Richard Anderson | 06/14/2017
Conference Themes are Like Hot Sauce … Spice Things Up!
A great conference theme is like a great hot sauce. Once you’ve had a meeting with a strong one, everything else seems a little bland without it. Conferences and events need compelling titles, just as books and movies do. A well-designed conference theme answers the two big questions that every potential attendee asks: “What is the conference about, and why should I attend?”
Why Have a Theme?
You may have noticed the growing tug-of-war at associations and professional organizations over themes. I’ve heard some organizers argue that having a theme and a content focus might exclude some conference-goers. It might make some people think the event is not relevant to them. Or a theme might not match every presenter’s content.
At the other end of the issue, I’ve heard organizers worry about flat attendance and motivating people to come back year after year. They’re concerned that the association’s events look like they never change and grow. This year is the same as last year. Attendees don’t have a motivation to attend.
Why Themes Matter
So, let’s flip the discussion over and look at it from the perspective of the most important people – the participants. Imagine for a moment: Would you eat at a restaurant called “Seafood”? It’s generic, factual and not very exciting. There’s no appeal, promise or anything of value. It merely states, “This is what it is.”
Now think about your last conference or event. Did you have a theme or just a title? The “2017 XXX Conference” is a title. Like that generic restaurant, it’s a plain label that is not very tempting. Did your last event communicate some information, value, and motivation to attend or was it just “Seafood”?
Now let’s do some more quick recon. Check the 2017-2018 Conference Calendar for associations or organizations like yours. How many times do you see overused and interchangeable words such as the Such and Such Conference… Symposium… Institute… Forum… Summit? As you scroll down, they all begin to blur together. That’s how attendees view them, too! They won’t attend them all, so anything you can do to make your next event look different is critical.
Here’s the acid test: If your proposed theme would work just as well for tire salesmen, nurses and state legislators, it’s NOT an effective theme.
The Most Important Thing to Remember
A theme is for the attendees and not for the association or the presenters. It tells people what the event means to them. It’s your first, best chance to answer their questions “Why should I care?” and “What’s in it for me?”
The Best Theme Unifies Objectives and Provides Focus
Don’t make the common mistake of spending too much time promoting the destination instead of showcasing the value and compelling reasons to attend. A compelling theme communicates a strong business reason for spending time away from work and home.
When there isn’t an effective theme, things get disjointed. You’ve seen it. People get tired. Yes, even of golf. Or Las Vegas. They drift apart, miss sessions and start wondering why they came. And they don’t come back.
The Best Theme Helps Build Attendance
A compelling theme creates buzz and interest. It not only reinforces the objectives of the conference, but it also contributes to generating new audiences, creates continuity and delivers the desired results. You can’t get that from something nebulous like “Reaching New Horizons.” You need something that will get attendees interested and make them feel important, catered to and included.
Of course, you must tell people the name/place of the event, but make it the subtitle. Then they will know where to go to receive all that fantastic value you provide.
3 Quick Steps for Designing Your Theme
Remember: Great conference themes come from thinking about what the participant needs to hear and not from what you want to say. So, do a little brainstorming up front.
You can’t create a compelling theme until you determine what the conference focus. Be honest. Not long ago we talked about planning from the perspective of what everyone involved needs to Feel, Think, Know and Do. Work on the strategic planning first, and you will soon discover the theme.
1. Start with a Single, Clear Idea
Begin with the focus of the conference or event. What’s it all about?
What are the big messages and headlines?
What are the most significant benefits to the attendees? What will wow them?
2. Support Your Content
Make sure the theme connects to the key content. What will the attendees see, hear and experience in the main sessions?
3. Make It a Call for Action
Don’t just add a verb to the theme. What do you want people to do as a result of having participated in the conference? What should be different when they return to their jobs? A clear call-to-action gets attendees involved, motivated and puts the event squarely into their world.
Spice It Up
In sum, your goal is to develop a theme that’s audience-focused, engaging and motivating. A hot conference theme can spice up interest, build new and return attendance, and even become your messaging focus for the entire year.
Just like hot sauce, you don’t need a lot to have a big effect. Just a dash of focus and communication can give your next event a new, exciting flavor.