Self-service Only!

By tony | No Comments

I’m excited to announce that CrowdVine is moving to a completely self-service model. You can setup your own social network for your conference in minutes. The process is simple, but we have great documentation anyway. Start by selecting a package from our packages page.

There are three main benefits for current and future CrowdVine customers.

  1. You’ll save between $2000 and $4000. That’s good, right?
  2. You know you’re getting the same software that’s been tested on thousands of conferences.
  3. You can try out CrowdVine free of charge and without having to schedule a sales meeting. You’re the boss.

Of course, you may be worried about a few things.

Will it take more of my time? No. Setting up a CrowdVine can be as fast as 2 minutes. A small handful of conferences want to do detailed design customizations. Your web developer can do this in less than an hour.

What if something goes wrong? We’ve been doing these since 2007 and there’s not a lot that can go wrong. But if something does, you can still email our support: support@crowdvine.com.

Messaging 3.0

By tony | No Comments

We’ve improved our messaging features today for all conferences with two new features. These have both been in testing with a handful of conferences and have been extremely helpful.

Speaker Messages
Speakers now have the ability to send a message out to all of the attendees of their talk. We’ve seen speakers use this to share additional information post-event, to give prep materials before the event, and to prompt discussion.

Inboxes
This was our most requested feature by attendees. Previously, private messages from CrowdVine were delivered just via email to people’s email inboxes.

For the most part, this was a convenience that let people participate in the conference networking without having to check CrowdVine every day. However, as networks have gotten more active, many attendees are sending and receiving so many messages that they wanted a separate way to check just their conference messages.

Now they can, through the messages tab on their profile.

These two upgrades join our existing messaging features, email blasts from conference organizers and meeting requests, to make your conference a powerful networking experience.

Documentation for CrowdVine

By terrie | No Comments

We’ve been collecting answers to questions, how-to advice and tips for making the most of CrowdVine….and, behold: documentation that reveals the inner awesomeness of CrowdVine, the secret sauce of community management, the cookbook to solve all of your problems! (Well, most of them….)

The first is our CrowdVine User Manual. This is for members of CrowdVine networks, and offers a more in-depth discussion of profiles, connecting with other members, and creating and using personal conference schedules.

The second is our CrowdVine Admin Manual. This document goes in-depth with features for network administrators like:

  • Creating a custom home page for your network
  • Uploading sessions to your conference calendar using spreadsheet data
  • Tips for better profile questions
  • Basic and advanced tips for inviting people into the network

We’d love to hear feedback on these documents, especially if there are ways we can improve them to make them more useful.

Conference Website Basics #2: Examples of Great Design

By tony | 2 Comments

How do you create a great website design that is attractive, usable, and converts visitors to attendees? Lets look at how some other successful conferences manage that. This is part two, in our Conference Websites Basics series.

#1. Clean and Clear
Less is more in conference website design. You want your message to be read, not merely to exist. Here are some examples of clean and clear conference websites:

  • Twitter’s Chirp conference has an artsy, hand-drawn feel, but that doesn’t get in the way with presenting information clearly.
  • IXDA gets the basics right and changes their home page message according to what’s relevant right now.
  • User conferences, like Webtrends Engage, have an easier time because everyone knows what the conference is about. Webtrends sees that as an opportunity to focus on customer engagement.

#2 Simplified Navigation
Navigation tabs should present a small amount of clearly organized information, but some conferences feel like the navigation should include links to every conceivable bit of information. Here are examples of how to simplify and organize your navigation:

  • TED boils their navigation down to just three elements.
  • Google IO cuts down on the number of web pages by answering most questions in a FAQ.
  • CES tries to make up for too many navigation options (45 items in the tabs and sub-tabs) by having a sidebar for each type of attendee (press, attendee, exhbitor).
  • SIGGRAPH organizes all of their navigation by audience. That way if you’re an attendee you don’t ever have to see the clutter that’s for exhibitors.
  • Anime Expo has 97 navigation items, but at least they read, usability expert, Jacob Neilsen’s article on mega drop downs as a very usable way to handle complex navigation hierarchies.

#3. Value Proposition
What is the number one thing you want people to notice on your website? Does it stand out against the noise of everything else you’re saying? Here’s how other conferences communicate their top goal: letting potential attendees know why they should attend.

  • RailsConf uses their banner area to sell the event by listing their top speakers.
  • Microsoft PDC puts their full agenda on their home page–their agenda is their sales pitch
  • Social Media World pairs company logo with speakers and makes a compelling case that they cover news from all important companies in their industry.

Conference Website Basics #1: The Home Page

By tony | 10 Comments

As we get into hosting complete conference websites on CrowdVine, we want to start publishing on best practices for conference website design. This is article #1. Our philosophy is that the entire conference revolves around the attendee. Happy attendees let you make happy sponsors which lets you make a profit. That’s reflected in our design advice.

Independently, several of us picked Future of Web Apps (FOWA) as the best conference website design of 2010. Let’s use it as an example for talking about what content should be on the home page. Here’s the FOWA home page color coded: grey for basic information, green for selling points, blue for calls to action, and red for ancillary content.

Basic Information.
Potential attendees want to know that your conference is in the future as opposed to last year, that they haven’t already booked a wedding on your conference dates, and that your conference is in a city (and country!) that they would consider travelling to. Additionally, they are making their decision based on the content of your conference and they need easy access to that information. Here is a check list for the basics:

  1. Dates — we recommend including the year.
  2. Location — consider making this a link to Google Maps or your hotel/travel page.
  3. Program — Full schedule, program highlights, and speakers.
  4. Navigation — Many conferences include loads of links here. We’ve seen websites with as many as 35. We’d recommend limiting yourself to five top-level tabs and 15 total sub-tabs. Why? The time a visitor spends on your home page is measured in seconds–you want to guarantee that they find your strongest content.

