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Can we fix enterprise events - by designing for serendipity?

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed September 6, 2023
The potential of enterprise events goes far beyond the reality. But there is fresh thinking afoot, on designing for serendipity and providing transformative experiences. For this think piece, I impose a practical challenge: provide examples event planners can pull into fall events.

Group of people connect single colored cogwheels to make a gear. Teamwork, partnership and integration concept - © Shutterstock
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Dear event organizers - I've been holding out on you. Now, fall events are upon us. No - there isn't time to create amazing hybrid structures, or rethink events on a white board.

But there is time to make your fall events just a little better - both for those on the ground, and those trying to be involved remotely.

In this post, I am throwing down the gauntlet - on myself. I will keep my critiques in check, and leave all the hard working event planners out there with three takeaways:

  1. A good argument for increasing serendipity (e.g. spontaneous connections) on the ground, and how it might be done.
  2. A way to add one useful hybrid option to your existing structure.
  3. A good way to include analysts/media/influencers who couldn't make your event.

Are on the ground events broken - or can they be designed for serendipity?

Why bother? I contend that:

A. On-the-ground events were broken (and non-inclusive) before the pandemic. Now, in the back-to-events Vaccine Economy, event planners are getting a hall pass because people are (understandably) happy to see each other again. But that will change. It is changing. Given the travel budget pressures people are under, they expect more than a good time.

B. Hybrid and/or virtual events are sorely underestimated (and underutilized) in their ability to foster interactive experiences. When you skillfully combine online interactions sparked by on-the-ground connections, the ceiling goes that much higher.

On point B, I have written an entire series on hybrid/virtual potentials, so I won't dwell on that much in this piece. I want to focus on point A:

Because I made a mistake.

I realized my mistake while reading the best article on events I've read in a long time: How to Engineer Serendipity, by David Spinks. I thought about Spinks' lessons in the context of another nifty book, Designing Transformative Experiences by Brad McLain.

How is this relevant to the value of enterprise events? Because it's not just the undeniable joy of seeing someone you haven't seen since the world shut down. It's the return of the most redeeming part of on-the-ground events: the so-called random hallway encounters. Sometimes with old friends - sometimes with a new lead.

In Spinks' post, he breaks out the factors that contribute to serendipity. Example:

People are unlikely to experience serendipity unless the settings are just right.

A 2020 study found that serendipity was more likely to occur when people:

  • are in unfamiliar places
  • are with unfamiliar people
  • have a high willingness to socialize
  • aren’t too busy
  • have lots of energy
  • share common interests
  • have similar personalities
  • are comfortable in social interactions

You know what? Enterprise events check a lot of those boxes. Granted, the locations are hardly unpredictable, but at least most attendees aren't in Vegas or Orlando every day. The "busy" factor is the biggest obstacle; the best experiences at enterprise events are, alas, usually crammed in outside the formal schedule.

True story: I was in between major clients circa 2009; the future of my business was highly uncertain. At a trade show, I met a marketing leader I befriended online. Instead of doing the sensible thing, telling him something vaguely supportive and cultivating a potential client, my existential angst boiled over. I let it rip instead, with a different vision of marketing entirely, based on content strategy, not branded BS. Two weeks later, he called me. New client - and a bridge to a new content/analyst business model. That led me smack into my future diginomica co-conspirators.

Serendipity isn't out of the box, it must be cultivated

That's just a small example of event serendipity. I'm sure each person reading has one of their own. But here's what I realized:

I've been a bit unfair to enterprise event planners. As you read How to Engineer Serendipity, you realize: flying in people from disparate locations creates a perfect environment for serendipity.

Event planners deserve credit for this logistical undertaking; large scale events are massive time inhalers. But here's the reality: we don't go nearly far enough.

Events are still too bogged down in pre-pandemic legacy artifacts: over-extended keynotes and over-moderated, homogenous panels - at the expense of interactive, peer-to-peer formats. Those moments of serendipity happen around the edges. The interactions around products and roadmaps our teams are counting on us to get? Mostly we have to hustle to get those.

But we can tackle these shortfalls from a new angle. I propose to event planners everywhere: instead of just providing an environment for serendipity, let's start designing for serendipity. The article and book I just cited are a great foundation for that.

One classic example: we might assume that a networking event/evening reception is the perfect session type for serendipity. But out of the box, it's really not. How many times have we squandered that precious networking time stuck in the wrong conversation, making nice in an overly-random chat we struggle to extricate from?

Creative event design options - stirring the pot for attendees

Prior to diginomica, I helped launch the SAP Controlling Conference for finance professionals. At the time, I was given full license by then-Event Director Alice Adams to adapt unproven, without-a-net formats into an enterprise event context. Those included:

These components led the event founders, including John Jordan - who still puts on these events - to one goal: no one gets on the plane with a question unanswered. I've written extensively about the art of the unconference format (Powerpoint-drenched events are legacy. Why unconferences and white board sessions are the way forward). But it requires planning and facilitation - perhaps too much for a pending fall event.

The unmoderated panel is a bit too scary for most event planners, but we can certainly dump the canned panel questions, get the audience involved early and often, and get more diverse speakers in play. That should happen now, rather than waiting for the post-event survey and embarrassing social media pictures of stale panels.

The turbo-networking aspect is highly underrated - and it's not too late for that one. Why try this? Because assuming people can figure out who shares their interests before the event winds down is wrong. And sorry, your event app's "networking" feature isn't cut out for this.

At first, our turbo-networking goal was just to help attendees exchange business cards with those who shared their geography, professional role, or industry. But over time, we honed this structure to give them an opportunity to connect more meaningfully. How? We asked them to self-identify into interest 'circles,' but then we planted a question for them to answer: such as: share the biggest project challenge you are facing this year.

