Issue #19

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Does β€œbig names” really sell WordCamp tickets? 🎀

I’ve been thinking about this for some time, and recently Aaron Jorbin shared this thoughts on WordCamps so I thought it was time to share certain views of mine, especially since some of these topics do come up in conversations. But first go read his post – I don’t know if i agree with everything word by word but I can say it’s written better than anytime I can produce. πŸ˜„

I’ve been a mentor to WordCamps and I’ve been part of various ones in the past (and currently at the time of this writing on two organization teams). It’s usually the newer organizers that ask/think “should we approve someone just so we have a big name to attract people and sell tickets?”. Better question: “does big names sell tickets?”. Maybe for certain conferences, but in my 12+ years experience… the answer is no.

There’s a “but”, and we’ll get to that.

But in bullet style let’s cover the main points:

  • Start with the obvious: Ignoring larger WordCamps like WordCamp US and WordCamp Europe, WordCamps are mainly local events. Given the choice speaker organizers should be more focused on local and “area” speakers then bringing in people from the outside. The general suggestion is for the majority of these events to have a majority of local speakers.
  • Most of your attendees DO NOT CARE WHO THESE PEOPLE ARE. Some regular attendees to WordCamps might recognize repeat names but very few well. From over a decade of interactions and observations, I am confident in saying for the vast majority of the time it’s the SUBJECT MATERIAL that is the primary reason attendees get tickets and fill the seats.
  • If you are out to “sell tickets” as a motivation for ANY speaker selection that is not going to benefit the local community. If you are thinking on what benefits you and your reputation, then it’s time to adjust your thinking. I would rather have a smaller event that strengthens the local community than a larger one that doesn’t seem to have a purpose to the majority.
  • Learn to say no to potential speakers, even if they are seemingly popular speakers. These could be people you bump into at other events or interact with online. Hopefully no hurt feelings if you turn down their applications (and in any official application there should be a message back with some information why they weren’t accepted), but if there is seemingly (I use that word because often things are only in our own heads) some negativity then that would be on them. Not you.
  • “This WordCamp seems to be popular and they have these speakers…” That’s great for them. Let them worry about them (they have a different local area/community) and you worry about your domain.
  • Some organizers associate keynotes with “headline speakers”. I personally don’t like keynotes as a speaker organizer and in 12+ years with WordCamp Miami I only did two official planned ones. I’ve too often seen events have a single keynote that is often executed poorly – where it’s seen to put a spotlight on a local or national speaker that was meant to be used as a “see… see… our conference has someone important!”. You can tell this because their subject material didn’t apply to the majority of the audience – they were just there because they were a “big name”. I’m not saying keynotes are bad, but i’ve walked out of more awkward keynotes at WordCamps that I have feel good ones.

On The Other Hand, Use Speakers Effectively

So it sounds like speaker organizers should distance themselves away from popular speakers at WordCamps, so that they don’t appear to be following a trend? Nope, not saying that at all. Non-local speakers CAN be valuable.

Let me repeat: it’s PERFECTLY FINE to accept or invite non-local speakers to the event, keeping in mind they are bringing something to the event that benefits primarily the local community. That’s a broad definition and it takes honest and experienced organizers to define and execute on that.

How do you know what’s best or benefits the local community? That’s a separate newsletter but honestly it comes to down to knowing your community (often via surveys and meetups, sometimes taking months or years) and selfless (not in it for the money or your own promotion) interaction.

Didn’t You Say There Was A But To “Do Big Names Sell Tickets”?

Yes I did.

One is Matt Mullenweg (to be clear I’m not calling Matt a butt). I would be lying if i said that once Matt came to the WordCamp Miami 10th Anniversary event ticket sales didn’t pick up. And honestly that WordCamp Miami (in 2018, with it’s 1000+ attendees) is still my favorite WordCamp Miami.

But that’s a different level, and if you were in the WordPress space for any good amount of time I don’t think you would argue with that. And if Bill Gates decided to give a talk that would be applicable for a WordCamp… OK, I think you see where I’m going with this.

