Innovating a Better Conference – Using Design Thinking to Enhance Association Conferences Meetings and Events

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Molly Marsh - AMR Management Services


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.

Part One – The Who

One of the biggest factors which influences how conference participants perceive the value of an event is how well the experience lived up to expectations. The success of an event is often determined by how well the needs and expectations of participants were met, but it is virtually impossible to deliver on those expectations unless you really know and understand your audience.

People are motivated to attend conferences my many different issues and factors. There are common themes, but each event’s attendees (and each group of participants within an event) have specific motivators, characteristics and desired outcomes. Meeting Design starts by digging deeply into these characteristics of an event’s audience(s). You can’t stop at the surface, if you look at demographics and see that your primary audience is Baby Boomers, you may think they are not interested in technology or use of social media to contribute to the conference experience. But, if you also know that the boomers who attend your events are frequent travelers and have become accustomed to integrating mobile technology into their day-to-day work, integration of mobile apps, social media and mobile communication is likely not only okay with them – it’s expected!

Only after getting a clear sense of these needs, can you really implement the subsequent design steps and techniques to ensure that you build an event that delivers the best, most relevant experience for participants. For example, the NASPO (National Association of State Procurement Officials) Exchange brings together state procurement professionals with supplier and vendor companies who do business with state government. Clearly, these two groups have different needs and priorities for participation, and even though one track had been targeted to the supplier audience, there was still concern that the information provided was too “basic.” After further exploration of participant data, NASPO discovered that 71% of the suppliers had been doing business with the government for more than five years, no wonder the materials was “basic”! This group needed more detailed, thorough and hands-on information to support them in becoming more successful business partners.

As an association meeting professional, you can NEVER know too much about your members, conference participants and stakeholders. Each piece of information you can get regarding demographics gives you a better understanding of the needs, expectations and aspirations of your participants. Let your participants – and the data you have about them – tell you where they hope to be at the end of your event. Only then can you build a conference experience that sparks real change, innovation and engagement.    

View All The Entries In This Series here: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4

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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