Selling Points.
Figure out what the value proposition is and then make that as visible as possible. This is the content that convinces a visitor to attend. FOWA thinks attendees come for content and that’s reflected by covering half of their home page with promotions for their content. There’s just two things to do here.

  1. Figure out the most compelling reason for why people should attend your conference and put that right beneath your tabs. If you have amazing keynote speakers, put up their names and photos. If you have tons of great speakers, show that. Here’s an example of Social Media World Forum which is showing not only that they have loads of speakers but that those speakers cover every important company in their sector.
  2. Choose a few additional reasons for attending. Show those below your top reason. Make sure your top reason stands out more, otherwise you’re just cluttering your most important message. The Sundance website is clear, that the number one reason for attending is to see movies. Secondarily, you can engage in discussion about the movie industry.

Conversions.
The conference website exists primarily to change people, to convert potential attendees into actual attendees, to convert companies into exhibitors, and to convert interesting experts into speakers. This is another simple checklist.

  1. Choose a call to action that’s appropriate for this moment. Usually the call to action changes. You may get your website up early enough that you can only say, “Save this date.” After that you have CFP, early bird, and final registration.
  2. Make that call for action clear. In browsing several hundred event websites, we often found the registration button hard to spot amongst a dozen other blinking and flashing buttons. Make this button clear and tone down your banner and your sponsor images.
  3. If your registration and website software supports it, try split testing different versions. Does “Register” convert differently than “Register Now”? Does the subtext “Early Bird Ends in 12 hours 13 minutes” change conversions? The FOWA site wasn’t the only good looking clear website, but they are the only one that I saw split testing their registration text. That’s why I rate them as the best conference website of 2010.
  4. Consider additional calls to action, but consider them carefully. FOWA has two additional calls. For visitors who aren’t convinced, they suggest getting more information with, “More Great Speakers ->.” For visitors who are impressed, but who aren’t ready to register, they offer access to their email newsletter. I find it interesting that FOWA, with extremely social media savvy attendees, chose an email newsletter rather than asking people to follow their Twitter account or join their Facebook page. That supports something that we’ve heard anecdotally, that emails addresses convert to more registered attendees than Twitter followers.

Ancillary Content
Ancillary content is anything that doesn’t support conversion or helping to deliver on your promise of a great event.

  1. Decide where to list your sponsors. FOWA is one of the few events that gets away with putting the sponsors in the footer. I think this supports our philosophy of focusing on the attendee first–FOWA can stand firm on the placement of their sponsor logos because they have some of the most desirable attendees in the web conference space. Most other conference put their sponsors in a sidebar or in a rotating space in the banner. Either of those is fine. Occasionally we’ll see conferences that list their sponsors before listing why attendees should attend. This is short sighted.
  2. Eliminate non-essential links and content. The most common non-essential clutter is to host the conference website as a set of pages inside of the organizing company’s website. So in addition to the typical conference website clutter, this adds links to the company products, their investor relations info, and their open jobs. Those aren’t why people are attending. We recommend breaking event websites into their own microsites. Here, the Webtrends Engage conference keeps just a link to in the header to the Webtrends company page, yet ever attendee knows that this event is about the Webtrends company and their products.

  3. If you can’t eliminate non-essential links, move them into the footer. This is a pragmatic solution to an organizational problem when websites have feedback by committee.

A Template

Finally, here’s a wireframe that you and your designers can use as a starting point. It’s also available as a Balsamiq file (which is a great wireframing tool).

Thanks for reading so far! Let us know if we’re wrong, if we missed any minutiae, or if there are important considerations that aren’t included here.

Controversy on the Meetings Podcast

By tony | No Comments

Big thanks to Mike McAllen for having me on the 164th episode of the Meetings Podcast. You can listen to it live right here (turn your speakers on so your coworkers can hear):

Meetings Podcast Episode 164 with Tony Stubblebine of CrowdVine

Was it a controversial episode? You bet.

I predicted the demise of exhibition halls, pre-planned content for sessions, and sales people. What’s left of the conference industry after you take all that away? Just networking and attendee generated content–how self serving of me!

Head over to the Meetings Podcast and let Mike know what you think.

Features in our Conference Website Beta

By tony | 1 Comment

We’re letting more people into the beta for managing the entire conference website. Our goal for these websites is to have simple defaults that are clear and engaging from the attendee perspective, but flexible when the conference organizer needs it. But what does that mean concretely?

Below is the basic feature list. If you want to participate in our beta, fill out this beta request.

Page Builder: You can’t have a website without web pages. This is the feature that lets you manage your home page or your contact page, for example.

Sponsor Listings: Easily enter information about your sponsors and have them show up on a single listing page. Entering sponsors is meant to be simple enough that you don’t have to get your web designer involved.

Program Listings: Easily enter all of your events, talks, sessions and activities.

Presentation Files: Post your presentation files and session handouts. If some of your presentations are hosted on a service like Slideshare, we handle that too.

Speaker Listings: Easily enter speaker bios and photos.

Mobile Website: We’ll display a mobile optimized version of your website that will work on any phone’s web browser.

Session Ratings: Simple online ratings that attendees can give from their computer or their phone.

Registration Integration: We don’t do registration, but we connect directly to two of the best, Eventbrite and Regonline. Or you can connect your registration directly to us through our API.

Social Attendee Directory: This was our original feature, a social network to give attendees an opportunity to connect before they show up.

Attendee Discussions: Let attendees discuss the conference beforehand, let speakers get feedback on their topcs.

Agenda Builder: Let attendees bookmark activities that they are interested in and see who else is in a session with them.

