Making conference websites more interactive

As part of a project I’m working on with Don Deshler, I’ve been taking a look at how conference organizers and promoters are leveraging the web and social technologies. Initially, I’m focusing on how these technologies are used in the context of traditional, face-to-face conferences–not anything virtual–and have been looking at technology-oriented events since they are (theoretically) on the cusp.

This is an ongoing project, but here are a few things about these conferences’ websites and online activities that have jumped out at me:

Everything’s a database:

This should go without saying in 2009. Conference websites are data-driven, meaning there’s a database sitting behind the scenes and some sort of content management system, or CMS, making things look nice for the end user. Take a look at ETech 2009 and Web 2.0 Expo San Francisco 2009. These sites, both sponsored by O’Reilly and Associates, are driven by databases. A designer has given each conference’s site a distinct look, but the data fields are essentially the same. This means those people responsible for the content of the sites can enter information directly into it, without passing information along to a web person to code HTML. A server-side program takes care of that. The web designer, in turn, has more time to focus on other tasks such as making sure the conference site’s look-and-feel jives with other materials being developed for the conference.

Finally, if the site is programmed correctly, the end user–the conference participant–wins. Database-backed sites provide flexible display of conference information. Sessions might be cross-indexed by a variety of topics, by speaker, by time, and so forth. This service would be cumbersome to provide via traditional, page-by-page HTML coding.

Democracy rules:

Meet me at SXSW 2009 (http://sxsw.com)
I’m attending South by Southwest Interactive this year and have been fascinated at the opportunities the organizers give us participants (or potential participants) to help shape the conference. Last year, even before registration opened, organizers posted proposed sessions online and gave people the opportunity to rate them, comment upon them, and suggest questions the speaker may wish to address. This, in turn, helped organizers choose which sessions to include in the final schedule.

Last week, the organizers sent an e-mail to registered participants, inviting participation in another online voting process. This time, participants were asked to select the sessions they were most interested in attending each day, so organizers could make sure sessions were in appropriately-sized rooms. You’re not committed to the choices you make in this survey, but it does help begin the thinking process in terms of how to prioritize your time over a four-day span of endless workshops, panel discussions, and learning and networking opportunities.

Conferences are social events:

A big reason people attend face-to-face conferences are to meet new friends, catch up with old ones, and generally network. Conference organizers are taking these activities online by leveraging social networking technologies like blogs, Facebook, and Twitter. ETech’s site provides direct links to a Facebook group, a Twitter feed, and profiles on Dopplr, LinkedIn, and Delicious. South by Southwest’s Twitter feed broadcasts updates about the conference, while also assisting attendees who are looking to carpool or share hotel rooms.

In essence, social technologies help the networking begin before the conference even starts, and keeps up these connections even after the closing session is done and everyone’s heading home. This is a relatively easy first step for conference organizers looking to use online technologies more effectively–social networking services like Facebook and Twitter are free and can help with word-of-mouth promotion of an event.

Next time I write about this I’ll talk about how organizers are leveraging contents from previous events, to extend their reach to those who weren’t able to physically be at a conference.

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Aaron Sumner

Aaron Sumner is the Director of Technology for Research and Development at the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning. He has worked in web development and instructional technology since 1994.