Although I didn’t participate in today’s #assnchat about ASAE’s Great Ideas Conference, it still inspired a blog post. Thank you, KiKi! Here’s why.

conference creativity rooms

I must confess I never went into the creativity rooms at Great Ideas. I peeked into one, but it looked like a dolled-up regular meeting room to me. Maybe I missed something. Maybe I missed it completely. I thought I saw toys on the tables. Or did my eyes deceive me? It’s a shame I didn’t go in and explore, but the timing was never right.

And table toys don’t do much for me. I swear I’m not that serious a person. I’ve attended sessions with group activities centered around toys or other building-block-type things. It’s forced fun for a while. People relax a bit and some get really competitive: “Ours will be bigger!” Perhaps playing with toys shifts our mindset from serious office mode to relaxed engaged conference mode. And, yes, we’re using our creativity, but it seems so forced. And passé, isn’t it? Ok, call me a kill-joy. Then, after a rousing round of construction, the hubbub dies down and we sit passively for the next 30 to 40 minutes listening to the speaker and sneaking glances at the silly-looking fort on our table.

The association professionals in today’s Twitter chat had plenty of great ideas (heh heh) for conference creativity rooms and I even have a few of my own.

Exercise: @AssnMetrics would include “some piece of exercise equipment to put my body in a different state from just sitting.” That reminded me of the Snap Learning Spot sponsored by the Canadian Tourism Commission at Great Ideas where my friend Rob Barnes rode an exercise bike for 35 miles while listening to a micro-learning session. His miles on the bike also raised money for charity. I can imagine a creativity room with a bunch of exercise bikes (or treadmills or ellipticals) for people who want to chat while firing up their mind and body. Maybe some air hockey too. If you rather get outside, the room could be a meeting place for people who want to take scheduled or random walks or hikes.

F&B: The Canadians also served poutine at one point during the conference. I’m sorry I missed it! But, that leads me to my second creativity room feature – food and beverages. @SarahJanetHill and @strattonpub had the same idea. Definitely provide coffee, tea, water and other healthy beverages. Our brains need fuel. Have sign-ups for sommelier- or Cicerone-led wine and beer tastings at the end of the day. The food for the room could be made by people attending mini-cooking classes.

Mini-classes: Why stop at cooking classes? People can sign up in advance to teach people how to knit, play Texas Hold ‘Em or the acoustic guitar, or whatever. 

Arts and crafts: @SarahJanetHill said she likes “playdoh or pipecleaners or something to keep my hands busy. Helps keep my brain engaged.” @ASegar added, “craft paper, scissors, glue.” Who doesn’t like arts and crafts? Let’s make lunch centerpieces, art projects, lanyards or badge decorations – it’s like camp!

Puppy room: @k8doyle suggested this brilliant idea. But where do the puppies (or kitties) come from? Why the Humane Society or SPCA, of course! They can talk to folks about fostering pets, pet care, and other topics.

Music: @ToeKneeRay wants music and I agree. Even at a low (and adjustable) volume, it will energize people. Live music throughout the venue would be even better, if you can afford it. 

Furniture: @strattonpub requests “comfortable seating for solo and group work, lots of natural lighting, warm colors/décor.” I’d add all kinds of plants too – ferns, cacti, succulents, leafy plants, etc. @craigsorrell would like “a room of rocking chairs so you can sit and chat with attendees.” I envision a big room with some private spaces for those who need a bit of solitude. A room with a view would be ideal. Or a few rooms scattered throughout the venue, each with their own character.

Shazam: Wouldn’t it be cool to go somewhere and let your creativity and intellect go crazy in conversation with other attendees? Maybe speakers would pop by and ask questions that encourage wild thinking and wondering. Or whoever is staffing the room would come armed with provocative questions and topics, and not just professional ones.

Tools: @ASegar would stock “flipcharts, postable walls, sticky notes, pens” and @strattonpub would include a “whiteboard or chalkboard.” Make it a good place to let the mind wander and work out issues. Provide magazines and iPads too – tether them if you wish. Who knows, maybe you can get a group visionboard activity going.

Introvert-friendly: @bussolati said “My ideal creativity room would be just me… Introverts unite!” She wasn’t alone in that sentiment. We can create creativity rooms that include quiet space where we can recharge alone.

@ThadLurie shared an article by Susan Cain, The Rise of the New Groupthink. “We need to move beyond the New Groupthink and embrace a more nuanced approach to creativity and learning,” said Cain. “Our offices should encourage casual, cafe-style interactions, but allow people to disappear into personalized, private spaces when they want to be alone.” Replace offices with conferences.