If this sounds interesting to you, requst access to our beta.

30 Day Trials

By tony | No Comments

CrowdVine is now available as a 30 day trial, no fees or downloads required. That means you can test things out before making any sort of commitment, and more importantly, you can see what event community software looks like without ever having to talk to a sales person.

Start a free trial now.

This is a follow-up to last week’s post on transparent pricing. I had several suppliers comment on that post about how valuable sales people are. Not surprisingly, I’ve never heard an event organizer tell me how much they loved sales people.

On the one hand, I hate talking to a salesperson to get basic information. I don’t want to build that type of company. On the other hand, I love talking to customers. I get that this is a relationship business and events need to know that new services aren’t going to blow up at the wrong time.

Even though we’re making it as easy as possible for you to get basic information, we’re still going to leave our phone number on the website. If you want to get a demo, if you want to get specific questions answered, if you would rather have our experts setup and manage your event community, then contact us. Just know that we won’t have a salesperson on the other end.

Transparent Pricing

By tony | 6 Comments

What is the number one change that would benefit conferences and events? I think about this question all of the time. Awhile back, I posed some questions about things I didn’t get about the event industry. Why were industry suppliers so fragmented? Why were things so expensive? Why are so many conferences reinventing the wheel?

Beware the Meetings Industrial Complex
Now, the answer seems obvious. This industry employs too many people working in sales roles.

In 2009, MPI publicized a letter to congress highlighting the value of our industry. The number one value, according to them, was how many people we employ.

It was the least inspiring call to action that I’ve ever read. I don’t build products for this industry because I’m excited about supporting a giant make-work project. I build products for this industry because it is a powerful force for education and catalyst for new ideas. The meetings industry is the most critical piece of our society for pushing change forward.

Here’s my litmus test for whether you’re on the same page as me. All other things being equal, if the event industry could be 1% more profitable or 1% more educational, but employ 1% fewer people, would you consider this a good trade or a bad trade?

Pillars of our community
The meetings industry employs incredibly bright, honest, and helpful sales people. Many of the hardest working leaders in our industry work in sales roles for our suppliers. Our industry is built on the relationships that they help foster. No matter. THEY SHOULD BE REPLACED.

Sales people represent a scarcity of information. If ratings, rankings, honest assessments of features, pricing, and comparisons were available online, event organizers would never talk to sales people. But that information isn’t available online. There’s no Yelp reviews of event suppliers. There’s not even honest information on most supplier’s websites.

There are 190 online registration providers. Some conference is paying for the worst of those 190 registration providers. How did that happen? The registration market should be incredibly simple: EventBrite, RegOnline, ActiveEvents, and CVent in a desperate struggle to make sure they have the best product and services.

Sales people make everything more expensive. They spend most of their time talking to people who aren’t ever going to pay them. This is called the sales pipeline. They approach 100 people, 10 people agree to talk to them, one person agrees to buy. If you’re that one person, you’re paying for all the time that sales person spent on the 99 other people. Plus, it’s their job to jack up the prices through upselling and information hiding.

Why isn’t there more standardization? This one’s a little bit trickier, and I have a feeling I’m going to have to find some way to demonstrate this over time. People in this industry seem to think every event needs excessive customization. Clearly, sales people support this because customization is a really common upsell. But is it bad? I think, at least, that making more information public would move events to standardizing more often on well tested enhancements.

Goodbye dinosaurs, hello mammals
Here’s the thing, the only way sales jobs go away is if they are replaced by something better (or if the event industry fails to adapt, in which case all jobs go away). The way that other industries do this is that they encourage sources of independent, trustworthy information and then work to choose winning suppliers in each category.

Today, if you go to an event for event planners that’s showcasing the best new companies, there’s a very good chance that those companies are there simply because they were willing to pay a fee of several thousand dollars. That’s not independent, trustworthy information.

There’s starting to be easily accessible, trustworthy information online. If you join an #eventprofs twitter chat you can get your information directly from another event organizer. That’s a start, although you’d really prefer to get information from someone who could see the entire industry at once.

Suppliers too, could make a change. Probably the most successful software company in the event space right now is EventBrite. They process a few hundred million dollars in tickets each year with a relatively small staff and all of their information as public as possible. (although they do manage to charge twice as much as RegOnline for no real benefit–something they couldn’t do if comparison information were more available).

Finally, transparent pricing
I started CrowdVine to be the type of company I would want to work for. I also started it to be the type of company I would want to work with. In short, we want to be mammals. How are we doing? Are we all sales and hype?

Thankfully, we’ve always had good word of mouth business. If we do a good job for one conference we get more conferences. That makes it easy to make decisions that are aligned with the interests of our customers.

We have standardized prices and packages. That, combined with word-of-mouth incentives, means we’re pretty good at pushing what’s valuable rather than what we think you can afford. Inside a standard package our incentive is to do anything that does actually translate into a better experience.

We’re pretty transparent about what’s working and not working. For example, see this post on the failure of OpenID adoption and this post on how to get a social network launched successfully.

Until today, we’ve had one glaring hole. We hid our most expensive packages behind a call-for-pricing policy. That means if you wanted to know the price you had to get on the phone with us. I think that policy works against us and gives the impression that we want to get you on the phone in order to work our high-pressure sales magic.

We’re done with that policy. All of our pricing is now available on our packages page. Plus we’ve added answers to our most frequently asked pricing questions. Are there hidden fees? Do we secretly have better deals for people who ask nicely? All of those questions are answered.

Now I want to know, can we go further? What other annoying vestiges of sales processes can we remove?

