Notes on media, productivity and money

Events Aren’t Rocket Science — So Why’s Everyone Terrified of Doing Them?

Wong Joon Ian

Events are the third leg of the revenue stool for publishers and basically any media company out there, yet many publishers are quite terrified of taking on events. Ask anyone who’s had to do a conference and most of them reply with a variation of, ‘it’s harder than childbirth!’.

Yet, events aren’t rocket-science. As someone who’s built several successful events businesses, I think there are lots of under-explored ways of using very simple, no-code software to automate and take away a lot of the pain and fear around doing an event.

As an intensely introverted person, I never thought I’d have anything to do with events or any public speaking, but weirdly enough, I’ve ended up building a couple of great events businesses through circumstance and just figuring things out on the fly.

One of the things I’ve been doing with Consensus is trying to automate as many workflows as possible, and to consolidate as much data as possible into one place. Data fragmentation — of speaker info, of who did what when — is one of the big problems in event ops and speaker management.

The tool I found that solved these problems is an Airtable and Zapier combination. At its core, Airtable is a nice no-code database product. And with the Zapier integrations, you can do a lot of nice things with email alerts and more that takes away a lot of the manual processes. So this post is a quick summary of some of the tooling I built to run Consensus over two years.

But first some context around Consensus (here’s a photo essay from the New York Times on the 2018 edition):

So one big pain point in programming a conference is drafting the agenda. The way most people go about drafting an agenda is to use an intricately formatted spreadsheet. The only problem with that is manipulating units of time (a specific session, for instance) becomes an exercise in cutting and pasting, and it becomes error-prone as a result. But agendas are basically calendars, so Airtable’s calendar view really clinched it for me.

So here’s how we drafted our 100+ sessions in Airtable:

You’ll see the emoji, which all mean something specific about the status of a session. It’s just a way to quickly visually communicate how many more sessions we have to bake.

Then the other pain point is managing speaker communications. With a team of people programming an agenda, it can be hard to keep track of who said what to whom, and with 400-plus speakers and thousands of inbound speaking requests — plus a lot of egos on the line  — it’s important to keep communications lines straight. So here are some workflows we used:

There are a bunch more things we did with the database including managing press registrations and forms; managing a crowdsourced section of the conference that had dozens of speakers and sessions; and coordinating editorial coverage.

But I’ll just highlight here the dashboard that we built to track the status of the conference as it was being developed.

The nice thing about this dashboard is it tells us how baked the entire agenda is, and it also highlights major problems for us, like the number of speakers who ‘don’t have a home’ (ie. haven’t been allocated a session). It’s also an easy way for people outside the core events team to get an update on how the event is going — especially useful for big conferences with lead-times of 6-12 months like Consensus.

Lastly, I set up many of these workflows through a steep learning curve and reading the Airtable forums; but at one point I needed to get things done really quickly so I started looking in the forums for a consultant to help me. And lo and behold — one of the community members I was talking to at the time, Alli Alosa, turned out to offer consulting services. She helped me build the dashboard, implement several cool automations, and introduced me to the junction method of linking up different tables. I do recommend working with a consultant to help automate some of your workflows.


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