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July 15 2013

How to Crowdsource Your Conference

David McMillin, Staff Writer

While many meetings and conferences rely on a traditional model of approving educational programming internally, some show organizers are beginning to recognize the value in crowdsourcing their educational content.

At SXSW, the music, film & interactive conference held each March in Austin, Texas, organizers have been embracing attendee-generated ideas since 2007 with a PanelPicker system that levels the playing field for all attendees to take part in the content curation process.

“Our experience has proved that the PanelPicker interface is an invaluable way to connect with the thousands of professionals and informed consumers that make up the worldwide SXSW community,” Hugh Forrest, SXSW Interactive Festival director, says. “Not only does it help generate fresh ideas, it gives our participants an outlet to share with us what is most exciting, timely and relevant to them.”

The reaction has been overwhelming. Last year alone, PanelPicker received more than 4,500 entries.

SEE ALSO: SXSW Brings New Meaning to Engagement

With such a big audience, SXSW doesn’t just simply hand over the reigns to the crowd and hope for the best. Crowdsourcing can harness the collective brainpower of attendees, but the process still needs some rules and regulations. Here’s a snapshot of how SXSW does it.

Setting the Limits

SXSW online users can’t bombard the PanelPicker system with loads of ideas and hope that one of them wins. With such a big audience, conference organizers want to receive the most focused submissions.

Users can only submit one proposal for the film portion, one proposal for the music portion and one proposal for the new SXSWedu portion, which focuses on the future of education. Users can submit three ideas for SXSW Eco, a portion of the conference that focuses on sustainability but does not occur until October.

SEE ALSO: This Conference Could be the SXSW of the Southeast

Setting the Timeline

Every conference wants to cover the late-breaking trends and issues, but reviewing and approving user-submitted session proposals isn’t a task that can be completed in a few weeks. While the majority of the conference takes place in March, the crowdsourcing process begins in July with a 25-day entry and edit period for all users to submit ideas. This year, the community can vote between August 19 - September 6.

Show organizers specify that they do leave some slots open until January and February to cover any developing news items or trends that are buzzing around the industry.

Selecting the Sessions

Crowdsourcing doesn’t have to function like a democracy. While online users comment and vote on sessions, voting from the public only account for about 30 percent of the decision-making process. SXSW staff input account for an additional 30 percent. Ultimately, the most important votes still lie with the SXSW Advisory Boards, which account for the final 40 percent.

Meetings and conferences aren’t the only piece of the industry that’s turning to everyday audience members for advice. Click here to learn how one of the biggest hotel brands is inviting guests into its board room.

Are you crowdsourcing any of the education at your meeting? Do you have any tips for other meeting planners who are interested in inviting all attendees into the selection process? Share them in the comments below.

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