I know we’re at conferences primarily to meet and deepen relationships, oh, yeah, and to get an education too, but I wouldn’t mind a bit more downtime or white space, even if it means extending the conference. I hate having to skip a session just so I can go for a walk while it’s light out.

What do you think? What’s in your ideal creativity room? And how do you recharge when you’re in the midst of a conference?

contents of a conference creativity room

Photo by laffy4k (Flickr)

Right about now, if Isaac hadn’t interfered, I’d be arriving in New Orleans to enjoy its local food and cocktail culture for a few days.

I was going to tag along as my boyfriend attended a conference that was to start Tuesday. Late last night, the conference was postponed, so there’s a good chance I’ll get to have my New Orleans adventure another time, most likely with better weather. But the members of the American Political Science Association aren’t so lucky.  

association conference hurricane decision

On Sunday while watching Isaac’s westerly turn toward New Orleans, I noticed some #apsa2012 tweets in the #nola stream. The tweets were about the cancellation of their Wednesday pre-conference sessions. What a mess, I thought. Making the decision to cancel my boyfriend’s conference was a no-brainer since it was scheduled to run the day before, during, and after Isaac. But what would APSA do?

As I mourned my missed vacation, I checked the #nola stream earlier today.  A slew of WTF-type tweets from #aspa2012 registrants dominated the stream. “Make a decision!” was the most common plea. People were wondering if they should get on the plane or cancel their plans. They kept asking APSA for information but nothing was forthcoming.

association conference hurricane decision

If APSA had taken the time to address or ask about people’s concerns, they may have stemmed some of the negativity that took over the conference hashtag.

Finally, the announcement came: the conference would start on Thursday as scheduled. If your flight to New Orleans was canceled, you could apply for a registration refund, but questions about that policy went unanswered.

association conference hurricane refund

Some of the tweets took the decision in stride, focusing on short lines in bars, but most of them leaned negative. Some wondered whether their concerns about traveling to the eye of the storm were even taken into consideration.

APSA’s in a tight spot. Imagine the hotel liability, and lost exhibition, sponsorship, and advertising revenue if they were to cancel. What do you do with the members and exhibitors who are flying less cooperative airlines than my full-credit-on-canceled-flights Southwest? Ask them to pay for another flight to the conference when it’s rescheduled?

What about members and speakers who can’t make it? Did they try to find out who would be able to come and use that data in their decision-making? What kind of experience will attendees have if many of the attendees and speakers can’t make it?

association conference hurricane

Imagine attendees getting to New Orleans on Thursday, the earliest they’ll be able to arrive, in what shape will the city be?

association conference hurricane decision members

We can say to ourselves, “Man, I’m glad that’s not my association,” and the obvious, “Why would you ever schedule a conference during hurricane season in New Orleans?” Well, because I bet you can get some good deals, ask my boyfriend’s company.

Associations must consider dozens of factors when making a decision to either hold a conference during a hurricane, or postpone or cancel it. It’s a revenue question, I know that, but you can’t forget your mission. Is leadership making an expedient short-term decision or do they have the capacity (and the balls) to make the right decision?

I don’t know anything about APSA’s situation so I’m not suggesting this is a bad decision, although their members on Twitter seem to think it is. They’re a vocal minority, but do they represent the views of the majority of attendees?

Poor APSA gives the rest of us in the association community the opportunity to watch and learn.

Update: Tuesday afternoon and the conference is still on despite signs of weak attendance by members and exhibitors. Check out the comments on this blog post, Are You Going to APSA?

Update #2: Tuesday, 5:49pm APSA made the conference cancellation announcement on their website, later followed by a tweet. News of the cancellation leaked to Twitter about 20 minutes earlier. They announced, “In light of revised information we have from local officials about the trajectory of Isaac, we now anticipate the potential for sustained rain, flooding, power outages and severely restricted transportation into the city on Thursday.” I hate to say it, but after watching The Weather Channel  Jim and I were anticipating those conditions when our trip and his conference were cancelled on Sunday. One of APSA’s members agrees.

new orleans isaac


I hear you. “Games, yes! It’s about time we looked at games.”

And I hear you too. “Games? You can’t be serious. Not at my association.”

Full disclosure, I’m not a gamer, so this is all a bit foreign to me too. I first started paying attention to games two years ago at a TEDx conference where I heard an IBM game designer talk about using games for training and education. Ever since I’ve been intrigued by the idea that game thinking can help associations deliver a better experience.

