An Open Letter to Life Science Conference Organizers

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If you’ve been following this blog or the San Diego Biotechnology Network, you know I’ve obtained complimentary passes for myself and others to blog at life science conferences. I am incredibly grateful to those who have obliged, but I always want more. We’ve all noticed that IRL (in real life) conferences are suffering due to the economy. It is sad to see that several of them are not leveraging the new media model fully to improve their situation. Those of us who live and breathe social media realize that you need to ‘let go’ in order to grow in this new era, something Seth Godin explains expertly in his book Meatball Sundae (which I’ve reviewed along with two other of his great books). Below, find my suggestions to help life science conferences not only adjust, but thrive in this new economy.

Use social media to engage year round. I normally see a flurry of activity from the social media champions of a conference a few months before the event. While this is a great start, the smart conference organizers are engaging scientists all year round. As I’ve covered earlier, social media works best when it’s a sustained effort. You’ll gain a lot, from getting feedback from scientists, to getting more ‘tweet cred’ and followers in the process.

Employ a team of bloggers. I talked with a major life science company who actually canceled a press conference at a recent meeting because there wasn’t enough media there. Do you know how many scientists are dying for the chance to cover your conference? Even if the media coverage suffers due to the economy, a few free passes will go a long way in getting the word out about the conference. You may need to become more involved in structuring the guidelines, etc., but in some ways, you’ll have more control, as those who receive a free pass will feel obligated to cover as much as possible. Give all bloggers press passes as well, so they can access computers and other items necessary for covering the meeting. Want to see great information about bloggers and journalism? See famous science blogger Bora Zivcovik’s excellent blog posts on the subject.

Make your website as informational and interactive as possible. There are three life science conferences I’ve been to in the past year in which the full schedule was not available online before the event. I really don’t know why this happens–how can an attendee plan properly, let alone a blogger? Leading to, and during the conference, your website can be a nexus for scientists to learn about the event. Also, your search engine rankings will likely benefit greatly as well as you add more content to it and get more visitors.

Post all social media policies well in advance. I’ve encountered a few ‘SURPRISE!’ announcements while covering a conference as a blogger, for example the big ‘no tweeting allowed’ signs at one conference last year. The AACR meeting’s social media policies are a great start, and you can see from the twitter stream that when attendees feel encouraged and confident, that more coverage results. In addition, scientists presenting at the conference will feel more comfortable, knowing that such policies exist.

Offer free, good quality WiFi. I talked with Bora Zivcovik about the Science Online conference he holds every year to discuss innovations in online science communication. In 2010, for WiFi support they actually hired the company that handled WiFi for the superbowl. Now, this group likely used a lot of bandwidth due to their nature, but you should consider that WiFi is an important part of getting your conference covered, along with access to power sources.

Live stream video from the conference. In the ‘world’ of social media, live video streaming of conferences is the norm. Mostly, companies use the Ustream service, which is free to users, and I’m sure there are many options. Benefits? Your conference is now viewable and ‘shareable’ globally. You’ll be able to save and reuse the content as you need, a powerful way to get content for your website for the entire year. Worried about people not attending? Face to face networking is still of utmost importance, and many wouldn’t trade that for virtual attendance–my view is that your attendance will remain the same. Indeed, I’ve heard that views of live streamed conferences can be 5-10 times the IRL attendance. Think that will help you to attract sponsors and speakers? Definitely!

Flip cams in the exhibit hall. Know how easy it would be to give some scientists flip cams, and task them to upload videos to your YouTube channel? Dead easy. Exhibitors, attendees, those not attending will love it, as one of the most important parts of a conference is the ‘buzz’ on the exhibit hall floor. Also, I’ve found that blogging a conference is hard work–videos of those who want to spread the word about their products are easy and speak volumes. Think of it as those disposable cameras they distribute at weddings (but be sure to get the proper clearance before distributing videos).

Open, open, open. Conferences run the gamut from very academic (e.g., ASCB, AACR), to those run as a business (e.g., Cambridge Healthtech Institute). Regardless of a conference’s position on this spectrum, benefits can be made from choosing to open up access rather than restricting it. Academic conferences have at their heart goals to further scientific progress–what better way than to encourage dissemination of information? Those worrying about being ‘scooped’ are naive and should realize that unethical behavior, be it word of mouth or information shared online, is a possibility at any conference, and the latter is more easily tracked and punishable. Conferences run as businesses can also benefit from opening up access. There are myriad benefits to speakers and sponsors from providing more access. Smaller fees can be imposed for ‘virtual’ attendance, and likely with a very minimal expense for software and broadcasting.

In conclusion, with every decision you make about your conference, choose the more ‘open’ option. One upcoming conference is restricting all media from their plenary talks. My prediction? It will completely backfire, as nothing motivates a twitterer, etc., more than a restriction, and there will be a large amount of negative attention that will result. Controlling access to information is no longer a business model, but the good news is that there is plenty of progress for life science conferences, and money, to be made with the new model. Try opening up your next conference–what do you have to lose?

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1 Comment
  1. Mary, thanks for the feedback! We love to see through conference attendees eyes, so your thoughts are helpful. Have you attended any TVG conferences, I would love to hear your feedback as we are actively changing and growing in this new economy.

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