What I Learned Organizing Three Events This Year

Female Speaker in Front of Crowd

Now that the wrap up post for WooConf is out the door I can finally relax. WooConf was the latest event I worked on this year and by far the most intense. Working on three different events – all at different levels of complexity – taught me a few things about running events.

I'm going to share some lessons but first let me give a little context:

1. Lift Off Summit – I designed this summit to help people develop a marketing strategy for their online store. It's a virtual summit so you can tune in and watch ~20 hours of content for free and you can pay to watch the sessions whenever you want.

Event cost: free to stream / $97 for recordings

2. WordCamp Denver – I've always loved helping my local WordPress scene. I've helped organize several meetups and WordCamps in the past. This is my third year organizing this particular conference and it was one of the best we've done.

Event cost: $40

3. WooConf – I've been heavily involved with WooCommerce for years as a customer, developer, product manager, and now educator. So when they asked me to help them plan the content I couldn't say no.

Event cost: $500 early bird / $700 regular

Technical Information is Plentiful

At all three events we had really great technical information:

  • At Lift Off Summit we had one of my favorite writers Paul Jarvis talk about content marketing
  • At WordCamp Denver we had Pamela Herrmann talk about telling your brand story
  • And at WooConf we had Rand Fishkin talk about the latest in SEO

Regardless of the cost of the event you can listen to well-known experts. The hard part isn't getting good content – it's sifting through all of the content and finding the best content. And that all comes down to time.

Lisa Wang from Google

Another rockstar was Lisa Wang from Google who talked about AMP. Photo credit: WooConf

  • For Lift Off Summit I spent close to 40 hours identifying possible speakers, reaching out them, and scheduling them.
  • For WordCamp Denver we just opened the flood gates and then with an organizing team we narrowed down the submissions. We reached out a few speakers but for the most part we were reactive and picked from what was submitted.
  • For WooConf I spent hundreds of hours getting rockstar speakers like Rand Fishkin involved, working with speakers on perfecting their messaging & presentation style, and crafting the perfect blend of content for the expected audience.

It should be obvious that the more time you put into finding the best content the better your event. This can be a challenge for some WordCamp organizers and other volunteer events. They don't have the time to spend a couple hours per slot finding the perfect speaker.

And it can be hard for a company like WooCommerce that doesn't have someone dedicated to this role. This was the first year WooCommerce hired someone (me) even on a part-time basis just for this role.

Diversity Doesn't Just Happen & Also It Does

I spent hundreds of hours finding speakers for one event and dozens on another. Do you know which one had better diversity?

You're probably wrong.

WordCamp Denver had some of the best diversity numbers of any event I've worked on and I spent the least amount of time on it.

Note: there's an infinite number of ways to measuring inclusivity. I'll be using gender as it's the easiest to measure (aka assume).

For WordCamp Denver we came pretty close to gender parity:

  • Men: 15
  • Women: 12

For a technical conference this is pretty darn good. WooConf, also a technical conference, focused a lot more on developers and we really struggled finding women speakers. Our numbers were a lot worse (and I spent weeks personally reaching out to speakers).

  • Men: 17
  • Women: 8

We had twice as many men as women. Blerg.

And when you dig into the numbers a little more you can see it's related to the content. Day 1 of WordCamp Denver had a lot of non-coding topics like branding, SEO, content marketing, building a business, hiring, etc. Many of these fields skew female so we had a huge pool to pull from. Without spending weeks we were able to get a ton of women for the main day of the event:

  • Men: 4
  • Women: 8

On Sunday we had 3 hour workshops many of which were technical (Git, WP-CLI, building a plugin, etc) and we happened to find a lot more male speakers because developers tend to skew male. For our workshops we had:

  • Men: 11
  • Women: 4

And the few women who led workshops handled non-technical topics (marketing, branding, client on-boarding, & SEO).

I write all of this to give other event organizers hope. If your audience is 80% male getting over 20% female speakers is an achievement. Context is important and you need to celebrate moving the needle.

Can you move it further? Absolutely – try to move it farther for your next event. Just remember you took a step forward even if it wasn't the biggest possible step.

Faux Diversity

I want to give kudos to the WooCommerce team. They took care of all of the little details:

  • They wrote a Code of Conduct
  • They made sure there was a gender neutral bathroom
  • They had closed captioning to help those for whom English is not a first language
  • & They had a mother’s room (and mothers showed up)

These tiny details mean so much more than the number of female speakers at your event. And it shows. You get to see comments like these:

If you want to appear diverse add a marketing day to your event and you'll have a much larger pool of female speakers to choose from. If you want to have real diversity spend the hours on the tiny details & looking for female speakers.

I'd rather go to an event with 30% female speakers spread equally across different domains instead of an event with perfect gender parity but all of the women are talking about design and all of the men are talking about coding.

You Have to Pay for Quality

Seattle Centric Snacks

Iconic snacks from Seattle. Credit: WooConf.

I've been trying to describe the different between a WordCamp and WooConf and I struggle. The best I can come up with is “it's nicer”. The reason it's so hard to articulate is that it's all of the small details:

  • We had purple lights
  • The columns in the main room looked like shipping containers
  • We had Seattle specific food
  • Walk on music for speakers
  • & parties in iconic locations.

All of this takes an insane amount of planning and money. Going up from 80% (WordCamp) to 90% (WooConf) is an order of magnitude more work. Meaning if it takes you 100 hours to organize a WordCamp it will take you 1,000 to organize an event like WooConf.

WordCamp Denver had 9 organizers who volunteered their time. WooCommerce had staff work part time on the event for months to get it ready. Not to mention an army of help from the 50+ volunteers they brought into town.

I love the richness – the quality – of the event but it is a lot of work. I'm happy to help WooCommerce with their event and I finally understand why conferences have so many sponsors. All of those details take time to sort out and that time costs money.

Events Are Worth It

This may surprise you but I don't love organizing events. I love financial empowerment. That means I love helping people be free enough to say no to a bad opportunity (client, employer, product, etc). And e-commerce lets you do that. You can say no to a lot of opportunities and still live your life.

Even though I don't love events I believe so much in this education that they're worth it. It's a colossal amount of work and I'll gladly take it on.

One thought on “What I Learned Organizing Three Events This Year

  1. “…if it takes you 100 hours to organize a WordCamp it will take you 1,000 to organize an event like WooConf.”

    That rings true, Patrick. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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