Overheard at MMC: A Collection of Offstage Insights

Written by Lucie Robathan on May 12, 2017

We all go to conferences hungry for something: hungry for knowledge and information; for rekindling old connections and forging new ones; or perhaps for what’s on offer at the midday buffet.

I often find that the aspect of conference-going I most relish comes neither from the session hall nor the lunch menu, but from the hundreds of interactions between and amongst other attendees. The questions people raise after hearing a presentation, the comments they make as they walk through the halls, and the stories they tell about their individual experiences as they wait in a line, can offer uniquely valuable food for thought.

At last week’s MMC conference, in a convention centre teeming with association professionals, some of the most striking ideas and insights came as much from offstage as onstage. I made it my mission to listen out for the nuggets that people shared when they didn’t have an audience, a microphone, or a PowerPoint.

When a particularly interesting comment caught my attention, I would scribble it down and hunt for the person who made it. I managed to put names to a couple of quotes, but if any of the following seem strangely familiar to you then please do make yourself known to us and claim your credit!

“I don’t want to be on your list.”

- Anonymous and astute

This was sparked during a conversation about exhibitor and attendee relationships, which really brought into focus for us the question of making exhibit halls mutually beneficial, and how vendors can make the most of their position at conference events.

This (sadly unnamed) attendee was fed up with what she termed “spamming”, and didn’t appreciate being treated as a member of an email chain rather than as a professional with a specific agenda and motivation. This is important information for both parties: how can the potential of new products, new services, new tools, and new collaborations, be harnessed so that vendors don’t commit time and money to exhibit for nothing, and so that attendees don’t feel spammed?

“Even if we don’t talk to our members on Snapchat, they speak to their community with it.”

- Roxanne Sutton, National Recreation and Park Association

This emerged out of a conversation with Roxanne that ultimately became about the value of a strong understanding of your membership base. This was especially interesting as a counterpoint to the various times people declared a presentation topic “interesting, but not relevant to my association”.

Roxanne and I met while attending a session on Snapchat as a marketing tool, and our discussion showed how many different, individual lessons can be gleaned from the same speech. The younger, more digitally immersed communities using the parks, Roxanne explained, communicate with each other through media like Snapchat: so although the marketing strategy of the NRPA itself might not accommodate such a platform, she saw potential for their members to use it to interact with the actual people using their services.

Learning about – and learning from – your members and their lives outside of the association space can have a significant impact on your engagement with a wider audience.

“I was tired of being spoken of and not spoken with.”

- Nameless and knowledgeable

Millennials: how to engage them, how to learn from and adapt to their behaviours and interests, and how they change the nature and scope of the association space, are by no means an unfamiliar topic.

This quote was delivered offhand by a woman, falling directly into the Millennial category, who had grown weary of hearing from all angles - apart from her own - how best to respond to her and her generation. She arrived at an interactive session, which we took part in together, eager to contribute her specific knowledge, and to participate in this conversation rather than feeling like the subject.

Her comment reflects how including the younger generation in strategy-building, and balancing the benefits of expertise with the power of direct experience, is the most effective way to ensure you are listening to what young people want.

“Pretty is an important touchpoint.”

- Kevin, AIM

Kevin brought out his newly designed business card, prompting both me and my colleague to compliment the logo on how pretty it was. It was with a degree of gravity that he delivered this line, and he’s absolutely right. Whether it’s a business card, a pamphlet, an email, or marketing material, people’s reactions are triggered first by the way something looks. No matter how informative and valuable your content, if it isn’t in an appealing package you have to work even harder to convince people of its worth. As Lisa Campo mentioned in her article last month, a good and “pretty” design is also more user-friendly, since messages can be clearer and communicated more effectively.
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There are always in-between moments at conferences, the empty spaces in your agenda, when you can easily zone out while you wait for the next event. In my experience, these times are some of the most fruitful. You never know what the person next to you might offer if you strike up a chat, or what conversations you might stumble across if you keep your ears pricked. While I’m not encouraging active stalking, it’s always worth remembering that each attendee has a whole story behind them.