Innovating a Better Conference: Part Two – Using Design Thinking to Enhance Association Conferences, Meetings and Events

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Molly Marsh


Design thinking has emerged as a major force for transformation in the association industry (don’t believe me, see how pervasive it is in industry publicationsconferences and research). When you see the results, it should be no surprise that this is where we’re headed. Applying principles of Meeting Design to conferences can transform a meeting from a list of activities on an agenda to an immersive experience that drives learning, professionalism and ongoing engagement.

Incorporating design-inspired steps, questions and considerations into conference planning empowers organizers to innovate new and better conferences. Each part of this series will explore a different aspect of the design process, demonstrating how the conference experience is enhanced by one simple shift in planning methodology: do everything with the end in mind.

View Previous Entries In This Series here: Part 1

Part Two – The Why

If you ask most association leaders why they have an Annual Conference, they would likely look at you strangely and maybe ask “are you feeling okay?” Events, conferences and meetings are the lifeblood of associations, so much so that they have become an assumed feature or offering for most groups. “Why have a conference? We just do.” But incorporating design thinking in conference planning means nothing – not even the sacred annual conference – is taken for granted.

Once you’ve done your homework (suggested reading: part one), you know who your attendees are and what “success” looks like for them after participating in your conference. Using that vision, the next step is to establish concrete goals and outcomes for the event, goals which guide the decision-making for each aspect of the conference. Meeting Design means that you’ll use these goals to drive each choice made –  from selection of education formats to the design of conference social activities; from implementation of communication strategies to integration of technology – so they’d better be good!

Tips for conference goals:

  • Follow a goal setting model (like S.M.A.R.T.) to ensure you develop strong goals to which you can hold yourself and fellow organizers accountable throughout the planning process.
  • Keep your goals focused on the needs identified in your audience(s) – this can be actual attendees, subsets of attendees, potential attendees, stakeholders, the organization itself or any/all of the above!
  • Ensure leadership is “bought-in” to the goals as established – you’ll meet less resistance to a change in process if all leaders are included from the start.
  • Review your goals regularly to ensure you’re sticking to them.
  • Have over-arching goals that drive the conference experience, and then set specific metrics by which achievement of the goals will be evaluated (spoiler alert…part four will be about evaluation and measuring your success!).

Without setting data-driven goals which reflect the diverse needs of the audience, the conference planning process can easily get off track. You probably will always have an annual conference, but setting a goal and letting it drive conference planning allows organizers to be laser-focused on delivering exactly what participants need and expect. That is a roadmap for success. 

Molly Marsh Cropped Photo
Molly Marsh

Degrees and Credentials:
Certified Meeting Professional (CMP); Bachelor of Arts, Transylvania University

Association Management Professional Since:

What inspires you about your work?
I have a passion for the world of professional associations and the essential support, resources and connections they provide for members. I am an adult learning and meeting design nerd –I am continually inspired by the chance to design face-to-face meetings and innovate content strategy with new techniques, technologies and ideas.

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