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2.0 Conference Engagement: Real-World Experiment, Real-World Lessons

Even in today’s social-media-centric world, there’s a valuable place for conferences where people meet face-to-face. And there’s a way to use those same social media tools to enhance those face-to-face connections.

That’s what the Communications Network had in mind when we decided to experiment with how tools like Twitter and Flip Cams might augment our own conference held October 14-16 at the Ford Foundation in New York City.

Prior to the conference, I wrote a blog post that described how we would be approaching this experiment by asking questions like: “Can amateur videographers create compelling content with super-cheap video cams that might advance our communications in ways professionals and top-dollar equipment can’t? Are communication professionals better able to assess the value of new media tactics when they have hands-on experience with those tactics?” 

In this brief video, our researchers/lab rats – collectively known as the Gorilla Engagement Squad – provide their perspectives on what worked, what didn’t and how similar efforts could be improved.

In addition, we captured feedback from Squad members via an on-line survey, the results of which can be found in the middle of the page here.

As commander-in-chief of the Squad, I can’t claim any kind of objectivity. But I do feel confident, based on the results of this experiment, in asserting that Conference 2.0 tactics will grow exponentially over the next three to five years. Cutting-edge tech conferences, as well as those populated by large numbers of attendees who are age 30 and under, are already awash in the potential of Twitter. Our approach, and supporting resource materials, expands this potential beyond digital natives to folks aged 30+, who also have important contributions insights to offer.

With a nod to Twitter, FlipCams are the real game changer in terms of 2.0 technologies at conferences.  That much became clear as soon as I saw the first video compilation. Want to capture the gestalt of that conference? Spend a total of 20 minutes reviewing 14 Gorilla-produced videos and you will know who we are, from whence we hail, and how we collectively describe the work being advanced by the Communications Network.  You might have been able to hire a film crew to capture this many interviews, but you would have paid a pretty penny. With Flip Cams, the right set of questions, and a strong plan for organizing your footage, a whole new level of engagement has become possible at conferences like this one.

What follows are lessons learned and recommendations for those who are ready to conduct similar experiments at their events.

A. Get a Critical Mass of the Right Folks on the Bus

While 23 people initially volunteered for the Squad, only 18 actively participated.  Use the resources and examples developed by the Gorilla Engagement Squad to make clear to participants what they can expect.  Attrition is to be expected so make sure you get more folks than you think you need.

            B. Tech Training is Half the Story

Smart, engaged professionals don’t have much trouble learning the basics of Twitter and Flip Cams – they just need hands-on practice.

Recommendations: a.) Distribute a training manual in advance.  b.) Separate basic and advanced training for Twitter.

C. Tech Training Is Only Half the Story

Whether or not participants felt they gained real knowledge from the trainings, several expressed appreciation for the community-building aspect of the online trainings, and finding out where they measured up against the knowledge of their peers. What we didn’t plan for was the challenges of conducting “man on the street” interviews.

Recommendations: a.) Create role-playing opportunities for participants to practice interviewing on-the-fly.  b.) Create and share a video that illustrates what to do and what not to do, when it comes to video interviewing.

D. Give Volunteers Flexibility and Resources

Recommendations: a.) Create some impetus for the group, rather than just individuals, to increase the number of interviews, b.) Ensure consistent Internet availability for Twitter usge, c.) Make computers available for blogging and tweeting, d.) Create and maintain a “leader” board for which individuals are contributing the most blog, video and Twitter posts, e.) Identify one or more “power interviewers” who can aggressively pursue a significant number of interviews if scale is important.

E. Promote Engagement Effort and Goals

Recommendations: a.)  Prominently announce the goals of the engagement squad and questions being asked, b.) Designate a highly-visible space where people can voluntarily go to be interviewed, c.)Play some of the first interviews at a plenary session early in the conference to make participants more comfortable, d.) Create and update a thermometer graphic to publicize how many interviews have been done.

F. Not Everyone is a “Joiner”

Almost all Gorillas encountered attendees who did not want to be interviewed. According to one respondent, “People avoided me, and I didn’t like that. They would tell me, ‘I’ll think about it and you can ask me later,’ and when I would approach them later, they’d run away when they saw me coming.”

Recommendations: a.) Set realistic expectations about the number of participants that can be engaged, b.) Indicate (we used stickers) people who don’t want to be interviewed.

G. Strong Organization is Essential

None of these tools or approaches are, on their own, difficult to learn and/or implement.  The key is solid organization.  This includes not only organizing volunteers and their trainings but also the volume of digital content that must be organized on-site in order to efficiently produce and disseminate the perspectives that are captured.

Susan Herr, Commander in Chief


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