What Makes A Great Conference? Lessons From Shop.Org.

Complex Beauty One of life's wonderful joys is the opportunity to speak at a conference. It is an experience to stand in front of a crowd (remember I am an introvert!) and speak about something I am passionate about.

Late last week I gave the keynote at the shop.org merchandising event in San Diego. Usually after a conference I present my key learnings. This time around I want to tell you about the event itself. I was that impressed with it.

So what makes a great conference?

# 5: Amazing Sessions: Truly Mixing It Up.

The typical conference format (across all industries) in the US is: Three days of four to six concurrent tracks in rooms around the hotel with each room hosting a panel of five presenters and one moderator trying their passionate best to share their knowledge (in 50 mins).

There is always good stuff but it is really hard for organizers to find a hundred presenters who are really good and it is equally harder for the presenters to impart wisdom and nuance in the 12 minutes that each gets. For conference participants it can be tough to pick the right session to go to from the brief descriptions (and then not have buyers remorse).

This one was different:

  • An hour and fifteen minutes keynote at the start of the day

  • A couple of hour long presentations from industry thought leaders

  • A session where a moderator and an industry leader sat on the stage in comfortable sofas

  • Thirty minute round table sessions on six or so important topics where an industry leaders was available to answer any question you might have on a given topic

  • At the end of the day two rooms with one panel of four in each room

Now that was nice. The pace kept changing and the lack of multiple sets of panels I think forced the shop.org crew to keep content quality high.

# 4: Diverse Backgrounds Yet Intense Focus.

    This was a merchandizing conference with a focus on analytics. And that it was, almost perfectly.

    The people in attendance were from the most name brand ecommerce retailers of all sorts. Orbitz. Gap. Okley. REI. Hotels.Com. Wal-Mart. Bath & Body Works. Sears.Com. Patagonia. QVC. BestBuy.Com. Nike. Borders.Com.

    See the diversity? Lots. Yet almost everyone there shared a common focus on using numbers to do their jobs better.

    There were a lot of diverse experiences in the crowd, yet a single focus on what they wanted and what they were solving for. That meant that each person learned lots and lots from from others (during the numerous networking breaks ) about solving one problem. Learning turbocharged.

    One key that made this possible was that the conference was the right size. It was a sold out crowd of under 300 (according to my highly accurate "eye count" of looking into the crowd). Just the right size for everyone to meet, for a speaker to get to talk to pretty much everyone who wants to talk to her/him, leave with great contacts and ideas.

# 3: "Open Kimono".

(This term is forever dedicated to my dear friend Blaire Hansen!)

Imagine a person wearing a kimono . Now imagine them taking off…. well you get the idea.

I saw a lot of opening of the kimono at this conference, people sharing their success and their failures openly with the conference attendees. People being very honest about what they did well and what they did not know, while standing on a stage!

Dotty from Wal-Mart complimenting JC Penny for how well JCP has executed on their multi-channel strategy.

There were two retailers that actually showed the next generation of their website redesigns and the process that they used to come up with those designs. They did this while their competitors were sitting in the audience. And neither redesign had actually launched.

Share the love, knowing that many will benefit. Is that not nice? Now I agree that this is not everyone's cup of tea, but it was nice to see.

# 2: Passion (From Everyone).

    It was apparent all around, from the networking event (the day before the conference) to the speeches to my conversations with the attendees and, more importantly, even with the organizers that everyone was passionate about why they were there, what they were presenting and what they had created.

    It is rare to be at a event where even the conference staff attends the presentation and then comes by to give you specific feedback on points you had made in the presentation.

    From the shop.org board to the shop.org staff that was in-charge of the rooms, handing out evaluation forms, and making sure everything worked. It was refreshing that they were all so engaged in the content and quality of the conference.

    I think all 25 of 'em stopped me to talk to me about my speech (!) (as they did for all other speakers). This was the conference staff!

# 1: Satisfaction or Your Money Back.

From the conference home page: "We are confident that retailers attending Shop.org events will acquire valuable strategies and tactics to improve their online and multi-channel retail business. If not, let us know and we'll refund your registration fee ."

That's putting yourself on the line, your money where your mouth is. Imagine the behavior it incentivizes in the conference organizers.

One more thing the attendees can celebrate.

Do you want to create a great conference or attend one? Here are the attributes to have (or look for):

# 5: Amazing Sessions: Truly Mixing It Up.

# 4: Diverse Backgrounds Yet Intense Focus.

# 3: "Open Kimono".

# 2: Passion (From Everyone).

# 1: Satisfaction or Your Money Back.

I love going to conferences. There is nothing cooler than sixty minutes in which to change people's minds, to share with them something of value, to have an impact on someone's work/life. It is truly a pleasure to go to a conference like the one above. A nice opportunity to share, and a wonderful opportunity for me to learn.

