Addicted to novelty since 2001

Northern Voice’s Popularity Problem

This year’s Northern Voice conference–the fifth one–pretty much sold out in three days. Tickets for Friday’s unconference lasted longer than Saturday, but certainly not much longer. And the wait list for each day is, by my guess, nearing fifty people. That happened with no marketing at all, besides blog posts and tweets from the organizers.

I have mixed feelings about that result. It’s terrific that the conference is so popular–it’s an affirmation that people really dig the event. But by virtue of that popularity (and despite its $60 price tag), the event has become kind of exclusive. If you’re not on Twitter or jacked in to the local blogosphere, you probably missed the boat on registering.

In years past, we’ve tried, when possible, to encourage noobies to attend the event. Last year (and I gather something similar is happening this year) there was a kind of Social Media 101 series on the Friday specifically for those who are new to this world. However, when the conference sells out so quickly, a bunch of those folks (and a bunch of connected, bloggy people too) can’t come. And that kind of sucks.

What To Do?

I’ve said for the past couple of years that we could double the capacity–from about 350 to 700–and still sell out. That’s never appealed, though, because an event that size would be pretty unwieldy. There would have to be huge or many rooms, more sponsors and considerably more infrastructure.

Organizer James and I were chatting last night, and discussed the possibility of making the event biannual. It happens during the spring reading break out at UBC, and could also easily happen during the fall one. If we did that, the association (Northern Voice went non-profit last year) would probably have to hire an event manager, because the volunteer organizers are all busy people stretched too thin as it is.

But I’m not sure that would actually solve the problem. I think most of the attendees who came to ‘Northern Voice Spring’ would also register for a ‘Northern Voice Fall’.

Or maybe not. Maybe doubling the number of conferences would, say, bring 250 people to each and normalize, at least in the short to medium term, the supply-demand imbalance.

It’s a nice problem to have, but one that becomes more pressing each year. Then again, maybe this social media stuff will die off in the next year or two, and Northern Voice 2012 will only have 59 attendees.

What do you think? Should we worry about too much demand and not enough supply of the moose?

UPDATE: Frequent Northern Voice attendee Mack posted his thoughts on the same topic.

17 Responses to “Northern Voice’s Popularity Problem”

  1. Duane Storey

    I was one of the people that missed the boat. But to be honest, I have no problem with that. I’ve been to it a few times, and while I’d gladly attend again, I’m happy some other people get to check it out and see what it’s about.

    I personally think there are far too many events these days, many of which have the same line up and agenda. Northern Voice always stood out because it was unique and somehow personable. So I’m all for keeping it as small as possible.

    What about having two ticket types, one for newbies, and one for semi-knowledgeable bloggers. Have each ticket tied to various tracks, with limited capacities of each. Just a thought.

  2. heidi

    Last year, I was one of the noobies – I heard about it through my web designer.

    This year, I heard on Twitter that registration was open & I’m really glad I signed up right away!!

    I have to agree with Duane. I like the personable nature that a smaller conference brings.

    What about running two conferences – one pretty much as is (a passionate coming together to learn, share and network), the second as a social media 101 conference (targetted to noobies)?

    And then engage the first group to give back to this community by presenting and sharing their knowledge and connections at the second?

    I work a lot in education and can really see marketting a 101 conference to teachers and/or students who are interested. For instance, there’s a new “social justice 12” course at one of our secondary schools and the students would really benefit from a better understanding of how to use twitter and blogging to extend their audience and impact.

    Or teachers trying to better understand the world of their 21st century learners would get a lot out of the learning as well.

    I think it would work well to both keep the conferences small AND narrow the target markets for each.

  3. Gene Blishen

    I don’t think that you should worry about the demand. It is the same with a lot of events, you need to register early rather than later.

    Duane brings a good point about there being far too many events. Maybe most of those events are specific to some program or group. NV is the one event when you get to meet new people and seen some old friends. One of the most important aspects of NV is the people and just having a venue to be able to meet and talk as well as take in what is presented is invaluable.

    We’ve supported NV as an advertiser because of the generalized nature of the event. Making it focused or specific would move away from what it is, a premiere social networking event. It is important that there be something annually were the bloggers, twitterers, social media types, newbies, podcasters, etc. from the Lower Mainland and farther reaches can meet and catch up to what is happening in any area that interests them.

    It is a lot of work. Our financial support is only a small token of that appreciation for everyone that gets NV available to us year after year. It is the least we can do to say thanks!

  4. Wader

    What about having a sister (or brother) conference in another city? How about Further Northern Voice in Edmonton? Double your capacity and open your audience without sacrificing the feel of the conference in Van City?

  5. Chris

    Sort of off topic, but UBC has a fall break? That’s gotta be new since I went there..

