an in-person event? We knew there were some vocal and passionate folks that would but weren’t sure we’d get back to our normal volume on the first event back. We definitely weren’t as large as we’ve been, but still had successful numbers, I think.
I’m pretty sure there was also a bit of Zoom/Online meeting fatigue. People just want to be back in-person. Me included. That part probably helped us a bit.
Scheduling in the middle of a Minnesota Winter would throw some challenges at us. Weather could have a huge impact. Folks may not want to travel to the event from outside the metro. It can get *really* cold this time of year. Thankfully the day of, we lucked out with both moderate temperatures and no snow. But we likely lost a few sponsors, speakers, and attendees that didn’t plan to attend even with the chance of having to travel in adverse conditions.
For attendees, registering for the event and deciding at the last minute to attend or not isn’t a big deal (for them – it stinks for organizers). They can sign up but not come if the weather turned. For speakers, we figured we’d lean on local folks where we could, but not limit our selection, to local and regional speakers that would be less likely to need to cancel. Signing sponsors for the event seemed to take the biggest hit as we usually have a mix of local, regional, and national companies – even international from time to time. For this event most sponsors ended up being local companies with only 2 coming from out of state. We love *all* our sponsors, but it was unique to have such a local focus.
As we returned to hosting in-person events again, we find ourselves figuring out *how* to do it again. Here are the tools that we’ve used. Maybe it’ll help you if you’re starting an event or building a community.
Note: We’re definitely not a benchmark, but if any information here helps someone else run an event, then fantastic. 🙂 What do you use?
Sessionize has become the standard for managing the Call for Speakers (CFS), speaker submissions, the session approval process, and communication between event organizers and speakers. We also use it to schedule sessions, which we do as a part of the review and approval process.
Note: For our Winter 2023 event, we had the most submissions we’ve ever had. It took our team over 4 hours to sort through 130 sessions submitted by 59 speakers and walk away with a schedule for a one day event with 10 rooms and 4 speaking slots per room.
We’ve used Eventbrite for years. It may be time to revisit this tool as it’s changed quite a bit over the years, but it does still do the primary job of letting us set up an event with all the required details and allow folks to register for it. This gives us an attendee list, allows us to do a bit of information gathering during the registration process, and gives us a platform to provide (opt-in) email addresses for sponsors. We also use the registration list export to populate our master mailing list that we keep from event to event.
We do ask for a few additional bits of info during registration – Custom Questions:
Primary attendee “role” – Useful to us and for sponsors
Dietary restrictions – to get an idea of how many alternate meals to provide
Attendees opt-out for sponsor emails
Multiple ticket “types”
Something new we did this time around. Rather than keeping registration open through the event, we used to close the main registration a few days ahead of time to get printables and other things done. What we found was that closing registration can be confusing for folks finding the site prior to the event and after we’ve closed tickets… So, this year we added a second “ticket” (Eventbrite term) that opened at the same time we closed the main “ticket”. This approach allows us to go forward with sending the main attendee list to the printer to create badges while still having a normal registration process from the perspective of folks signing up. Then we print a smaller group of badges on our own the night before the event.
Attendee list for vendors
After the event, we use the filtered (by opt-out) attendee list to distribute to sponsors – providing name, company, and email.
Attendee list for printing badges
Eventbrite used to provide additional functionality for creating badges but has backed that out and now offers integration to partner products to do it. We opted to export our list to Excel and do a mail merge with Microsoft Word using Avery name tag templates (#5390). We send the file to Kinko’s where they print and cut the badges from card stock. This method is less expensive than printing to Avery labels but is a pain as we need to sort the badges ourselves. (Sorry volunteers, but thank you for sorting these)
We were initially interested in the Community Days site as it manages the main calendar for our community – which is great for scheduling and making folks aware of local/regional events. But the site itself has pretty good utility with one of the biggest benefits being integration with Sessionize. As sessions and speakers are approved and scheduled, the list of speakers, speaker info, session info, and schedule are all available on the event site almost instantaneously.
The Sessionize integration here is also key for speakers as it pulls directly from current Sessionize data – as the speakers update their biographic info and contact information, it’s available through our event page.
During event ramp-up, this will likely be our primary point of contact for folks looking for information on our event. Between events, we’ll likely still maintain a presence with a traditional website or page.
