Robert Barlow-Busch on Running Events

This is part of a series of interviews with B2B marketers. In this post we're talking with Robert Barlow-Busch from Boltmade about Running Events.

Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Robert, but I just go by Bob — or even better, @becubed. I'm Vice President of User Experience at Boltmade, a software product design and development shop in Waterloo. I’m also co-chair of the Fluxible conference and co-champion of the uxWaterloo meetup.

You know from running Fluxible the roller coaster of emotions that comes with running an event. How do stay on top of managing it?
It’s definitely a roller coaster isn't it! These things have a life cycle of ups and downs. I guess what I've learned is it comes down to finding ways to keep yourself organized. I try to picture myself actually at the event in the future — and then thinking, ”Oh crap! What should I have done before instead of leaving until today?”. 

I keep sane by having lots of checklists. That external memory is very important. Anytime I have a thought about something that should be done, or might need to be done, I write it down. That’s the key. 

Are there any tools you're using to manage that?
We’ve been using BaseCamp for a few years now. It’s pretty good, but not ideal. There are aspects of it that we’re not super fond of, but we've gotten in the habit of using it now.

Two years ago, we combed through all of the "to-do's" and other key documents from previous years of the Fluxible conference and set them up in a new template. So now every time we're ready to kick off a new Fluxible, we can just create a new project and… [snaps finger]. The template lays out the whole event with all the things we've learned. That's really nice. One of the things that sucks about that is when we’re starting out… well, you should see the size of some of our to-do lists. They're enormous. We have them segmented into different areas like marketing and promotions, speaker experience, sponsors, venue, food, etc. Inside each we could easily have 40 to-do’s (and some with much more). So it can feel a bit daunting when we first kick off. 

I suppose one of the things that we’d love is a tool that could give us a better sense of what the rolling window is. What should we be thinking about 10, 9, 8 months out so we don't have to look, see, or think about the things we can't do anything about right now.

That would be a great tool...
Yeah it would be. Let's build it! [Both laugh]

"Think about the user experience as an end-to-end journey."

As you're building an event that is focused on user experience, how is that impacting how you plan and organize it?
It impacts it a lot. Mark Connolly [co-founder and chair] and I — ever since we first started Fluxible — approached it as a user experience project. It's a chance to apply many of our professional tools to a service experience as opposed to product design, which is primarily what we do. It is very much a designed experience. We started with three clear goals about why we're doing this and what we hope to achieve. We think about the experience as an end-to-end journey for everyone, the key people being attendees, speakers, sponsors, and of course the volunteer team. 

This year we got more formal about the whole process and actually went through a journey mapping exercise for both attendees and sponsors. We mapped it out from that first moment they might think about getting involved in a community event, to hearing about Fluxible, to deciding whether or not to participate, and all the way through to the end. Journey mapping is a lot of fun in that way and a neat example of how what you do in UX can apply not just to products, but to other experiences as well.

Some of the most gratifying feedback we get from attendees is comments where people say "it feels like you guys designed the conference experience in the same way that we as professionals should be designing the products we're building". It's gratifying to hear people take note of that. 

How do you go about getting feedback from all the stakeholders involved?
We use an online form — created with Wufoo — to collect feedback on the overall event. Something that we haven't done yet is collect feedback on specific talks or sessions because of that fine line of asking too much of people. 

We set up the form ahead of time and make final tweaks about a week before the conference, then use MailChimp for our email communications. We'll schedule a MailChimp email to send usually about a minute or two after we're supposed to be finishing up our closing remarks. That way during our final thank you, we’ll mention to everyone that there should be an email in their inbox, and for them to please fill it out. We also give a separate feedback form to speakers. Sponsors we handle a bit differently: we follow up more personally with them with an email afterwards to say thanks, mention the highlights, and then encourage them to give us feedback from their perspective. 

"The way we approach sponsorship is to reflect back on the goals for the conference."

It’s interesting running an event because now you're selling sponsorships. How do you go about making that pitch to companies you'd like to get involved?
I will admit it’s an area we definitely could get better at. We get into doing events like this typically for community reasons; the whole promotion and selling aspect is not necessarily something that comes naturally. The way we approach sponsorship is to reflect back on the goals for the conference, one of which is to strengthen the local design community. So for us, the pitch is going out to companies who we think should care about having a strong local design community. You know — running an event — a lot of stuff costs a lot of money and you can't simply cover it all through ticket sales or no one could afford to come. So that's the story; approaching companies who believe design is important. That's the main pitch, along with making the community strong and vibrant. 

The secondary pitch is the obvious one, being seen publicly as caring about the cause. The design community is going to recognize them as a company to like because they stand for something. Having the community think of you in that way is certainly a benefit for anyone looking to recruit.

So is that the main way you calculate ROI for the sponsors, focusing on brand building and awareness?
I think you're probably right with that; brand building, awareness, and generating good feelings within the community towards the company. I think that's the main ROI. Although as I said at the beginning, this is an area we want to get better at. So this year for the first time, one of our core team members is taking on the role of sponsor experience. Part of this is reaching out to sponsors from years past and just having this type of conversation with them. It’s another example of applying UX tools to the conference experience by doing research on the users and trying to understand what really are the motivations. Let's not make any more assumptions. Let's understand why you want to get behind an event like this and see what we learn. 

"The only currency we have with the speakers is their experience."