Seeing these complete strangers sharing 'war' stories, if you can call them that, on the first day of the show was so satisfying. Without stirring the pot and facilitating this for them, this kind of serendipity - and the groundwork for future, deeper conversations between these attendees - simply would not have happened otherwise.

People don't easily put themselves in uncomfortable social situations. But if you warm it up and facilitate it a tad, you can shift things. The energy when you help people shift from strangers to relevant contacts is palpable. In my view, it's the biggest joy an event planner can have.

I hear the protests already: this would only work at a small scale event. I disagree. You'd need to narrowcast this a bit, depending on the size of the event. But I could see conducting a turbo-networking experience for retail customers as part of a larger event. Yes, you do need some trained facilitators. Putting up interest signs at lunch tables and hoping for the best is too random. You need facilitators to spark the conversations a bit. If you do this early in your event, you seed connections that can be fostered for the rest of the show.

My take - on hybrid momentum, and creative event tips to go

That's just one example for how event planners can add something to an event that will mix up attendees - thereby increasing the chances for those serendipitous moments to happen. And you can do it without overhauling your program. Granted, not all of these sessions will be "transformative" moments. But like my trade show booth anecdote, sometimes you don't realize how much change random encounters might instigate in your life, with enough time to percolate.

There are other formats that work very well to stir the pot. Other examples include: small group customer peer sessions on hot topics, perhaps facilitated by domain experts (I linked to a terrific Zoho example). Peer-led presentations can be effective too, but take a bit more planning. However, you can really get a show floor buzzing when community members are given the space to organize their own sessions on the fly (SAP used to do a brilliant job of this at their TechEds, via their Expert Networking Lounge). Another scenario: the open product feedback and ideation session. No, this isn't just small breakouts - I've seen Domo do this in front of thousands (Claim you listen to customers? Then do a live feedback session at your next enterprise event).

I promised you two other tips:

  1. A way to add one useful hybrid option to your existing structure - event planners still treat those who can't make the event as people who are less engaged with their brand. That's wrong, but virtual attendees need more than just recorded session content and keynote streams. There are two things you can do: a. attempt to live stream a few sessions of maximum interest. Or, my preference: b. set up a hybrid studio area where you can stream interactive sessions for remote attendees only. You can potentially film the footage, and use parts of it later, so it's almost like leveraging a video shoot for multiple purposes. How about doing separate "remote only" open Q/A sessions with 3-5 of your industry product leads? Just make sure you have an open text chat also, with a couple of additional 'hands' on deck to field text chat questions, and follow up as needed. It's amazing how a handful of interactive sessions upgrades your entire hybrid/virtual offering - and how few vendors are utilizing this.
  2. A good way to include analysts/media/influencers who couldn't make your event - how about after the event, give any influencers, media or analysts who couldn't attend an "ask me anything" session with your CEO and/or CPO? After the event is great, because embargos have lifted, and your executives can share lessons from customers/feedback on the ground. You could spice it up with a two part virtual session, including an interactive customer session as well.

Yes, you can take hybrid events much further. But I promised you relatively easy things that can still be worked into your fall event. So why not energize your event with some bold - but not difficult - add-ons? On the other hand, making sure your event speakers reflect the diversity of your audience isn't a skill; it's just how we should do things. And yet, we need to do better there - much better.

Transforming your events takes time. Creative event design is a skill. Hybrid event management is a skill. Superior facilitation, e.g. making sure interactive events aren't dominated by extroverts, is a skill. Creative event skills are a corporate asset, and they can be cultivated. Often they already exist in your volunteer community, or on your internal community team.

However: these creative event design skills rarely exist amongst the core enterprise events team. That's okay - event teams are terrific at handling the logistics of events. It's not hard to source outside talent where needed. None of us are good at all aspects; for example, I stink at venue management. I would just caution: having dancers jump out of cakes and hiring DJs to blast hip jams, drowning out the ability to network, is not a substitute for interactive event design.

Yes, attendees have to do their part to make these things happen - that's a big emphasis in the transformational experiences book - each of us must help to drive the "transformative experiences" we seek. During the SAP Controlling events, we would encourage participants that the rules of engagement are different here, and to seize the chances. We're all used to passively coping with sluggish events, eyes on our smartphone inbox. Better events require more of participants, not just event planners (I call that the participation paradox).

Finally, serendipity plays out over time. That's where our hybrid/virtual event chops really get tested. In his essay, Spinks reflects on a 2015 study:

Note: The study found that serendipity could take anywhere from weeks to years to come to fruition. Community takes time.

But I think the big takeaway is hopeful: gathering such as big (and small) events are a fertile seeding ground for serendipitous moments - and yes, that includes the moments where prospects turn into customers. We don't have to count on old friends, spontaneous hallway discussions, or me getting lucky by giving the right CMO at a booth a hard time. Indeed, we can engineer for serendipity, and increase our chances. I've just scratched the surface of that here, but let's see if we can up the ante. Let me know how you do this fall.

I would like to thank Paul Kurchina, an experienced community events practitioner and "independent SAP community orchestrator," for pointing me towards the serendipity article and transformative experiences book cited here. I would also like to thank the aforementioned John Jordan for allowing me to pursue unconventional event structures that were, at the time, unproven for enterprise audiences. Early experiments with Mark Finnern also bore fruit later. For more on the power of on-the-ground event experiences, see Josh Greenbaum's Content is the Printer, Experience is the Ink - though I would add that hybrid/virtual events are integral to extending and building on those in-person experiences.

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