by Heather McNair | November 16, 2017

Heather McNair of High LogicAs a conference organizer, you work year-round to wow prospective conference attendees with impressive speakers, enviable locations and career-boosting information – but what really makes people register for a conference? Counter-arguments to attending abound, such as: "I can YouTube some videos of that speaker" or "What will I really learn there that I can't learn here at work or online?" These are tough challenges to overcome in an era when demands on employee time are ever-increasing.

So how can you amp up the appeal of traveling to your conference? Use an online community. Here are six tried-and-true strategies for using community to boost event attendance.

1. Crowdsource your agenda.
A few months before our Higher Logic User Group conference, for example, we announce a "call for sessions" in our online community. Our members tell us what they'd like to discuss and learn about. They can also suggest sessions they'd like to give. Members then rate the submitted sessions and propose other sessions. The process is interactive and ongoing, and always leads to fantastic ideas. When we evaluate which sessions should be added to the agenda, we take both votes and comments into account, which helps us decide between similar topics and ensures a broad range.

Crowdsourcing the agenda generates a tremendous amount of interactivity and interest in the upcoming conference right from the start. This has consistently led to increasing attendance and, not surprisingly, higher satisfaction ratings, since the sessions are more relevant to the attendees.

2. Get attendees excited about connecting in person.
On the content side, use your forums to regularly communicate the value of Q&A sessions that follow presentations – and the opportunity for attendees to get their specific questions answered. If you have anecdotes from previous conferences, share these on the forum. Also promote your social events – welcome reception, dinner, awards ceremony, topic-specific meetups, etc. – and consider crowdsourcing some of these activities, such as meetup venues and dinner menus. If you have a well-known keynote speaker, see if you can arrange a book signing or other opportunity for attendees to meet the speaker, and feature this event on the community. Also consider having a staff member or member advocate regularly bring up these events in forum discussions to ensure the value gets communicated and they remain top-of-mind. Just be sure not to make social activities seem more important than conference content, or you risk managers not wanting to pay to send their staff to a social event.

3. Use the community to extend learning opportunities before and after the event.
There is really no end to the ways you can use the community to enhance the value of the event. For example, have speakers participate in the community ahead of time to find out what attendees' pain points are to better target their sessions. You can also ask attendees of previous events to share their experiences and ideas. After the event, try extending speaker Q&As into the community. Even if the speaker isn't available, the dialog - and the learning - can continue. One interesting approach to tracking the value of an event is to ask attendees immediately afterward what they pledge to implement, then follow up a couple of weeks later to see what they've actually done. This keeps the event top-of-mind, and helps attendees share or take action on experiences and new ideas.

4. Help members plan to make the most of their conference ahead of time.
The last thing you want is for members to travel to your conference and then be lost or confused, so they miss the sessions and social events they want to attend. Your online community is the perfect place to provide the information attendees need to plan their time. Provide abundant details about each session and event so that members can decide what to attend before they arrive, and include lots of details about the venue – photos, maps, parking, routes from airports and public transit, etc. Ask members who have attended before to share their tips on navigating the conference. Consider developing a planner widget on the community enabling members to easily select the events they want to attend and create a personal itinerary with times and locations. And always, always, make sure someone will respond quickly to forum questions about a particular event.

5. Make sure everyone feels welcome.
This may seem obvious, but there are many ways we can subtly discourage attendance by not connecting with the intended demographic. For example, gender bias in writing can discourage participation by one sex or the other. If photos used in promoting the conference don't reflect the diversity of the demographic, some potential attendees may shy away. And certainly, never mentioning social activities may turn off some potential attendees, while, as noted above, focusing too much on them may give managers pause.

On your online community, always keep your entire potential audience in mind and make sure you are positive and inclusive. If necessary, reach out to subgroups or potential attendees that may not be represented in the promotional material or that haven't been well represented at past conferences.

6. Participate!
As the conference organizer, you are in a perfect position to use the online community to engage with potential attendees. Participate on forums to answer questions and let members know about all the conference activities. Be a vocal advocate for attendance by everyone, and show your enthusiasm. This doesn't mean you should do a hard sell or overuse exclamation points and superlatives. But continually communicating the value of the sessions, the fun of the social activities and the potential of face-to-face meetings will always have a positive impact on attendance.

Heather McNair is vice president of engagement strategy for Higher Logic.