One of the things that I think you do really well is looking at the user experience for four different audiences (attendees, speakers, sponsors, and volunteers). How do you think about those all as separate experiences for the same event?
It's really obvious out the gate that you have to give your attendees a great experience. That's the most important thing because those people are paying money to come and you’ve got to give them great value and a great time.

We also recognized that the speaker experience is important. The way the math works for running Fluxible, we don't pay speaker fees. We run the event as a not-for-profit and if there is revenue left over, it gets invested back into the event itself. As soon as you start paying speaker fees, it’s a huge source of costs so ticket costs need to be raised higher than the community could bear, so we've been upfront with speakers about that and treat them all the same. That means the only currency we have with speakers is their experience [of Fluxible]. We had a hypothesis in year one that if we could deliver a remarkable speaker experience, it would pay back in future years by having those folks become promoters of Fluxible. That's why we invested heavily in speaker experience from day one and we have in fact seen it pay off really well. So that’s an example of how we plan for the attendee and speaker experience differently. 

Sponsor experience is getting more attention from us this year than in the past. The volunteer experience is something that has happened more organically, but we have learned lots of lessons there as well.

I feel like the volunteers are a little easy to forget about… 
They really are — which is terrible! It really is terrible! [Both laugh]

It's a lot of work to putting one of these events on and the volunteers are so important.

You mentioned one of the things you try to get speakers and sponsors to do is promote the event. How do you go about doing that?
Basic stuff at this point. I wouldn't claim we're at all sophisticated in that regard. Once we've announced that the next year is happening and start making speaker announcements, we basically ask our speakers "Can you start making some noise please?" We will often create a discount code for each speaker and ask them to share it. I don't know how productive that's been for us in terms of ticket sales. It ultimately comes down to asking them to make noise.

Sponsors generally seem excited once they are on board and are quite happy to tweet their involvement and post it on Facebook. 

"Running an event is so much work it has to be a fun experience to plan and be involved in."

What are the goals you've set for the event and how are they changing as you keep running it?
The goals haven't changed since the first year and this is going to be year five in September 2016.

The first goal is to host a world class UX and design event here in KW. We had found through running the meetup for many years that our community was growing but not many folks in town have had the opportunity to travel to a conference for whatever reason. So we thought: let's bring an event here! Really that goal is all about strengthening the local community, as we talked about earlier. Strengthening in a couple of ways: both from the sense of learning how many other folks in town are interested in the topic, but also strengthening it from a skills perspective. We want to bring good content here so attendees can really learn and share throughout their companies and the community. 

The second goal is to do something interesting enough that — for a short period of time each year — the broader design and UX community can hear about what's going on and think, "KW? Huh! They seem to have a vibrant professional community." This goal is about supporting recruitment. It’s tough to hire UX folks. It’s tough to convince people to move to KW, even from Toronto let alone from further away. Our goal is to stop people from simply hanging up the phone when someone contacts them and says "Hey! I'd like to talk to you about a job in KW." 

Our third goal is to have fun. It's so much work that it has to be a fun experience to plan, and to be involved in.

So those have been our goals and they haven't changed. 

"We could do a whole different blog post on lanyard design — there are so many ways to get it wrong."

What resources do you think are really important for an event organizer to make in order to make the experience is seamless?
Something we started to do last year was a fairly comprehensive tech and AV handbook for our speakers. As a speaker, there is often a lot of questions in your mind about the projector, aspect ratios, and all that kind of stuff. So we created a handbook with the equipment they'll be using and laying out everything for them to be 100% prepared. That really helped and we received great feedback from speakers. 

The lanyard itself… you could probably do a whole blog post on lanyard design. There are so many ways to get it wrong. We decided that the main purpose of the lanyard was to be a social lubricant. To make it easy for you to see somebody's name. So because that's job number one for the lanyard, it leads to certain design choices. Other conferences will try and put the whole program schedule on the lanyard which can be a great idea — but the devil’s in the details. 

Another thing is the conference website and putting thorough information out there about where to be, when to be there, and any sort of helpful directions and instructions. Each year we create a downloadable PDF that shows the downtown and points out the different venues, with a summary of the schedule and other helpful details. 

We try to send as few emails as possible because we're personally irritated by spam. But they can be very useful. For instance, the other week we were at the O'Reilly Design Conference in San Fransisco and they did a really good job of using email. Every day at about 3 am, they'd send an email with your conference details at a glance for that day. That was really useful so it's something we may do moving forward. 

Where did you go to learn about all of this?
Honestly, it's been broad ranging. There’s lots of information out there about event planning, such as EventBrite's content marketing, but we tend to read pretty widely. Our most useful resource in the first two years was just talking to other conference organizers like we're doing in this interview. We've also in past years had an advisory counsel of some folks who have run other events; we’d touch base a few times a year to bounce ideas off them. 

Closing question. What is your favorite 90's dance song?
Everything I can think of was in the 80's. Alright give me a minute. When you sent me this question ahead of time, the first song that came to mind which is totally early 80's was Bela Lugosi's Dead by Bauhaus. Because I still have pictures of being in high school and doing the whole goth dance routine, which was a hell of a lot of fun. 

But 90's... when I think of the 90's, some of my favorite dance memories would have been at live gigs with the Forgotten Rebels. So let’s say "Bomb The Boats" by the Forgotten Rebels. I don't know if it's written in the 90's but it was definitely a song I was rockin out to in the 90's.

[Robert followed up after the interview with his favorite dance song that was ACTUALLY from the 90’s. It’s Atom Bomb by Fluke]