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.
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:
- Dates — we recommend including the year.
- Location — consider making this a link to Google Maps or your hotel/travel page.
- Program — Full schedule, program highlights, and speakers.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 is anything that doesn’t support conversion or helping to deliver on your promise of a great event.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.