Big Names Can Fill The Seats But For Good Reason

So in my opinion “big” or “popular” speakers aren’t a driving force for ticket sales at WordCamps. But you might be thinking “ah but I’ve seen big names fill rooms at WordCamps so you are wrong”. Well, I never said big names didn’t fill seats. My take:

It’s my experience majority of popular speakers REALLY ARE GOOD SPEAKERS and select their material as such. So if it’s a developer conference, the speaker will have a developer talk suited for much of the audience. Non-developers tend to pick personal and widely applicable talks that “have something for everyone”. These speakers come to be known to be relatable and yes, there is a reputation for them filling up a room on the fair chance their pre-announced topic is entertaining and applicable enough. But I rarely hear people going to a WordCamp just to hear that talk (some give compliments that imply this but they are often that, just compliments).

Thinking About The Future

In the end, don’t like anyone guilt you into accepting or inviting a speaker. Just make it clear how they can benefit or fill a need that applies to the local community. Speakers also need to get over their egos and deal with speaker rejection too, but none of that do conference organizers need to worry about shouldering. But in the end speaker should think about who the next future speakers of WordCamps should be, and organizers should always be on the lookout for future individuals that can make a difference to the local community (local or not).

Bonus: How has WordCamp Miami focused on diversity? πŸ‘§πŸΏπŸ‘©πŸ½πŸ‘¨πŸ»β€πŸ‘©πŸ»β€πŸ‘¦πŸ»πŸ‘΄πŸΏπŸ‘¨πŸΌ

Diversity is rightly a primary concern of WordCamp organizers, but it’s difficult to have this in mind while “being fair” in general to applicants. We have covered diversity in previous newsletters and will continue to do so in future ones… but since this is a WordCamp focused newsletter (likely the last one of 2019) and this question comes up often, I decided to share briefly (this newsletter is already too long) information on what WordCamp Miami has done in the past.

  1. After applications have been gathered, a blind “survey” went out to fellow organizers who were wanting to participate. Blind here means that organizers (not just organizers involved on the speaker/programming team) gave their votes and feedback on the talks based on the title and description (identity of the submitting speakers was removed).
  2. After the entire organization team had a chance to give feedback, it came down to select individuals (majority that was on the speaker/programming team or had experience) to review the results and make decisions. This was based on a number of factors, including knowing the needs of the local community, trends in WordPress and related subjects that were related to those in the local community, and providing opportunities for new speakers. Important to note that open discussion here was a vital factor in sharing with the entire team or giving those wanting to participate a chance to give additional feedback.
  3. When there was a need to fill for specific WordCamp Miami tracks (for example the Know JavaScript Deeply track) people known with the experience to fill the holes (local or not) were invited. Again important to note that such invites weren’t just outside the community or targeted to popular speakers… nether of which might have applied during the initial speaker call. But careful attention would be placed toward finding ones in local adjacent communities (like a local JavaScript meetup) or toward those who perhaps expressed interest in speaking (which organizers tend to do paying attention year round at WordPress meetups) but didn’t apply.
  4. Diversity however doesn’t magically happen even if you have a diverse application pool and even if this is a priority during more manual selection processes. Later in the process there was tracking of diversity (including but not limited to men and women) and the respective areas of diversity speakers were representing in their talks (say, number of women speakers giving development talks). Where possible, invites would be extended if there was a collectively felt need for better representation.

The process for speaker selection is never perfect (at least I’ve never been involved in any completely smooth process in any tech conference in my entire experience). Future WordCamp Miami, other WordCamps, and tech conferences will continue to overcome challenges, tweak procedures, and adapt to the speaker and general tech industry landscape as a whole. Speaker and programming team members of any conference I think have one of the most difficult jobs an organizer can have. I hope to see more conferences open up about their procedures in the future, and I hope to document more specific WordCamp related items in future newsletters.

Misc. Stuff πŸ€·β€β™‚️

These tips were written and/or gathered by David Bisset, someone who’s been helping organizing conferences (such as WordCamp Miami, but others too) and meetups for over a decade. He’s still learning so share any of your tips and it might be included in a future newsletter.