New Twitter Backgrounds

By tony | 1 Comment

At the beginning of September, we put together a mockup of a new background for our Twitter account. Like a lot of Twitter backgrounds, it had an explanation of who we were and some calls to action. But before we had a chance to add it to our account, Twitter changed their design.

Here was our original mockup:

The new Twitter website design is much wider and you aren’t guaranteed much space in the margins to show your message. How much space to you have? The experts at Banyan Branch have in depth tips for making backgrounds for the new twitter, including these rules of thumb for how much space you have to work with:

(100%*) Always Visible: 41px on each side
(72.7%*) of Modern Computers: 108px on each side (Requires about 1280x800px Screen Resolution or Higher)
(28.8%*) of Modern Computers: 200px on each side (Requires 1440x900px Screen Resolution or Higher)
(4.6%*) of Modern Computers: 312px on each side (Requires 1920×1080 Screen Resolution)

So, if we want to have a background message that reaches all modern web users, we needed to fit our message in just 41 pixels. That’s enough space for a small logo or a short message written vertically. What message should we put? I thought briefly about ways to say, “give us your money,” but decided instead to stick with what got us here, which was putting attendees first.

If you or your attendees need any sort of help, feedback, or advice, then email us.

See that background in action on our twitter account

Conference Design Customization Checklist

By terrie | No Comments

Many self-service conferences are doing design customizations that are amazingly beautiful and thorough. We love that!

Design customizations are one of the main services we provide in our support packages, but the tools we use are the exact same tools you get from our self-service packages. So doing a design customizations is just a matter of skill and experience.

On the skill side, we usually say you should have basic web development experience, know CSS, and have access to a tool like Firebug. If you are that person, or have that person on staff, you can make CrowdVine look like any of the networks from our Favorite Designs post.

Below are tips for the major decisions you need to make before you get started and the checklist we use internally to make sure we didn’t make any mistakes.

Getting Started

You’ll find your design customization options on the Admin panel in the “Content and Design” section.

“Design” gives you access to basic features like changing colors or adding a logo. “Customize our default templates” is where you’ll find the goodies for advanced users with knowledge of HTML and CSS.

Many of the templates that are used to display a network are completely customizable by you. The two most common templates to override are layouts/top_header, which allows customize your own navigation banner, and sites/css, which allows you to add your own custom CSS.

You will probably want access to images for your design. You can upload those through the Admin Manage Uploads page.

Decision Time

Check for compatibility between your existing design and CrowdVine. Most customizations are based on an existing design from the main conference website. For the most part, CrowdVine is extremely flexible. But there are two gotchas. CrowdVine likes to use the entire content area and so we have a strong preference for avoiding vertical navigation (i.e. navigation that appears in a sidebar). CrowdVine also uses the prototype javascript library. This often conflicts if you’re using jquery in your design. If either of these are the case, most conferences choose to create a simplified variation of the design for CrowdVine.

Most CrowdVine customizations are based on an existing conference website. You need to decide whether to add the CrowdVine navigation as additional navigation or as replacement of existing design’s navigation. – in most cases, you can keep your site’s navigation and let CrowdVine add its own navigation below. Here are two examples of how that design decision works out:

CrowdVine navigation only

Conference navigation + CrowdVine navigation

Our default CrowdVine networks have an overall width of 940px, with the left column (#left_side) being 620px and the right column (#right_side) being 280px. Please keep in mind as you adjust the design of your network that decreasing the overall width could cause problems on certain pages. If you do plan on reducing the size of your network, we suggest changing the width of the left side before the right side. Many items on the post-customization checklist are there because of potential issues you may run into with width changes.

Many conferences want to add a sidebar for sponsors. This is possible, although it’s basically the most complicated design customization because it often requires changing the width of the CrowdVine content, which creates cascading effects. A less invasive way to add a sponsor column is to just add the column to content pages by customizing the pages/show template. If you do want an extra sidebar on all pages, you can add content to sites/optional_third_column and CSS to sites/css along the lines of:

#third-col{float:right;width:180px;}
#outer_content{width:940px;margin:0 auto;}
#content{width:730px;float:left;}
#left_side{width:440px;}
body#sites.show #left_side .summary, #left_side .summary{width:420px;}
#right_side{margin-left:0;}

OK, on to the checklist!

  • Check that #flash and .prompt are pleasantly styled. These often get missed if you’re doing heavy customizing of colors in the content area.
  • Make sure text areas aren’t cut of on private messaging, discussion posts, comments, and profile comments.
  • Check the login page for pleasant styling (http://yournetwork.crowdvne.com/account/login)
  • Check the photo page for pleasant styling (http://yournetwork.crowdvne.com/posts/photos)
  • Check the map page for potential overlap issues (http://yournetwork.crowdvne.com/maps/show)
  • Check the twitter page for correct styling, esp. borders/margin/padding (http://yournetwork.crowdvne.com/posts/twitter)
  • Make sure the right side is actually on the right side on /posts instead of below the content
  • For sites with a smaller #left_side, add this for IE7 and IE6: body#profiles.show #left_side #bio_section .infobox{width:__px;}

Happy customizing!

Building Conference Websites with CrowdVine

By tony | No Comments

Update: Sign up for early access to our beta program.

We’re doing customer trials where CrowdVine is hosting the entire conference website, rather than just being a social network and agenda builder add-on. Is this a change in direction? No. But it does qualify as a major new feature.

Our original goal was to make conferences more valuable to attendees by boosting their networking opportunities. Then we added in a personal scheduler in order to make sure attendees found their way to the best sessions. Now, by hosting an the entire website, we’re able to add attendee engagement across the full life cycle of the conference.

PCMA’s EduCon introduced a blueprint for a social augmented event. There are seven stages to that blueprint, and currently CrowdVine currently dominates two of them, pre-event networking and event networking.