I want to thank Joan Broughton and Larry Joseloff for inviting me to be a part of this event, and I am grateful to the board and staff of shop.org for making me feel so welcome.

What do you think makes a great conference? What was the best conference you've attended? Why was it special? Attended a conference that was just hype? Why do you think it did not work?

Please share your feedback (and conference best practices) via comments.


  1. 1

    Great post, and what wonderful feedback for the organizers!

    With the Internet feedback is crucial.

    I thought these posts were interesting too:

    Think participant value at all time. Put on the practitioner hat. Don't have one? Get someone who has a closet full of them! Inform speakers that pitch fests turn participants off. Look through presentations prior to the event. Is there a WOW factor? There should be one.

    Having said that, it's one thing to talk and another to deliver. If I come on board for IMC (http://www.internetmarketingconference.com) that's what I intend to do. Time will tell if it was a successful effort. :)

  2. 2

    I attend a couple of shows every year – my 2007 schedule being close to the below:

    – SES London
    – SES Munich
    – eMetrics London
    – SES New York
    – eMetrics Düsseldorf
    – AdTech San Francisco
    – eMetrics San Francisco
    – Web Analytics Congres, Holland
    – AdTech Hamburg
    – DME Amsterdam
    – GSQM event Singapore
    – SES Toronto
    – AdTech Chicago
    – SES San Jose
    – AdTech London
    – Affiliate Summit London
    – eMetrics Washington
    – AdTech New York
    – SES Chicago

    My favourites are Emetrics SF and SES San Jose … Simply because of the people you meet and network with :-)
    AND somehow important, from a business point of view – if leads equals return – the NY shows are those with the best ROI!

    But perhaps I should add shop.org to the 2008 plan – and with the Omniture guys being there as well (as far as I remember) – that would give me another opportunity to be in their face.. he he
    and of course a chance to get a Red Bull with you :-)


    Dennis R. Mortensen, COO at IndexTools
    My Web Analytics Blog

  3. 3

    Hi Avinash, What makes a conference bad:

    I recently went to the brands reignited conference that was running along side Internet World in Earls Court – not so good :( (am I allowed to say awful?).

    Location – the keynote theatre was right at the very back (hard to find) behind the ten million selling stalls belonging to internet world.

    Not enough detail – like you said panels of 5 or 6 per session with not enough time devoted to any one particular topic/person's specialty.

    Poorly structured Q and As – little leadership from the events team.

    Poorly attended – probably because it was so hard to find.

    Poor acoustics – found it hard to hear what was going on with a lot of background noise.

    Little annoyances – senior people in line-up didn't come at the last minute and were replaced with more junior folk who were clearly a bit flummoxed.

    Felt like an add-on – to internet world which is a freebie selling thing rather than the separate decision-maker conference for online brands it was meant to be.

    Cheers, Marianina

  4. 4

    Avinash…great to see you again at the conference. You got kudos from everyone I talked to there. I think you opened a lot of eyes to how analytics can and should be used.

    BTW…You might be interested in these tips on logistical ideas for a good conference


  5. 5
    ateeq ahmad says

    Great Posting Avinash! by the way, if you are an introvert then i am positively suicidally manic depressive. I call BS on that. 8-)

    Warm Regards

  6. 6

    Man, I want to switch Airmiles with Dennis. ;-) Not to forget he was on the panel at WAW Stockholm in March as well, so his real list is even longer. Though WAW is NOT a conference. :)

  7. 7

    Hi Lars,

    With the number of people YOU bring into WAW in Stockholm, one could easily call it a conference! :)
    See you shortly in Stockholm again/.

    Dennis R. Mortensen, COO at IndexTools
    My Web Analytics Blog

  8. 8

    "Hi Avinash, What makes a conference bad:"

    The venue is one of the most important areas of the conference for several of the reasons you mention. Seek advise of a local event planner who will take into account all of the above before selecting your site.

  9. 9

    Hi Avinash, great post. Just so you know when I googled 'What makes a great conference' your blog came up in the top 10! I am in charge of organizing a conference on sustainability entrepreneurship this spring in Montreal and am trying to figure out how to make an absolutely incredible event… so thanks for the tips!

    Cameron Stiff
    Director of Sustainability


  1. […]
    Avinash Kaushik, a web analytics specialist (he works for Google!), in discussing his speaking engagement at the Shop.org conference, came up with a list of 5 essential elements.

Add your Perspective