After two years in, this is what I learned from organizing ChatbotConf, an international tech conference

After two years in, this is what I learned from organizing ChatbotConf, an international tech conference

Just recently in October 2017, we hosted the second edition of ChatbotConf in Vienna. We, that is oratio, a platform for business-to-consumer communication on top of messengers.

Organizing tech conferences was therefore never the core of our business, but in June 2016 we figured that bringing together people at an offline event is a fantastic way of connecting with your audience.

The first edition of ChatbotConf took place in October 2016 only a few months after Facebook released their Messenger platform at their annual f8 conference in California. Everyone was talking about chatbots and their importance for Facebook's messaging strategy.

At that time, we were lucky to already be in the messaging space for almost nine months and bots indeed changed a lot for us. Hosting an international conference centered around messaging and chatbots was the logical thing for us to do. In this article I want to emphasize on my learnings of two years of ChatbotConf.

ChatbotConf 2016

The first edition of ChatbotConf took place on 14th October 2016 in Vienna where we attracted about 400 people for our very first conference.

One evening in June we had this crazy idea of organizing an international conference about messaging and chatbots. We wanted to have all international tech companies in Vienna, a city that's non-existent on the international tech landscape.

Our vision was to have Facebook, Microsoft, Google, Viber, LINE, Telegram, WeChat and all the other major companies active in this space on stage - with just four months ahead of us.

We were actually really naive.

Of course we knew that this was an insane idea especially since we were only a small team of four, working on our actual product oratio. But we also knew that if we wanted to move fast and build a brand, we had to stand out and position ourselves in the market.

We thought a conference would be a great way of doing that. Vienna is definitely not Silicon Valley which makes it a magnitude harder to build international relationships in the tech space, but its central location in Europe makes it easy to get there.

We decided to just f*cking do it.

Below are our 7 key learnings from bringing an international technology conference to life in less than 5 months.

1. It's a sh*t load of work

We talked to a lot of people who already had experience in organizing larger events and conferences. Some of us actually had experiences from working on smaller events (~100 people) like meetups and hackathons in the past, but an international conference is definitely a whole different story. If you plan to organize something like that, you will underestimate the work. That's 100% certain.

Amir Shevat (Slack) at ChatbotConf 2016
Amir Shevat (Slack) at ChatbotConf 2016

First you start off working on the bigger tasks such as creating a concept, finding the right venue, talking to sponsors and so on. Getting all these infos together definitely requires constant work, but what really kills you are the details and especially changes on short notice.

There are many things to consider. For example finding the best schedule if you have two stages, finding out who will speak at what time to have the best flow of attendees, organizing food and drinks for 400 people, handling trash, getting all permissions you need, setting up the ticketing service correctly to collect information from the attendees and finding out what kind of merchandise you are going to give away.

The closer you get to the conference, the more details you have to think of and it really, really drives you insane, but at the end of the day it's exactly these details that make the difference between a good event and a conference people like so much they'll hug you for (yes, that really happened several times.)

2. The international chatbot space is maturing

When we first announced ChatbotConf we instantly received positive feedback on the idea. People were really excited to see who is attending the conference and what talks and topics we were about to cover.

Full house at ChatbotConf 2016
ChatbotConf 2016

Although it's still the early days of messaging (in the Western world), a smart community quickly emerged around it. For us it was really important to bring international experts and speakers from the messaging space to Vienna making it possible for the local community to connect with them.

Even though Vienna is not on the startup or tech landscape, it actually had a notable chatbot scene from the very beginning on. Our goal with this conference was to strengthen the Austrian and European ecosystem.

3. Organizing a conference is a distraction from your core business, but it pushes your brand unlike anything else

This was one of our major concerns. How much does a conference distract us from our core business? The answer is quite a lot.

Panel discussion at ChatbotConf 2016
Panel discussion at ChatbotConf 2016

However, we were really lucky to hire an incredible event manager which made a tremendous difference. While the rest of the team was working on oratio, she was the one who had the full overview of the whole event organization and who worked independently from day 1. But the closer the conference came the more distracting it was for all of us.

Bringing a conference to life is a team effort and yes, it is definitely a distraction. But we still decided to go for it, because we knew that if you want to stand out among all the other companies in this space you have to discover new paths to push your brand with new strategies beyond traditional marketing campaigns.

Furthermore, we knew it will be a great chance for business development and strengthening our business contacts. We can tell that in our case it was a distraction worth doing. We really loved to welcome friends we found over time, finally meeting them in person in our home city.

4. Work with professionals

I can't stress this enough. The more professional the people you work with are the less work you have to do yourself.

Applause at ChatbotConf 2016
ChatbotConf 2016

Hire great moderators, work with really good photographers and film teams, pick the caterer that actually serves good food rather than okay food. They will be more expensive but it eventually pays off. Try to keep the distraction low.

The iconic ChatbotConf 2016 tote bag

5. Build relationships with companies early on

One of the reasons why we decided to make the conference in the first place was because of the existing relations we already built over time. When we started to work on oratio, the whole messaging and chatbot space was way smaller than it is today. Hence we were already in touch with some of the tech companies who either first reached out to us or the other way round.

This also applies to sponsors, not only speakers.

Taking it from there makes it easier although it's still a hard task to convince companies to support a conference that didn't exist before. You have to have a concept and you have to pitch it regularly.

