Choice, Control and Conferences: Why the UnCon is Here to Stay

(Editor’s note: I was the session chairman for SugarCon, and picking the right content was tough and nerve wracking. On the other hand, John Mertic organized our “UnCon” – and seemed much less stressed! CRM conferences are starting to attract a broader spectrum of attendees – ranging from those just dipping a toe in the water to those making major modifications to their CRM code. The pre-planned sessions are great for tgose who don’t know what they don’t know, but the UnCon is great for those who know what they need to learn.

SugarCon’s UnCon was a hit – and here’s John Mertic to explain why – and why we’d like to see the UnCon become a track at more conferences.)

I’ve been to a lot of conferences over time, mostly those in the open source and developer world. Whether big or small, here in North America or across Europe, the toughest problem any organizer has is selecting the people and content to be a part of it. And no matter how hard they try, or how big or diverse the selection committee ends up being, there’s always a few attendees feeling disconnected from the presenters, ducking out of a few sessions to do some work or heading to the local watering hole, walking away with the perception of not getting their money’s worth. And this is not to label conference organizers as “negligent” either; it’s a tough nut to crack, even in the most narrowly-focused events.

How can you combat this? Flip the conference around; instead of carefully crafting a conference lineup of well-respected speakers and intriguing talks, just concentrate on the theme and logistics instead. Where does the agenda come from them? The attendees!

This concept is better known as an “uncon.” Also often called BOFs (birds of a feather) or various forms of food or barcamps, it lets the attendees determine what they want to learn about the day of the conference, making it unlike a normal conference and giving it the “un” prefix. This shift helps shape the content to be more relevant to every single attendee. But the more powerful thing it does is that changes the tone of the conference; instead of it being a one-way classroom-style lecture, it instead invites the user into an interactive dialogue with the presenter. Gone is the separation between attendee and presenter that mimics a bourgeoisie/proletariat class hierarchy; the blurred line allows the learning to go both ways and leads to an overall better experience for everyone. Or in other words, it makes the highlight of the event the event itself rather than the after-party at the pub down the street…

What does this tell us about the relationship between companies and users? The biggest trend we see out there is putting the user first, but to what level are we as solution providers willing to relinquish that control? And what is the strategy behind this? Many times it’s purely “damage control,” trying to tow that line between your shareholder and your users without significantly damaging either group. Or you are looking to partner with your users, giving them the tools to solve their problems to make them successful? We prefer the latter.

I see strong parallels with the “uncon” concept and user control. We can try as hard as we can with focus groups and surveys, but trying to innovate in a box without working with your users is darn near impossible.

So the next time you are ready to make a decision that is going to impact your users, take a step back and ask them first. Get their thoughts and let them participate in the decision. It will help you keep your focus on the user, and help build that relationship between you and them.