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Oct 8 2007   6:34PM GMT

Overhead: Unconferences, like all social media, must be controlled and monetized

Margaret Rouse Margaret Rouse Profile: Margaret Rouse

douglas_welch.gif “Organizers are afraid that the unconference won’t come together, that it will be boring or unproductive. They lack trust in the attendees to produce a conference that meets their own needs.”

Douglas E. Welch, When is an unconference not an unconference?

I’ve always been a fan of Douglas Welch. Today I not only tip my hat, I give him this month’s “But the Emperor Has No Clothes!” award. Douglas writes:

Some of my best experiences this year have been the “unconferences” I have attended. These ad hoc events allow for a sense of spontaneity and serendipity that regular life often denies us. Unfortunately, I am starting to see a disturbing trend that threatens to suck the life out of unconferences — too much control.

Organizers of unconferences need to control where and when the conference will occur, sponsors for meals and other perks, bathrooms, etc., but more frequently now, I see organizers pre-scheduling the events more and more tightly. Instead of the typical “sign up wall” of a more open unconference, I am seeing schedules completely decided long before the event occurs.

Douglas has bravely asked what the rest of us have been thinking, “What’s happening to the unconference?”

I’m afraid the answer is marketing.

It was probably only a matter of time until the unconference, that underground ultra-hip name Dave Winer came up with to describe a “tech happening” where the attendees determine the agenda, would grow up.

And by grow up, I mean sell out.


The concept of the “unconference” was just too good for marketers to leave alone. After all, at an unconference there is valuable user-generated content to glean knowledge from. There are unsuspecting leads walking around, openly discussing what keeps them up at night.

The trouble is, an unconference is messy. Each and every unconference I’ve been to has seemed to teeter on the brink of disaster at some point.

You never know who will show up. You never know whether anything of value will come out of the sessions. A facilitator could decide some little tangential comment was worth discussing for an hour and the group could get side-tracked or change topics altogether.

You never know how many sessions there will be or how long they’ll really last. One session might have forty people crammed in a tiny room talking all at once for two hours — while another session might have two people sitting alone in a corner drinking coffee, drawing configuration diagrams on napkins.

But for the marketer, the unconference — like all social media — is a goose that lays the golden UGC egg.

How is a marketer to gather those eggs and harness the power of an unconference efficiently?

Offer to rent the space for the gathering and provide the refreshments. Offer to promote the unconference, recruit some big guns to attend and register attendees ahead of time. Offer to manage all the room assignments and session schedules. Putting together an unconference can be a lot of work. Offer to help out.

Better yet, don’t just offer to do all the work for the organizer — BE the organizer.

That’s what I think is happening. Unconferences, like blogs and podcasts and Second Life and YouTube videos, are being harvested by corporate marketing.

The suits have discovered unconferences and in turn, it’s become more difficult to find the genuine article.

But it’s pretty easy to find a “regular-old-conference” dressed up in an expensive “unconference” Halloween costume. It’s green and looks like a dollar sign.

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