  6. Mike

    I’m curious – how many of the attendees are from the Lower Mainland & Island areas, and how many are from the “established” social media/tech companies in the area?

    Vancouver seems to be a mecca for social media in Canada, which is both a blessing and a curse. When I attended my first NV, I was surprised by how everybody seemed to know everybody else.

    I wonder, is NV viewed as a conference, or as a social gathering for the local blogging community? The latter isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it will limit the # of tickets available to “noobies”.

  7. darren

    Thanks for the comments and suggestions, everybody. I’ll pass them on to the organizing committee after this year’s event.

    @Chris You’re probably right. Maybe there’s a longish break around Thanksgiving?

    @Mike We’re aware of that phenomenon as well. In previous years, about 20% of people have been from out of town, and about 20% of people self-identified as noobyish. I suspect that the increasing popularity of the conference has shrunk both those numbers.

  8. Chris

    A 3-day break is as good as you’d get – one around Thanksgiving, and depending on timing one around Remembrance Day. A possibility, for sure.

  9. Rahel Bailie

    As someone who is involved with a lot of conferences, I offer my $0.02.

    Pricing: The price tag certainly has a lot to do with the popularity. $40 or $60 is what I pay to go to a luncheon or half-day workshop for other professional groups. And last year, when my own conference was a mere month later, I noticed many people who could have benefitted from cci2008 but liked the NV price tag better.

    Noobies: I think you’re vastly underestimating the number of new-to-blogging/social media people who are out there and would attend, but they’re likely only to find out about NV after the tickets have been sold out. I certainly know a few people whose response was “oh well, maybe next year” – and next year, they’ll still be blogless, likely.

    My suggestion? Have a “regular” NV every year, and try a 1-time event that’s only a 101 track, and see what happens. You may be surprised.

  10. Beth

    I like the idea of having a separate “101” type of conference. My experience has been that NV does have stuff for n00bs and then stuff for really experienced techies. Maybe if there were a separate “101” conference, then NV could have room for more sessions for people like me (no longer a n00b, but definitely not an expert).

    @Chris – yeah, there’s isn’t a fall break at UBC. There is the Thanksgiving weekend and Remembrance Day as stat holidays, but those probably wouldn’t be good days for NV.

  11. Leah

    For the second year in a row, the conference has sold out before I could register.

    Mind you, I have had the opportunity to attend a couple as well.

    This year, I might attend through the ‘back door’–“volunteering”…;)

    A one-day conference for noobies would be good…it could be ‘workshop’ style and include more ‘hands on’ or maybe just have the structure of choice as the Saturday talks…(as opposed to the ‘unconference’)

    You could market it, target a ‘niche’ group (ie. teachers) or why not just let all the people attend who want to and didn’t get in to NV?

    You could probably fill a day now with the “wait list” and give it a try…

    Maybe that defeats the purpose….I still like the price and numbers, even if it means I can’t attend…

    Maybe a cap on the number of times one can attend, or consecutively?

  12. Dick Carlson

    This will be the first year I’ve missed, I think — my speaking proposal didn’t get accepted, and it just costs too much to travel back from the east coast right now. But I had plenty of time to sign up.

    I’ve often wondered why a “new media” conference doesn’t take advantage of new media tools to let those who aren’t able to attend get some benefit. We’ve done a little podcasting, a little wiki posting, etc. But there’s so much more that could be done.

    How about giving out free passes for each video blog of a session? Free pass for each great writeup of a concept that is new? Interviews with speakers?

    I’d even fly back to do something like that!

    darren Reply:

    @Dick Like many aspects of the conference, it’s simply a question of organizer bandwidth. We’re almost all busy entrepreneurs volunteering our time, so it feels like quite an achievement just to get the thing sorted out without anybody losing an eye.

    In 2007, nearly all of the sessions were captured in audio or video by the good folks at Podcast Spot.

    If somebody wanted to organize something similar for 2009, I’d imagine the organizing committee would embrace it and give them a free ticket. If you (or anybody else) is keen, just drop an email to info@northernvoice.ca.

  13. James

    Darren and all commenters, thanks much for posting and contributing to this thread. The Northern Voice organizers (a ragtag group of volunteers) has been watching and listening. We don’t have any answers yet for the future, but we’re keenly listening.

    I don’t expect any changes to happen prior to this year’s conference but post-conference we always have a wrap up and we’ll post our notes and thoughts.

    Again: thanks to everyone for contributing.

  14. The Northern Voice Vibe

    […] When one of the organizers asked “how many people are new to the conference this year”, at least 60% or 70% of those in the audience put up their hand. That’s really terrific, not what I expected, and probably reflective of Northern Voice’s popularity problem. […]

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