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The “unconference” – why it’s worth it

Author: Sarah Crooke

Have you ever attended a conference and listened to the speakers, thinking “I could present as well as them” or “everything they are saying is wrong and I really want to tell them.” Well, then you will probably prefer the unconference.

The unconference was started as a backlash from those dull days of sitting through key note speakers, and people trying to sell their products, that many of us have attended – sometimes just to get out of a day of work. The unconference is based around a two-way conversation. Rather than being talked at by promoters, it’s a participant-driven event.

Last week I attended MeasureCamp, an unconference on analytics. It was held for the first time four years ago by an Aussie guy in London who was sick of never being able to speak at a conference – so he started his own. The format of the event was unlike anything I had ever attended, and have since dubbed it “crowd sourcing a conference”.

Upon arriving, there were multiple cards scattered around the breakfast area where you could fill in a topic, a description of what you wanted to discuss and the level of experience participants should have to join in. After a quick introduction, where the flow of the conference was described to us newbies, people began to fill in an empty board with topics that they wanted to talk about. Anyone could speak about any topic (as long as it related to analytics) and if you weren’t talking in that session, you could choose which one interested you the most.

I chickened out and didn’t put a topic up on the board. However, there were plenty of participants braver than me who shared their session ideas. Soon the 32 slots were filled. Given there were only approximately 60 people there, it was a good effort.

There were eight sessions, half an hour each. Some people had prepared presentations, but the ones that worked best were the session leaders who just showed up with a topic and let the group discuss it. For example, the leader of the session: “segmentation in Google Analytics” just wrote those four words on a white board and let the participants do most of the talking.

Despite being sponsored by some large groups, like Google 360, there was limited selling going on. This was partly due to the first rule of MeasureCamp being that – “We don’t talk about our products,” leaving the participants free to have an open conversation without being sold to. The second rule is “vote with your feet.” Meaning, if you aren’t engaging with the content of the session, don’t waste time brooding about how your time is being wasted, get up and go to a different talk. The other option is to put up your hand, people are encouraged to interrupt the speakers with comments, corrections or questions. Most of these ad-hoc discussions proved more valuable than the prepared presentations.

The whole day was really informative, I managed to learn about: qualitative research, media attribution, engagement metrics, analytics influence on UX and how to present data effectively, all in one day. We even got a free beer at the pub down the road after. The open nature of the conference allowed for a usually introverted bunch of people to network with strangers and make some great connections in the industry.

It was encouraging to see a wide range of people get up and talk about subjects they are passionate about, who usually would be left sitting in the audience. Hopefully next time I have the nerve to host a discussion.

Another MeasureCamp will be held in Australia in September. It will be on a Saturday and will be free. The idea being that if you are giving up your Saturday, then you’re not just there for a free day off work. The hosting city is still to be confirmed, either Sydney or Melbourne. I highly recommend going and joining in on the conversation if you are keen on anything analytics related.