Those are still the places that give attendees the most bang, but we also want to let them in on the rest of the conference cycle. Public proposal systems let attendees have a say in the program process. Aggregated social media content gives a constant stream of pre-event marketing phase. Session ratings let you get easy and instant analytics post-conference.

This is a massive undertaking, but if you think this is something that applies to your conference, we’d love to hear from you. The best way to contact us is simply to email me, tony@crowdvine.com.

In the mean time, check out some of the conference websites that we’ve built with CrowdVine:

IA Summit 2010

Adaptive Path’s UXWeek

Transformation 2010

WASWUG 2011

Net Impact 2010

Update: Sign up for early access to our beta program.

Customized Mobile Conference Websites

By terrie | No Comments

CrowdVine’s mobile version is now customizable via the “Customize our default templates” link in the Admin panel of your network. This gives you the ability to brand the mobile version with your own design touches. Compare UX Week‘s customized version this year with the generic version from their previous conference:

If network members are logged in on their mobile device, they’ll see their personal schedule, with an option to toggle over to the full schedule. If members are not logged in, they’ll see the full remaining schedule for the day.

We’ve added quick links for your “Want to Meet” list, and “Chatter”. Chatter is a combined view of tweets and discussion posts from members of the network.

The goal of the mobile site is the same: get you quick access to information you need on-site at the event: the people you’re trying to meet and the next session to go to.

(HUGE, special thanks to Ljuba Miljkovic at Adaptive Path for pushing the envelope and helping us work through these changes.)

What’s new in CrowdVine

By tony | 1 Comment

As usual, blogging slows down for us when we’re busy. I wish this weren’t true. I’d be happy if my job was almost entirely researching and publishing conference and social media information, but we’re not there yet. Our work life used to be, “Blog, serve customers, write code: pick one.” Now that we’re bigger, we get to pick two. Lately it’s been a lot of making sure customers are happy and building product updates. So, what’s new?

New Attendee List
We pushed out a new version of the attendee list that’s based on feedback from two types of attendees: people who are used to printed attendee directories and sales types. By having our attendee list follow the structure of it’s printed cousin, we can shorten the learning curve for new users. Lowering the barrier to entry has always been one of our design tricks for getting an active community. Our key change for sales people was to let them browse by state and country, which is how many have their sales territories organized. We’re using this feature to de-emphasize our plot-attendees-on-a-Google-map feature, which has always been sort of neat but not very useful.

PCMA Educon
We just wrapped up serving and attending PCMA Educon. They’re a very large association of event managers and (in my opinion) the best meetings association for getting solid high-integrity information. PCMA keeps a clear split between education and sponsor marketing (if you think this is normal, you haven’t been asked to accept a meetings technology award by sending in an $8000 check).

I’ve written before that it’s a mixed bag building a conference product without deep conference experience. On the one hand, I am an attendee coming from a world where almost all conference content is available for free online via blogs/youtube/slideshare and all exhibitor information is best gotten through online reviews. So it’s easy for me to figure out what conferences need to do to make the attendee experience better. However, except for organizing a small unconference, I’m not a conference organizer. So it’s harder to understand the experience of running a conference. That’s why I think our association with PCMA is so valuable–it’s an education. Some of that education comes out in product features, but a lot more comes out in the advice that we give.

Upgraded schedule sharing
For a long time we only had two ways to make your schedule portable: view it on a mobile browser or download an ical file to your calendar. We’ve added a print option and an email option. We also did a compatibility upgrade to the ical file. Microsoft Outlook does an awful job of parsing valid ical files and for a long time we’d get regular complaints about the ical. We’ve developed a strong distrust of Outlook, but we’ve gone two months without any reports, so I think our last round of compatibility changes were an improvement at least.

Record months
The last three months have all been records for us in terms of new attendees using CrowdVine. That’s nice, but also busy making.

New designer
As proof that we really are having record months, we hired a designer, Armando. He started off by going through some of our highest traffic pages and cleaning up the ugliest bits. A lot of his changes are already live. We’ve always worked with a lot of design conferences and the feedback we often got was, “Very useful, but dude, you need to hire a designer.” We finally got big enough to do that. That’s good for our existing features, but it also lets us get new features out faster.

The Support Behind Support

By terrie | No Comments

I hear a lot of good things about CrowdVine customer support, and because I’m the forward-facing side of that, I get lots of nice kudos about it. But the truth is, there’s a lot more to support than the person the customer talks to. I started out in tech support for WordStar in 1989, and I’ve been in support roles for a handful of companies in the past twenty-plus years. Our customers have said that working with CrowdVine is different because of the support, and I can tell you that working for CrowdVine is also different.

Tony, Jay, Michelle and I work together each day, logged into Campfire while we work. Countless times throughout the day, I ask questions or make requests there that are related to supporting our customers. And I depend on Michelle, Jay, and Tony to help me. They’re the real support-behind-support. And I’m grateful to all three of them for their timely (and friendly!) responses and unfailing support of the work that I do.

We have an interesting perspective on this at CrowdVine because Tony, Jay and I all worked together for a larger company in the past. Our roles were similar in many ways, but there were a couple layers of management and multiple departments involved. That was a fine company, but the three of us did not feel like we were giving great support to our internal customers. My coworkers are the same, but the experience is very different. It raises the question: what changed?

The difference is the culture and mindset of our very small company. Because we’re a small group, it’s possible for each of us to contribute our ideas and our opinions. We have lively discussions and often disagree with each other. Everyone appreciates different points of view and I love that I can state mine and feel no qualms about changing my mind after hearing someone else’s take on a situation. A surprising result of this: the more disagreements we have and resolve, the more I feel inclined to seek others’ advice. I don’t feel like I have to have all the answers, and the solutions that we provide customers are that much better for it.