I’m not the only one. Game dynamics was the topic of last week’s #assnchat.

It’s tempting to dismiss any consideration of games by saying members are serious professionals and wouldn’t go for those shenanigans, but they do.

Games are the most downloaded apps. 72% of households play computer or video games. The average gamer is 37 years old. 42% of gamers are women. 55% of gamers play on their phone or hand-held device.

Here’s what I’m wondering: how can we leverage the principles of game design to make the membership experience or professional development journey more meaningful, or encourage online community participation?

Please read the rest of this post at the Avectra blog.

Blogs are not dead! That was the verdict from DelCor Technology Solution’s unconference last month: Progress U. – Blogger Summit. I’m go glad I got up to Arlington VA to attend, it was a great day of conversation. DelCor’s publishing a series of follow-up posts from the Summit. The first talks about the state of blog reading and writing today and why blogs are a good idea for associations.

DelCor’s second post discusses Six Barriers to Blogging – And How to Bust Them. Don’t let limited resources, organizational culture, staff’s full plates, fear, lack of confidence orleadership’s unfamiliarity with blogs discourage you.

We’re so lucky to have access to free tools for professional development, like blogs, but there is a potential downside: cognitive overload. Back in August, Ed Rodley, an exhibits professional at the Museum of Science in Boston, wrote about Dealing with Your Cognitive Load. His post received so many replies from the museum community that he compiled their ideas into four more posts.

I must share something he said in Part 4 – it’s what drew me into the rest of these posts because it’s so spot on about personal growth:

“All of the strategies listed above have one thing in common. They don’t require anything aside from your own desire to learn. As someone who has worked in a large institution for most of my professional career, it’s easy to succumb to the mindset of waiting for permission to do anything. This is especially true of old-school “professional development.” There are forms to be completed, signatures to be garnered, and justifications to be gathered before any learning happens. But in the current climate, waiting for anything seems like a recipe for getting left behind.

Speaking of traditional nonprofit organizations, how many of them have a full-time employee dedicated to managing volunteers? Yeah, not many. In associations, volunteering is a benefit of membership, often the benefit that brings them back year after year. You’d think more resources would be directed at keeping members engaged and satisfied, but no. Susan J. Ellis at Energize, Inc. says Part-time Volunteer Management Means Equally Limited Volunteer Involvement.

In this brilliant post Jamie Notter, author with Maddie Grant of must-read book, Humanize, points out that social media is just a wave knocking down a corner of your sand castle. But be ready, he says. “The tide is coming in. Social media is giving us a bit of an advance warning that things are changing.”

While Eric Lanke was visiting one of his members, a manufacturing company, a simple sign on the wall provided a moment of clarity. He brought the mantra back to his association, it’s one that works in any organization: help the customer succeed.

I started this selection with two posts from an unconference, I’ll end with a post that Jenise Fryatt wrote about Event Camp East Coast: How an Unconference Changed My Life.

That’s it for now, happy reading!

Lady Blogger with Her Maid, after Vermeer by Mike Licht (Flickr)

What’s the old saying? For every three people who praise your business, ten others complain about you? That may be hogwash, but I know from experience that the last thing a business owner wants is someone running their mouth off about a bad customer service experience, especially if we were never given the chance to make it right.

Social media gives us a platform to bitch about the ways we’ve been done wrong, and that negative buzz spreads quickly. The good news is we also use social media to rave about our good experiences. If businesses are smart, they’re listening and will turn a negative into a positive by responding, taking action and learning.

But I’m not here to talk about the bad guys. I’m focusing on businesses (and non-profits) whose customer service or marketing has impressed me lately. I’ll shine a monthly spotlight on a few smarties whose actions, large or small, made me smile.

Small gestures start relationships.

I never expect to get anything for free. If I do, I’m instinctually suspicious. What’s their angle? Sometimes, however, generous gestures are made with good intentions.

Days before vacation, my reading glasses fell apart. With a pile of new books to read, ack, what a disaster! I searched for a local eyeglasses store with hopes they’d fix my glasses for a decent price without trying to hard-sell me into buying a new pair.

If you’ve worn glasses a long time, you might think this experience isn’t so unusual. But I really didn’t expect Oasis Eye Care to repair my glasses for free — in less than five minutes and with a friendly helpful attitude. I would have paid, what do I know? When I’m ready to buy a new pair of glasses, guess where I’m going?

