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.

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10 Responses to Conference Website Basics #1: The Home Page

  1. I agree with a lot of what you said, but here’s my opinion on conference site design : IT DEPENDS!

    By that I mean – if you have huge keynote speakers, play them up like you said; If you are in a world-class venue, play that up, etc…

    It’s all about hierarchy. Establish what you want to show (not tell) the reader, and play that up for the home page. Once you establish that, take into account HOW you want to portray these items. Especially in our tech-savvy crowd, bending your design to be a bit more unique probably isn’t a bad thing (see the FOWA example).

    I wouldn’t quite settle on having one template yet. I’d have one for each conditional I mentioned above (again, this is just me) – if you happen to have sweet speakers, you’d want to pick elements from template A, and if you’re at a great venue, template B. Now, if you’re at a great venue AND have great speakers – I’d just get something up that says that ;)

    But really – if that’s the case, then I’d use your judgement. Part of me wants to say especially bend the rules here, but the other part of me is saying that, since your website’s design probably isn’t what will drive people to the conference, you really won’t need a stellar look; more traditional would be OK.

    Just venting on some thoughts – hope you enjoy/learn a bit from them!

  2. tony says:

    @Connor:

    You’re right, that there are many types of conferences. A user conference like Webtrends Engage gets to use a simpler design than a huge expo + conference like Game Developers Conference

    Partly, this post is a reaction to our feeling that the event industry is suffering an epidemic of people telling them “IT DEPENDS.” Take a look at the websites from this list of the top 100 event twitter accounts:
    http://blog.crowdvine.com/top-100-event-twitter-accounts/

    How many of those do you think are bending the rules successfully? I tried to stay away from bashing bad design, but the vast majority on that list are cluttered messes. There’s one social media conference on the list where the only thing above the fold is a haphazard list of unrelated sponsors (including Chevrolet and a small private college that’s 3000 miles away from the event).

    We’re also finding that the conferences that nail the basics are selling out and able to charge higher prices. There’s plenty of room for a beautiful visual design built with this general template. And even if they don’t get a beautiful design, they’ll still gain a huge boost from having a clear message.

  3. Kathy Sierra says:

    Amazing post, Tony, and I am really looking forward to reading more. I would love to hear your thoughts on what — if any — involvement the site should have with the attendees *after* the event (including during, as sessions are happening). I am not at all sure the conference site should do this, but at the same time, people are left with nowhere to further the discussions brought up in a session ( or the event as a whole) and simply following a Twitter hash tag, while useful, is not enough. As it is now, it is usually: conference site BEFORE, and perhaps during with news posted on the main page of the conference site, but then immediately after that site becomes a ghost town and the discussions are held on Twitter, including links to people posting on their own blogs with post-event summaries/thoughts. It feels like something is really missing here.

    O’reilly has a thing where you can comment on individual sessions, but most people either do it realize they can do this, or don’t bother since almost nobody returns to the site. I think it functions more like a “post a review of this session”, and the one place I did see it used heavily was when there was a Strata session that a whole lot of people did NOT like… So it was the best “feedback” mechanism the attendees could find…

  4. tony says:

    @Kathy:

    That’s a great question. The after conference period deserves its own blog post. You’re right, that not every conference should focus on this. Most conferences would do better to focus on pre/during conference because that’s when they have momentum and attention from the attendees.

    It’s almost hardwired into conferences that attendees leave to apply what they learned somewhere else, like their jobs. And the organizers, who could potentially do some community management to prompt discussions, are burnt out and either take vacation or start work on their next event. Those aren’t the seeds for an active post-conference experience.

    The only conference I know that has a lot of post-conference value is TED, where the talks get posted online and shared by millions. Rather than try to force a discussion on their conference-weary attendees, they open the discussion up to the world.

    CrowdVine hosts presentation files and does Twitter/Blog aggregation… maybe we should really focus that as being a hub for post-conference response. Thanks for the nudge in that direction.

  5. Kathy sierra says:

    Thanks Tony. I agree on the “hardwired… Attendees leave to apply what they learned elsewhere…” but it is exactly that “elsewhere” part (and perhaps “apply”) where everything falls down. I think we are ssing the *one* time when the momentum, motivation, inertia, etc. are set-up for people to indeed make a change, but at the point they most need the support (not just a nudge, but practical answers and advice) resources seem to vanish. Slides and videos are not enough… It is the NOW WHAT? I never felt this as strongly as I did after TOCCON.

    I understand about the post-event hangover for the event host, but it still can feel a little like… “we spent months and months hyping you on this, persuading you that it will Change Your World, but once the money is all accounted for, it’s over. Just a small idea: have some of the speakers and organizers prepare *in advance*, but don’t post, a “Next Steps and Resources” for the main topics, and do not post it until the show is over. Make it desirable enough that people will all have one more reason to return to the site, and have a common spot where everyone (attendees especially) can then list their resource/next step ideas as well. It need not even be a “discussion” in the community sense… Just practical advice.

    The more I think about this, the more strongly I feel we are missing the most important element for attendees to actually USE what they got from the event as soon as possible. In the past, a typical hour-long talk would often include these next step and resource ideas, but honestly, as we shift to shorter and shorter talks (15 to 20 minutes now for a lot of keynotes, which I am a fan of), this is part of what gets lost. Attendees get a lot of brain-opening, inspiration, ideas, but not much time for application.

    Love to talk about this with you in more detail some time. ( And when you guys make your way to Santa Cruz we’ll give you a demo of clicker training the 800 pounds-of-attitude with the horses ;)

  6. tony says:

    I love this take on conferences… that it’s about making actual change and post-conference is when change happens.

    There’s definitely a slice of the event-space where the organizer is aligned with wanting to make actual change. I’ll have to ask them what they think. Maybe have speakers come back one month later to answer questions based on the attendees trying to actually implement what they learned.

    Can’t wait to do a Santa Cruz visit.

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  9. What coincidence- looking for TOP tips for designing conference website and then googled that.. found your article- BRILLIANT. nice work guys… this is FULL of value. We are taking our conference site http://www.impact99.ca and blowing it up and re-doing it for 2012 and this gives us LOTS of ideas.
    Thank you
    Christine McLeod, Founder Impact People Practices
    Founder Impact99

  10. tony says:

    That’s awesome to hear. Thank you!

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