Unconference Basics — Step 3: Confirm Key Participants And Supporters

Groundwork’s Done & Have Early-Stage Core Team

Once the groundwork is done, and you’ve pulled together the early-stage core team, what’s the next step for an unconference events wrangler?

Well, one way to think about unconferences is that they don’t need to have hundreds of people to be successful events. All that’s truly needed is to have two things:

  1. A core group of people who are passionate and knowledgeable about the theme or topic of the unconference
  2. A location (or venue) to meet which has enough room for the participants who show up

I’ve participated in unconferences which had several hundred and ones that had fifty participants. All of them were worthwhile and enjoyable for me.

From my viewpoint, someone who wants to organize an unconference about theme YYY (YYY = technology, education, filmmaking technology, or some other topic of interest to a community of like-minded people) should first find at least one other person who also thinks it would be a fantastic idea to have a participant-driven event focused on theme YYY.

After you find that second co-organizer (and maybe a few more), you need to discuss and clarify what type of unconference you want to have, who you can probably get to participate in it, and whether an effective core team of organizers can make it a successful event. Once you’ve got a clear vision of what your successful event will look like (Step 1) and a solid early-stage core team of organizers have committed to work together to make the unconference happen (Step 2), you need to work on Step 3 — identifying and confirming key participants and supporters.

Confirm Key Participants

key participantsIn Step 1, the unconference cofounders decided enough people passionate and knowledgeable about theme YYY would show up if they heard about it, understood (at least partly) what an unconference is, and felt personally invited to participate. In Step 3, the core team needs to identify key participants, contact them and explain what the event is, answer any questions, and request tentative commitment to participate in the currently-being-planned unconference.

Key participants can only tentatively commit because the date of the event is not yet pinned down. What you’re really asking the key participants is, “Does this sound like a really fun and worthwhile event that you (and probably a couple of your friends or colleagues) will participate in if you’re available on the weekend it for which it gets scheduled (with the target being weekend WWW or month ZZZ)?”

My recommended goal is to get strong commitment for participation, if available on the date of the event, from twenty to thirty key participants.

If very few of the key participants you talk to sound excited about the unconference, you need to find out why. Figure out if they don’t understand what the event is and what they would get out of it. Ask them if they would enjoy an unconference if the theme was slightly or significantly different. If the key potential participants do understand the unconference but don’t think it’s worth their time, then the event is unlikely to be successful. At that point, the core team needs to go back to the drawing board, do more research about theme YYY

If you can get 20+ key participants to commit, you can count on getting at least two to three times that many participants who show up for the event. Forty like-minded people passionate about and highly involved in theme YYY can have a great weekend, build new relationships, and create memories that they’ll remember for years.

With hard work, effective publicity, and good luck, the initial twenty to thirty key participants will evolve into 150 people registered by a month before the event happens. When the day before the event officially starts, you’ll have 176 people registered, and by the time the venue doors open for registration, you’ll have 189 people signed up on Eventbrite. Although 32 registered people don’t show up (forgot about the event, had a family emergency come up, got sick, had to work that weekend on short notice, etc), 21 people showed up who meant to register but never got around to it, and another 17 people were walk-ins who first heard about the event that morning, or who didn’t really understand what an unconference was but came because a participant texted them that morning and told them they had to come. The end result is that 195 people participated for at least part of the event, with 109 being at the event kick-off for self-introductions, and a maximum of 142 people being in the venue at the same time.

Moral of the story: Do the work up front to get twenty to thirty strong tentative commitments from key participants, and you’ll end up with a successful gathering of like-minded people.

Confirm Key Supporters

partners and sponsors 2Once you know you’ll have a great bunch of participants, the next must-have is commitment from key supporters, including the supporter who makes it possible to reserve and use an appropriate venue on the dates you want to hold the event. Although the venue sponsor is the top priority supporter, several other categories of supporters might help recruit the venue sponsor.

One category of key supporter is organizations or people who can bring to the event a high degree of legitimacy and credibility. If a university, a major corporation, a major player in the theme YYY of the unconference, or a well-respected theme YYY organization agrees to be a publicly-recognized partner for organizing and putting on the event, or in some other way (not necessarily financial sponsorship) be a supporter, that immediately creates credibility for the event. Having that person or organization’s public support will often convince other partners and sponsors to support the event.

Another category of key supporter is in-kind sponsors, meaning they don’t provide cash or a check to cover the unconference’s direct expenses, but they do provide some of the organization’s resources. The venue owner could be an in-kind sponsor by making the venue available for the participants to use. A coffee shop could be an in-kind sponsor by providing beverages during the event. Other in-kind sponsored items include chairs, tables, projectors, other equipment, parts and supplies for sessions in which participants learn how to build an item, internet access, WiFi network equipment, and more.

One in-kind sponsorship which I strongly promote and request is for an organization to send an employee to the unconference, covering all their travel expenses. This is especially helpful if the employee is a key participant who is highly respected or highly involved in leading edge research or high-impact work in theme YYY. A slight twist on this in-kind sponsorship is for an organization to cover the costs of a key player in theme YYY even though that person doesn’t work for them. I just connect the contact person for that in-kind sponsor with the key player, and the two of them work out the details for arranging travel and covering the costs.

Traditional event “sponsors” usually commit to providing a set amount of money to be used either for specific event expenses or for general expenses. They may send that money directly to the event organizers or their designated money-handling non-profit, or the sponsor may pay the vendor directly, such as a meal-sponsoring company paying the restaurant or caterer directly, or a t-shirt-sponsoring company paying the t-shirt vendor directly.

Unconference supporters are often organizations which participants own, work for, or work with frequently, and therefore have good personal connections. Geography is a second factor, with some of the supporters being located in the city or metro area where the unconference is being held. A third factor is involvement in theme YYY. If it’s a tech event, maybe Google, Microsoft, or smaller tech companies will sponsor it. If it’s a filmmaking technology event, maybe Pixar, DreamWorks, NVIDIA, DJI, RED Digital Cinema, GoPro, or another film tech company will sponsor it.

To summarize the key supporters, the venue sponsor is the top priority. You may need to first find event supporters who can pull in a venue sponsor, or who partner with the unconference to provide legitimacy that convinces an organization to be a venue sponsor. While you are identifying and securing commitment from the venue sponsor, you can also be identifying and talking with the various types of supporters mentioned above. (It’s a wise idea to have a core team member be the supporters coordinator, someone who can keep track of all the potential and committed supporters, along with all the details related to each supporter.

Once you’ve secured the venue sponsor, you need to prioritize the other sponsors needed and start recruiting them. Each core team will decide for their event what items will require sponsors. I’ll cover most of the potential expenses when I discuss budgets in Step 6.

Next up — Step 4: Work On When And Where.


Posts in this “Unconference Basics” series:

Events Wrangling Basics For Unconferences
Unconference Basics — Step 2: Build Core Team To Get To Next Level
Unconference Basics — Step 3: Confirm Key Participants And Supporters” — today’s post
Unconference Basics — Step 4: Work On When
Unconference Basics — Step 5: Work On Where
Unconference Basics — Step 6: Start Publicizing
Unconference Basics — Step 7: Begin Personal Invitations
Unconference Basics — Step 8: Organize Equipment
Unconference Basics — Step 9: Organize Supplies
Unconference Basics — Step 10: Run The Unconference
Unconference Basics — Step 11: Follow-up After The Unconference


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