This kind of culture promotes a greater engagement with our work. It allows our work to be part of our self-expression; it’s part of who we are. When you’re part of a large group, it’s harder to feel that way about your work. There just isn’t the time or bandwidth for everyone to be heard, and eventually it just feels like someone else’s work you’re doing in exchange for a paycheck; it makes it harder to provide support with soul.

We enjoy providing great support and we enjoy a company culture that supports it. That’s good for our customers, and it’s good for us as employees, too.

Experiences, not features

By tony | 1 Comment

Like a lot of venues, the San Francisco Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) is running a promotion offering $5 off your ticket if you check-in on FourSquare. It seems so easy and like such a good idea. The promotion is essentially a discount for customers who promote the venue or event. This is a feature that FourSquare is building directly into their app.

But running the promotion feature on FourSquare is not the same thing as running a promotion on FourSquare.

The feature by itself is just a recipe for confusion. I bought tickets for a YBCA event last Friday and when I picked my tickets up from Will Call, nobody at the desk had even heard of FourSquare. So I talked to the person at the ticket booth. She’d also never heard of FourSquare.

Thankfully, the person in the ticket booth recognized my story about the FourSquare discount as the sort of stunt her coworkers in marketing might play on her. She found an equivalent discount in her system and gave that instead.

The Social Media Experience
The problem with the YBCA experience was not with the FourSquare feature, it was that YBCA didn’t have the right (or any) system around it. Social media is one half software and one half people. You have to get the people lined up or the software isn’t worth anything.

At last year’s Voices That Matter: Web Design Conference, Jesse James Garrett gave a talk asking people to build experiences, as opposed to technology or features. As an example, he posited that the real strength of the iPod was not the great design, but that Apple built an end-to-end experience by bundling iTunes and the iTunes store. He was talking to web designers, but the advice is applicable to companies that use social media.

Picking the feature and technology is just step one in building the social media experience. YBCA needed to give Will Call a way to pay the discount and that would have required planning and training.

Planning and training doesn’t mean an executive retreat followed by all day trainings. But it does require a few minutes of thought and an email/phone-call to people on the front lines.

Social Media Solutions
Since I come from the world of consumer web software, I’m often confused by terminology in the world of B2B.

For example, until recently I could never wrap my head around all of the software companies that offered “solutions.” I find it painful to even say the word, “solution,” because it brings to mind salesy, do-nothing-well, empty promise, marketing-drivel software websites.

But a B2B solution is just when a company bundles their software with the experience around their software. That experience is often things like training, configuration, advice, customization, and supporting software.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. An in-house expert is more effective than an out-sourced expert. But an out-sourced expert can be much more effective than an in-house overworked non-expert. The latter is what most companies are choosing between.

Last year I did a series of customer interviews and every single customer said that what made the experience good and doable was the support we gave. The word the customers used to refer to our support was “Terrie.” It turns out that we are selling B2B solutions and our solution is software bundled with hosting, communication materials and Terrie, someone who keeps you on proven paths and can be counted on to make sure any technical or communication detail gets handled.

That feedback from customers and the talk at VTM: Web Design has had me thinking a lot about the entire experience we’re building. It’s not just software.

Event industry loses an innovator

By tony | 8 Comments

EventVue, maker of event social networks and our first competitor, just announced that they are shutting down their business. They’ve posted a raw and honest post mortem. This is bad for the event industry. They blame themselves, but I blame venture capital.

Respect for innovation
EventVue built a good product. Whenever I talked to one of their customers, the customer seemed happy. The attendees seemed happy. The software looked good. In the world of event social networks, we launched first, but EventVue was so close behind us that their launch was clearly the result of an original idea. They were our competitor with the most innovations and I constantly wondered if they were going to make a huge discovery that dwarfed what we were working on.

An event social network is not a walled garden like Facebook, it has a limited time with attendees and so it needs to play nicely with the existing online personas of its users (Twitter, address books, big social network sites). EventVue got this and executed on it as well as anyone.

They didn’t stop innovating. They launched Discover, a product that let people lookup which of their friends were attending an event. Then they launched a twitter chat stream that let events offer a real time Twitter conversation that any attendee could comment on.

There’s something about the way the event industry buys software that breeds copycats. That’s why you can have 190 online registration systems that nobody can tell apart. In the nascent world of event social networks our model was an attendee directory paired with a personal schedule builder. EventVue, more than any other competitor, was constantly testing and refining their own original model and vision.

The event social network niche is too new to be losing innovators and innovators are too rare in this event industry for this not to be a blow.

Venture Capital is a competitive disadvantage
I think it’s fair to say that I’m anti-venture-capital. I think it’s a corrupting influence on products and companies. EventVue is just a mild example. They took a small amount of investment (reportedly $265k, although from their story it sounds like there was a double-down round). That’s peanuts, but it was enough to put them on that weird (to-me) funded company path.

Here’s how I would summarize the history of their company. They had a product that worked well and they had some paying customers. However, they doubted the product could be a big seller because it was a “nice-to-have” with a low price point in an industry with long sales cycles. So they switched directions to Discover, a product that seemed to have bigger upside potential because it was designed to be more tightly tied to the customer’s bottom line, but which did nothing to aid EventVue’s immediate bottom line. Then they tried another product. Then they ran out of money.

To me, that’s a history of a company moving backward. Every day gave them less traction and less money.

We took a different approach. We charged for our product from the beginning and we never once spent more money than we were making. So now we find ourselves in a much better situation: we’re still in business. It’s actually a lot rosier than just that: we have a growing base of repeat customers, we have no debt, and we have growing revenue.