We maintain a domain and website for our team, event, and community. This is our primary “surface” when we’re in-between actively planning an event and have active Eventbrite and Community Days pages. Our current site is a manually created HTML/Bootstrap site – so there are definitely other ways of doing that. I don’t remember how we got here, but I think the decision had to do with having the control we wanted to integrate with other platforms. At the moment we’re using the approach of using Community Days page and integrations during event ramp-up and maintaining the manual site throughout the rest of the year.
Lots of options for building and hosting sites. We briefly considered WordPress as it would be super easy to maintain content on it. At the end of the day, it’s a “what’s your hammer” sort of decision. Use the tool that you’re comfortable with.
We also use our homepage as a connection to Constant Contact sign-up pages for the various groups we want to connect with: Speakers, sponsors, attendees, and Coffee Crew (networking events between the big events):
Finally, we also use the site to host historical content like sessions from previous events as well as any other items we need to make available that might not fit on the Community Days page. Most recently, we host our printable schedule file here.
The domain also provides us with a little more legitimacy when dealing with sponsors as well as creating distribution groups for ourselves. 🙂
While all of our attendees aren’t on social media, we still maintain accounts on these as we do have plenty of folks in the community that do connect with us here. We’ll hit these sites hard as we plan for and ramp up to our primary events to drive speaker submissions, sponsor sign-ups, and attendee registrations.
We also manage Coffee Crew (small networking events) events on our Facebook page, make them public, and share the link on all of our channels. We could probably use something like Meetup here but haven’t made the change yet.
Note: We’ve often considered a page on LinkedIn but haven’t made that move yet. We’re not sure if it will bring additional visibility or just be another site to maintain.
There are two main things we use Constant Contact for – maintaining a master list of attendees and providing a place for folks to add themselves to contact lists between events.
We have mailing lists for: Attendees, Speakers, Sponsors, and our Coffee Crew. These include signup forms for each, branded with our logo.
We try not to spam our attendee list as it’s the folks we’re trying to serve. We currently use these lists to ping the community as we’re planning events, have a “Save the Date” announcement, have opened registration, want to get feedback with a poll or something. When we’re actively working on an event, we’ll usually switch over to the Eventbrite email tool so we’re only hitting the folks that have registered.
We’ll also use the speaker and sponsor lists when we have dates announced and start our call for speakers and call for sponsors.
For years we used Guidebook. But when we decided to return and run another event post-COVID, we also decided to trim down a bit and be a bit more frugal with our sponsor dollars. So, we cut Guidebook and went to a more manual option that we’ll likely change or build on for future events.
Our current tool post-Guidebook is Microsoft Forms. We’ve created forms for attendee feedback for the event, session feedback, feedback from sponsors, and other smaller questions.
Budget – Excel
Yes, we have a budget. As we balance the dollars from sponsors, we figure out what we can afford while running our event. We use Excel to track this. The spreadsheet I have right now has reference columns from a previous event or two, has an estimate column, and an actual spend column. I have a second tab/page where I track paid sponsors revenue.
M365 – OneDrive / SharePoint / Microsoft Lists / Microsoft Teams (paid/free)
Yes, of course we’re using M365. Though, admittedly we need to clean up our tenant (who doesn’t). We’ve been using it for years and both the product capabilities and how we use it has evolved significantly.
Document libraries and OneDrive for managing content, our logo files, sponsor logo files, any other support docs like sponsor level info sheets, etc.
I’m currently managing our sponsor lists and process in a List and will be adding some automation and forms to streamline it when I’m able. Maybe something to blog about after we have it working smoothly.
We use Teams for our virtual meetings and ongoing persistent conversations threads.
(Update) Microsoft Community Tenant
Don’t forget to check out the Microsoft Community Tenant. It’s a free M365 offering for folks doing exactly what we’re doing, and you want to do – run community events. (Thank you Karuana for the reminder)
Now, go sign up for it, use it, then pull together some case study content for a session at your own conference. People love case studies.
That’s everything I can think of at the moment. If we come up with other tools, we’ll update or post follow-ups.
Let me know if this helps and/or if you have any questions!
With all the rest of the activity this week as we prepare for our “return to in-person” Winter event, I wanted to take a moment to thank Ben Branum from Creative Studio Productions for his time and creative energy putting together our new logo.
I think it turned out great. 🙂
Ben was great to work with, is an awesome guy, and great Halo teammate. He also takes fantastic photos.