Lesson: Small gestures that don’t cost much and don’t take much effort mean more to your prospects and customers than you realize. We’re grateful and we remember. We also remember when you nickel-and-dime us. And we talk.

The next examples are inspired by a conference I didn’t attend because I was at the beach reading books with my repaired glasses. However, I read enough recap blog posts and tweets to form an impression about these three organizations. Social media is some powerful stuff, huh?

Give back, get buzz, have fun.

DelCor Technology Solutions, a member and exhibitor at the recent American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) conference, found a way to donate money to a charity while creating buzz and attracting attendees to their exhibit booth for a bit of fun.

Their blog and tweets invited attendees to visit their booth and have their photos taken with a life-size cardboard cutout of one of their advertising characters. If the visitor tweeted her photo, she was eligible to win a $500 donation for her favorite charity. I have no idea how successful this was, but I love the spirit (and savvy) behind it, so that’s enough to get them into the Smart Set this month.

Lesson: While the competition tries to create awareness and traffic by doing the same old things (visit our booth for a chance to win an iPad!), offer a different experience, one that makes everyone feel good – good about themselves and good about you. Appeal to our hearts and tickle-bones, our mind will follow.

smart marketing

DelCor's booth at #ASAE11

Listen, learn and improve.

The blogosphere’s reaction to last year’s ASAE conference was mixed. Many people, including myself, were hesitant about attending another unless changes were made to improve the learning experience. After hearing reports about this year’s conference, I’ve moved back into the positive camp.

ASAE obviously listened to complaints about last year’s conference and took them very seriously. Several blog posts, for example, here, here and here, praise ASAE for the improved attendee experience.

Lesson: Never get complacent. Don’t live in a bubble. Keep your eyes and ears open to new ideas. Listen to your gadflies. What’s the worst thing that can happen if you try a few new things? Let your competition sit on their butts, you’ve got new trails to climb. Think how good it will feel once you’re on the summit.

Make a lasting impression.

St. Louis hosted the ASAE Annual Meeting and went all out for the “association for associations.” #ASAE11 was their audition for the executives who choose cities for future conferences and trade shows. They knew it and they didn’t miss a beat. Their well-coordinated efforts to welcome and help attendees were a topic of discussion on Twitter and in session rooms. Even the mayor sent out an alert to city businesses.

st louis marketing

And he kept on tweeting throughout the conference, replying to attendees and retweeting tourist tips.

marketing smart set

The locals tweeted back, making suggestions for restaurants, bars and other places to visit. They helped to sell another one of the city’s charms — helpful friendly residents. I’d be willing to bet that the St. Louis CVB will receive a lot of calls from meeting planners in the near future.

Lesson: Know when to make a big impression for the long-term. Your job is to not only serve that customer tonight but to get him raving about you to his friends and colleagues and get him back in the door for another visit.

That’s the Smart Set for this month. If you’ve been impressed by the marketing or service of a smart company or organization lately, let me know in the comments. They might be candidates for next month’s Smart Set.


Just one more thing: Someone asked me about the phrase “Color Me Impressed.” It’s the title of a Replacements song from 1983. Were any of you at their 1989 show at the Warner Theater in DC?

This morning I was reminded that I spend a lot of my time in a world that’s very different than the world many others live in. Maybe I’m in a bubble.

When the citizens of my world go to an educational session or a conference, we bring our laptops and phones. We take them out, listen and type, tweet or text. This is how we digest information, learn and share.

But not everyone understands our behavior, including many in the association industry — people responsible for providing an effective learning environment for their attendees.

Is it really a question of etiquette?

Yesterday on the ASAE membership listserv an association director expressed his frustration that at a recent panel session 60-80% of the audience were on their phones or laptops. He found it disrespectful. In another session he discovered that some were taking notes but others were using email and Facebook or playing games. Should associations ask people to turn off their phones and laptops during a session?

Another association director likened the use of laptops and phones at conferences to their use at the dinner table or during staff meetings. He suggested that organizers politely ask attendees to turn off all electronic devices so they can better engage and learn. He believes this bad behavior will spread as smartphones proliferate and provide more access to the outside world.

Maybe I’m not the one in the bubble.

tweeting at conferences raleigh freelance writer

Photo by I'm Mr P (Flickr)

It’s not about you; it’s about us, the attendees.

If a speaker or moderator told me to turn off my phone or laptop, my first reaction would be bewilderment. My phone is on silent, why should I turn it off? I’m taking notes on my laptop. What if I want to tweet?

