You’re a thought leader in your industry. You want to convene other thought leaders in one place to share ideas with each other and with those hungry to learn. Perhaps you want to showcase some technology. And you want to make some money. Your vision unfolds as a conference, to which you can attract vendors, sponsors, media and attendees. Then you think about the huge events you have attended during your career – Black Hat, DEMO, Interop – and you think there is no way you can create such an event without the backing of a major corporation or media outlet. Wrong.
The era of Web 2.0 has created a freedom for entrepreneurs that never before existed – though that freedom is not without its risk. That said, all you need to get your conference idea off the ground is a nest egg investment, a good “hub” location, a strong network that you can tap for sponsors, speakers and attendees, and the power of word-of-mouth marketing (WOMM) – which is exactly what it sounds like. And, while unconferences such as BarCamp, PodCamp and WordCamp are impressive, I’m talking about a bona fide technology conference.
Don’t believe me? Look at Defcon as a historic example. The U.S.’ largest hacker con is said to have launched in 1993 out of a BBS that its founders and initial attendees were a part of and grew to more than 8,000 people this year. Defcon is an institution in the security community, and while its sister conference Black Hat is now owned by CMP and also provides Defcon a bit of a captive audience, thousands make the trip to Las Vegas for the hacker con alone.
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WOMM is said to have a more credible feel than other more saturated marketing attempts, and what’s great for conference founders is that you can carry the passion that made you launch the event in the first place with that word-of-mouth. Below are three examples of conferences borne of a small idea that have grown successful via WOMM. While all three are somewhat regional, all have attracted a nationwide audience and speaker roster:
Gnomedex – Though more business than technology focused, Gnomedex is an example of how someone with a strong personal brand grew a conference out of primarily WOMM. According to founder Chris Pirillo, his entire marketing model is based on WOMM. “If something I do doesn’t catch on WOMM, I consider it a failure,” he said. For example, Pirillo said that in 2001, Gnomedex was marketed through his Lockergnome mailing list, which still has more than 100,000 subscribers. As social media presence grew, i.e. legitimized blogs and the birth of podcasting, so did Gnomedex’s WOMM vehicles. According to Pirillo, “2005 was our breakthrough year – largely being embraced by an ad-hoc community of bloggers.”
Twiistup – In doing some crowdsourcing, Twiistup came back as the most prominent answer when I asked which conferences have the best WOMM. Twiistup, founded by Mike Macadaan, markets itself as an “alternative” to traditional networking events. On a small scale, it rivals DEMO in that it features several startups selected to debut their products to an audience of media, technologists, venture capitalists and potential angel investors. What it has going beyond DEMO is its more “Webby” feel and almost cocktail party atmosphere.
SOURCE Conference – SOURCE Conference is the parent of security conferences in Boston and Barcelona. It launched via SOURCE Boston in March of this year as the first security conference to combine application security practices with the business of security. Due to my background in security, I’ve worked with the SOURCE team and I saw firsthand how the event grew from zero to a few hundred participants in its inaugural event, through 90 percent WOMM methods, making significant use of social networks such as Twitter. Founder Stacy Thayer did not have the personal brand power of Pirillo when she launched SOURCE, but what she does have is an impressive network of contacts in the security industry that she leveraged to build an advisory board and bring in impressive speakers – both making the WOMM that much easier.
You’re a thought leader in your industry. You want to start a conference. What’s stopping you?
[Disclosure: Jennifer Leggio does pro-bono communications work with SOURCE Conference]
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