The key advantage is that we never had a period where we weren’t a sustainable company. That means we have longevity. Bootstrappers, like us, live with a lot of constraints, but they also have the advantage of time.

Compounding Interest
My biggest issue with venture backed companies is the way they throw away valuable products and leave happy customers in the cold.

Ignore market size for a moment. The customers who use event social networks are very happy. The attendees who use them are even happier.

Like EventVue, I don’t think the event social network market is perfect. It’s currently small. No one has shown a path for rapid growth. It has integration challenges since the rest of the event software market is so fragmented. Sales cycles are long and price points are low.

But I also know that we have very happy customers and a sustainable business. And those happy customers are asking us to write software for other pain points. That doesn’t look like a dead end to me, it looks like a great starting point.

Every business is a bet, and the bet I placed was on compounding interest. Every year we will have more customers, more revenue, know more about the industries we serve, and be better and more talented business-folk/programmers/product-developers. This past year our revenue grew by 50% and we added one hugely productive person to the team. Carry that forward for ten years and the small four-person business we’re running right now feels like a pretty big opportunity.

For what it’s worth, and I know I’m in the minority, but I like working and one of my major goals for CrowdVine was to build a company that I would want to work for every day. I’m 31 years old. I don’t just carry that idea of compounding interest forward for ten years, I carry it forward for thirty-nine years.

What does the EventVue announcement mean to you? Can a venture backed software company succeed in the event space? Does having innovative companies matter? Let me know in the comments.

Posting to Twitter and a Facebook Page in One Step

By terrie | No Comments

There are many ways to manage and integrate your organization’s Twitter account and Facebook page. I’ve tried a lot tactics in my work with CrowdVine and for the Ecology of Leadership program. Here’s what really works.

First off, you want to post to Twitter and have those posts copied to Facebook (Twitter-to-Facebook, not Facebook-to-Twitter), for these three reasons:

  • If you go the other direction and use the automatic Facebook-to-Twitter service, Facebook will append its own URL to every post it makes to your Twitter account. This means extra clicking—an annoyance for your followers. On the other hand, tweets with links work great when automatically re-posted to Facebook.
  • When you go from Twitter to Facebook, your staff can post and not lose their own identity on your Facebook Page. If you add them as administrators of your page, everything they post comes thru as a generic post by your organization. This is a little quirk about Facebook Pages. For example: assume you’re ABC Nonprofit and that Jane and Frank are two of your volunteer Facebook people. Frank posts photos to the ABC Nonprofit page. Jane tries to comment on a photo, but her comment appears to come from “ABC Nonprofit” and not from “Jane”. Your Facebook Page admins lose their own identity on your Facebook page. That’s social media that’s not very social!
  • By posting from Twitter to Facebook, you can get all of the benefits of using CoTweet. CoTweet is a powerful application for giving teams of people the ability to post to one Twitter account. You can schedule posts for the future, manage multiple Twitter accounts from your own personal CoTweet account, and track responses from followers. CoTweet is easy to set up: create an account, and then add one or more Twitter accounts to it. For each Twitter account you set up, you can invite others in to post via CoTweet, using their own CoTweet accounts…so you never need to share your organization’s Twitter password with the members of your team. If someone leaves the team, you simply revoke their permissions through CoTweet. Here’s a screen shot of CoTweet that gives you an idea of its power:

    CoTweet

Those are the reasons for a system that copies from Twitter to Facebook; now you need to make that synchronization happen.

There’s an easy solution for this: use the Facebook Application Selective Tweets. Selective Tweets will post your Twitter status updates to Facebook if they have the hashtag #fb at the end of the tweet. (If you’re using CoTweet, use their “CoTag” feature to auto-append the hashtag for you.)

Selective Tweets lets you configure specific Twitter accounts to specific Facebook Pages; you can use it for your personal Twitter account to post to your Facebook Profile AND use it for your organization’s Twitter account to post to your Facebook Page. Other Facebook Apps I’ve seen don’t have the awareness that different Twitter accounts might correspond to Facebook Pages rather than personal profiles.

Just add Selective Tweets to youyr Facebook profile grant it access to your Twitter account(s). Then use the “Your Fan Pages” tab to set up which Twitter accounts should sync to which Facebook Pages:

Selective Tweet

When using Selective Tweet, Twitter posts might take some time to repost over to your Facebook page…that seems to be normal, so give it some time for your first test.

The combination of Selective Tweets and CoTweet is the best solution we’ve found for teams to post to Facebook and Twitter in one step.

How to launch a social network

By tony | 2 Comments

It’s easy to create a social network website these days. We’re partial to our own software, of course, but you have more than two hundred other options. However, having social network software is not the same as having a social network. For that you need people.

We recommend the five step recipe below to everyone who uses CrowdVine. They’re simple, common sense steps that reliably lead to launches with high adoption and active members. We also see many networks try something different, and we can see that missing just one step reliably leads to a dead, lifeless, failed network no matter how much work the creator puts in. But have no fear, these are easy.

#1. Your network must be member-centric
Many social network ideas we hear are variations on “I can make a lot of money if I had a social network with millions of people talking about X.”

Yes. You would. But no members are going to join a network for your benefit. They’re going to join for their own benefit. You need to find a reason that’s compelling to your potential members.

For example, with event social networks, the first thing we tell potential members is “Meet other attendees on the event social network.” That’s a clear and direct appeal to one of the major reasons people go to a conference. Our adoption rate with this pitch is usually between thirty and seventy percent.

In comparison, there was an initial wave of event social network products that were transparent attempts to get attendees in front of exhibitor sales people. The pitch was, “Come get harassed by sales people.”

Not surprisingly, these networks saw very little adoption. Their pitch was a classic example of the “I can make a lot of money” approach. If the network was full, you would make money selling the opportunity to exhibitors.