6. You will piss off some people

Unfortunately, this is true and naturally this does not only apply to organizing events. Whenever you make decisions on whether you work together with one party but not with the other, you will end up with people being mad at you.

Our aim with ChatbotConf 2016 was to bring our attendees in touch with high quality content and speakers and to achieve that we had to say 'No' to many people.

Mikhail Larionov (Facebook) and guests at ChatbotConf 2016
Mikail Larionov (Facebook, middle) at ChatbotConf 2016

Another example is pricing. When we decided on the prices for the conference tickets we aimed for a fair price policy. This means setting a price our attendees can afford and which leaves us being able to cover our costs.

Since ChatbotConf was never the main revenue stream we were not aiming to make as much profit as possible. Actually quite far from that, our only goal was to not lose money and luckily we achieved that.

However we were only able to reach that goal by being strict on neither giving tickets away for free nor giving high discounts as we were not able to attract many sponsors, because most of them need to plan budgets at least six months in advance.

7. Work early on diversity

This is a topic we definitely didn't do well and were criticized for. In the very beginning we aimed to have a balanced mix of male and female speakers at the conference by not preferring any gender over the other, especially when talking to tech companies about sending a speaker.

We also didn't have any gender preferences when we opened our Call for Speakers, we even chose all talks from the anonymously judging only by the title and excerpt. But it turned out we would have had to spend more time on actually attracting female speakers.

The truth however is that not only did we have a low rate of female submissions for our Call for Speakers (8% were female of which we accepted 50%), we also didn't specifically reach out to women. We didn't realize that beforehand and we were also missing a Code of Conduct which would have outlined how we deal with diversity.

By December 2016 we had to decide if we wanted to host ChatbotConf next year again. After receiving overwhelmingly positive feedback on ChatbotConf 2016, we eventually decided to host the event for another year in Vienna.

ChatbotConf 2017

The second edition of ChatbotConf took place on 2-3rd October 2017 in Vienna where we attracted about 500 people in total. The concept was different from last year's event.

We extended the conference from a one-day conference to a two-day event by having independently organized events by the community all over the city of Vienna on the first day (Community Day) and the actual conference on the second day (Conference Day).

Me on stage at ChatbotConf 2017
Me on stage at ChatbotConf 2017

That way we were able to extend the event without having double the work as we were still a small team.

I actually learned 5 more things at ChatbotConf 2017 in addition to my 7 learnings from the previous year.

1. Communicate important information multiple times on various channels

One of the major challenges of ChatbotConf 2017 was the communication of the new concept of Community Day and Conference Day. The trickiest part was that the first day of the conference took place on various venues all across the city while the second day took place in the actual conference venue.

Community Day at Sektor5
A satellite event at ChatbotConf 2017

We therefore had to communicate this important information through various channels to our guests which worked out for the most part.

Remember: People are lazy. We figured that once everyone got their ticket for ChatbotConf, they didn't really think about it until one or maybe two days prior to the event. Keep that in mind!

2. Costs from the past not always apply to the future

In 2016 we were happy to strike some really good deals with the first edition of ChatbotConf. Some of these deals however didn't apply for the subsequent year which we had to count in from a cost perspective.

Helen Zeng (Slack) in the audience at ChatbotConf 2017
ChatbotConf 2017

The greatest expense was catering. Drinks and food are very expensive for several hundred people and coming up with affordable yet delicious food is tricky, but important if you want to keep your guests happy.

3. Everything is built around hype cycles

When we first started working on the concept of a conference around the back then new topic chatbots, it was relatively easy to create buzz around ChatbotConf.

Checking in at ChatbotConf 2017
ChatbotConf 2017

Another year later, that has changed. Chatbots didn't keep up with people's expectation and hence attracted less interest in 2017.

That meant for us to invest more resources in marketing and promotion as well as putting more energy in new formats such as the aforementioned Community Day.

4. Finding sponsors in a niche market is hard

When we hosted ChatbotConf 2016, we hardly had any sponsors. We thought the main reason for that was the limited time we had for bringing the event to life, for the next conference in 2017 we started knocking on doors early.

Since chatbots are still a niche market in Austria/Central Europe, we had a hard time finding sponsors in the four digits range.

Helen Tsang (Facebook) on stage at ChatbotConf 2017
ChatbotConf 2017

Selling the vision and overall story is important when it comes to working with sponsors and partners. They trust you by associating their brand with your event. Hence, you have the same responsibility about creating a trustful relationship as they have.

5. Media partnerships are key

Media is your friend when it comes to events - and the more local the easier it is to sell the story.

Partnerships with media outlets were playing an important role in attracting visitors to ChatbotConf. Small raffles are easy to set up and almost every media outlet we talked to was happy to give away a ticket or two to their readers.

We were careful about the selection of partners as we wanted to get our message out to a well defined target audience. Small and medium blogs are also an elegant way of building relationships with influencers that reach a loyal group of readers.

Team oratio, speakers and volunteers on stage at ChatbotConf 2017
The whole team of ChatbotConf 2017

Team oratio, speakers and volunteers on stage at ChatbotConf 2017

For me, the essence of ChatbotConf is about connecting people. We figured that this can happen in the most profound way by bringing together like-minded enthusiasts at an event in the 'offline' world where ideas can spark.

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