This article was updated in July 2022.
Depending on your general way of being, the unconference experience will be incredibly liberating or totally terrifying (we’re thinking of you, Type-A event planners).
At its core, the unconference is about interaction and engagement—more specifically participant-driven interaction. There’s no set conference agenda, no strict timeline, and no firm session types. Attendees arrive the day of the event and create the agenda together, collectively deciding on session topics. The goal? To have productive, collaborative discussions without conventional conference agenda restraints. Dreamy—and maybe a little confusing. If the idea still seems ethereal to you, here's a great overview of this unique meeting format.
The whole idea raises some huge question marks for a b2b field marketer and event planner. But despite the inherent risks the unconference poses, it can be a fun model for producing engaging events. The traditional conference planning checklist may have to adjust a bit, but it is worth it. Here are our top tips for unconference success.
How to Engage Your Audience With an Unconference
Have the right crowd
For our part, we think your best chance of hosting an incredible unconference is to have the perfect audience. While some believe that—at an unconference—any audience is the right audience, coordinating a perfect reg list is where the footwork happens. Perhaps even more than at a conventional conference, your attendee pool matters a lot. Think about it like a party, where the conversation is only as stimulating as the people in the room. But at a corporate unconference, you want charismatic characters with expert knowledge. A lofty goal. Be selective, but not so selective that you lose the element of chance.
Lay the groundwork for discussion
Just because the unconference model is open, and every topic is fair game, doesn’t mean that you should go in blind. Even in this loose format, everyone likes a little structure. By putting some parameters around the topic scope, you’ll relieve your guests from the stress of overchoice. You can easily add structure with a small ‘S’ by narrowing the topic scope of your event. So instead of a day of discussing ‘Wellness,’ you promote a day of discussing ‘Coaching Practices’ or ‘Trends for 2019’ within Wellness. Or give your attendees a leading question to resonate on prior to the event.
Curate a productive space
The unconference venue should be flexible, malleable, and creative. Because of the unpredictability of the day, you need a space that can accommodate any sized group—from large gatherings to intimate talks. One way to do this is to find a venue with an open floor plan and make strategic use of flexible furniture. This can be much easier (and cheaper) than finding the perfect space for any situation.
Aside from the physical space, be sure to consider the myriad conversation-inducing session types.
Try to shift your perspective away from being an event planner and field marketer. Sure, when planning your unconference, be the logistical guru that you always are. But on the day, once the event gets going, join in. Be the host, but be a participant. At this level, you’ll get a lot more honesty from your attendees—and a lot closer to their wants, needs, and values. So host a session (without a personal agenda) or just meld into the conversations being had. You’ll come away with more trusted client relationships and some great gems of information.
As a b2b field marketer and event planner, hosting unconference may feel like an enormous leap of faith. But even with a format that relies heavily on spontaneity and doesn't follow a traditional conference planning checklist, you can still comfortably structure the day with the right pre-event planning. And it you’re still totally out of your comfort zone, here’s a nifty unconference survival guide. (We know you can do it!)