The problem is that those networks were empty and so nobody got any value, not the creators, not the exhibitors, and not the attendees. Pretty much the only significant difference when we started working with events was that we’d flipped the value proposition around enough that we actually got adoption.

#2. Seed people in the network
There is no value in a social network that has no members. That means you have a tough sales pitch at first. Potential members will experience your pitch as, “Join my completely worthless social network about X.” One hundred percent of your potential members will ignore any marketing or communication requests to join that type of network.

You need to get around the empty-network syndrome by getting some early members. Then your launch pitch can be “Come join these awesome people on the social network about X.” Here are some ways you can get early members:

  • Invite people who can’t say no, like people that work for you. It’s their job to join!
  • Invite people who will join as a favor, like friends or close colleagues. Tell them they are doing you a favor and that it will be worthwhile to them down the road.
  • Load profiles from some other source. Associations have membership lists. Companies have employees. Events have attendees. Many of these sources have the implicit assumption that they are going to be part of a directory–that’s all the social network is.
  • Use a combination of these–the more members at the start, the better.

If you don’t have an organization with members, don’t have friends, and don’t have employees, then you aren’t ready to launch a social network.

#3. Invite people via email
Just like there’s no value in an empty social network, there’s also no value in a social network that nobody knows about. Email is the most effective way to let people know that your social network has launched. It’s several orders of magnitude more effective than a blog post, twitter post, or website link. By all means, use websites and social media to promote your network. They help, but they’re not sufficient.

What we see when a network is promoted without an email list is that visitors dribble in but that there never develops a sense of activity. Members want to be able to find other members but they also want the sense that if they contact someone or start a discussion, they will get a response.

With an email blast, all potential early members visit on the same day. That gives a sense of activity and that activity increases your adoption rate.

#4. Set the tone
There’s a learning curve for people who join a social network, but it’s not about learning software, it’s about learning social etiquette.

In the real world, some people have learned etiquette from a book like “How to win friends and influence people” but the vast majority of people learned how to behave by copying other people. It’s the same with an online community. Some members will read your community guidelines, but the vast majority will wait to see what other people do.

When you launch your network you need to play the role of community manager, break the ice, and model every behavior that you want from other people. Add new members as contacts. Send private messages welcoming them. Start discussions. Comment on discussions that other people post. This role is crucial at the beginning and can tail off as your community members get more active.

#5. Send a reminder email
The goal of the first few steps is to create a network that’s good enough to draw people in and spark activity. Once you have active members your network changes from good-enough to great. Nobody gets 100% adoption out of the gate. Some people will miss whatever initial email you send. Some people will get the email but decide the network is not compelling enough (yet). Some people will join right away and miss the members and activity that comes a few hours later. Once your network is launched and more active, you should send at least one more email blast.

For our event networks we recommend that the reminder blast comes about a week before the event. This is the peak moment of interest (rational behavior for many attendees is to procrastinate until as many event details are settled as possible). For permanent social networks there usually isn’t a peak moment of interest but there are often high points. Send regular emails highlighting discussions or activities.

These tips are about the difference between success and complete failure. We like dreamers and we like to experiment with different techniques, but when I ran this post by other people at CrowdVine one response came back “Tell them they’re an idiot if they don’t follow this advice.”

I think that’s too strong for people who have already launched–we came to this recipe through trial and error. But, at this point, there’s enough experience out there to launch your network the right way. Let us know in the comments if you have your own recipe or other tips.

PCMA Tuesday/Wednesday

By tony | 1 Comment

I found myself saying several times a day, that I was having a great time at PCMA because I was learning so much. I think this is the conference to go to for suppliers breaking into the industry. The educational sessions are great and the other attendees are incredibly open. I think the education here is actually the most valuable thing I’m taking away–which says a lot given how much exposure our product has gotten.

Targeted Marketing
My favorite session for Tuesday was a panel for Maximize Attendance With Targeted Marketing. In particular, people should pay attention to what the Chicago Convention and Visitors Bureau is up to with social media. Check out their Twitter feed. The cool thing that they do is work directly with their biggest shows on social media strategy. And the strategy work they do is good–it works, they measure it, and it’s innovative. I was definitely impressed.

Return on Time (ROT)
There was some talk about how to make short heavy-impact meetings that fit into people’s busy schedules. I think of Return on Time (ROT) as Return on Investment (ROI) mixed with opportunity cost. It’s more of a concept to get people thinking about shorter meetings than it is a rigorous measurement methodology. The concept jives with the underlying goals of CrowdVine, to give more impact to time spent in networking and education by providing tools for intelligent preparation.

Facilities Fees
There’s a lot of stress between hotels and event planners due to the down economy. I hadn’t really understood until now that a lot of the facility fee is paid for with attendee hotel rooms and the event planner makes guarantees about hotel occupancy when they sign their contract. This seems sort of convoluted to me, why not have the entire facility fee be part of registration, but this is an area I really don’t know much about.

Generation Gaps
The Twitter back channel had a lot of chatter about generation differences and @jessicalevin had some of my favorite takes on this matter:

Everyone likes to mock Gen Y. Aren’t they a result of parenting by Boomers?

She also contradicted a favorite Gen Y stereotype about them being distracted multi-taskers. Maybe what looks like distraction is just an result of another Gen Y stereotype. They are demanding, and when you’re being boring, they demand something more interesting, something that just happens to be located on their phones. All this generation talk made me want to look up the definitions on Wikipedia. I’m at the tail end of Gen X, which means I have no excuse for checking my email during a slow session.

Big kudos to everyone involved in putting together PCMA. It was a huge production. I haven’t even touched on the entertainment side of the event.