My bewilderment would turn to anger and resentment. How dare you tell me how I should learn? How dare you tell me how I should capture my thoughts and ideas? I’m eyeing the path to the exit door.

Learning and sharing tools.

Why do we use phones and laptops during educational sessions? Here are the positive reasons:

  • We take notes. Writing by hand is not as easy or speedy as it used to be for me. I can type quickly, delete, edit, highlight, bold, italicize and use color fonts on my laptop.
  • We tweet. We share information with those who can’t be here. Some of us might use Facebook instead to do this.
  • We communicate with other attendees. We go to conferences not only to learn but to also meet people and build relationships. We make plans to meet others for lunch, coffee or a beer.
  • We’re live-blogging. We might do this instead of taking notes or to provide a summary of the session to those who can’t attend.
  • We email or text reminders or ideas to ourselves and others.
  • If I’m lucky, I get into a special mindset at educational sessions. It’s professional development so my “work” mind is on. But, because I’m not in my office, I’m stimulated by new surroundings and information, and my mind goes into creative mode. Ideas appear out of nowhere about all kinds of things, sometimes not even related to the session’s topic, but that’s okay. I never want to shut the door to good ideas and I get a lot of them while sitting in sessions.
tweeting at conferences phones laptops raleigh freelance writer

Photo by catspyjamasnz (Flickr)

On the other hand…

Sorry, but there are just as many negative reasons why we’re on our phones and laptops.

  • Your speaker is not compelling. They read their presentation. They’re boring. They’re nervous. They’re selling.
  • We’ve heard it all before. It’s too basic. We’re bored.
  • The presentation isn’t being delivered in a learning style that works for me.
  • My brain is at capacity. It’s late in the day; I just can’t listen any longer.
  • I’m really not interested, but I had to come. I have work I need to get done, emails to check…

What’s in it for you?

Why should you encourage your attendees to pull out their laptops and phones? If you want them to have a rewarding and enjoyable learning experience, let them learn how they wish. If they choose to goof-off, that’s their choice, as long as they’re not bothering anyone. They’re adults wasting their own (or their company’s) money; you’re not their mother.

I suppose you probably spend a lot of money marketing your educational sessions and conference. How would you like free word-of-mouth (or word-of-mouse) marketing? Everyone with a phone or laptop is a potential ambassador of awesomeness if you provide them with an exceptional experience and encourage them to talk about it.

Help them help you. Give your attendees enough wifi, outlets and chargers. If wifi is too expensive at one venue, find another. Hotels and convention centers that don’t provide affordable wifi don’t deserve anyone’s business. It’s time for them to get out of the bubble too.

We all come to conferences from different worlds and perspectives. What works for you may not work for me. Keep that in mind and live and let live.

I know that you’re all on the edge of your seats waiting for the next installment of the Writing for the Web series, but first I want to catch you up on some of my blog posts elsewhere.

Over on Grabbing the Gusto, my food blog, I’ve posted recipes in the last few weeks for some very tasty dishes: Coconut Citrus Tilapia, Mexican Shrimp Cocktail (the critics swooned), Kung Pao Chicken with Vegetables, two hearty dinner salads (just what you need in this hot humid weather) and more.

Here’s the best of the rest:

The Decline of We-to-You and the Rise of You-to-You

I’m not ready to declare the end of traditional marketing. One-way broadcast marketing will continue to serve its purpose with web, print, TV and radio copy. However, with the rise of social media, marketing has forever changed. You-to-you marketing is often more effective than traditional methods. 

“Oh, is it?” (You might be thinking.) Yes, it is. Read why at Avectra…

Open Community Case Study: Local Government Knowledge Network

Once upon a time there were two associations who frequently competed for the same members. Then one day they burst through long-held cultural barriers and joined together to develop an online community. Not only that, they did the unthinkable: they opened their community to non-members.

No, this isn’t a fairy tale; learn how they did it at Socialfish…

Use Video to Connect with Your Members

You don’t have to be a tech geek or a rich association to make a video these days. Many associations, with limited time and money just like you, have made effective videos without the help of experts. Several of them shared examples and tips in last week’s #assnchat, the weekly Twitter chat for association professionals.

Check out their videos and steal their ideas at Avectra…

Twitter Association Rock Stars: AARP

When you think of AARP, what comes to mind? Retired? Sorry, wrong. Most of their members are not retired, and they’re not a Boomer organization stuck in the past. AARP has one of the most savvy social media teams around.

Get the inside scoop on how AARP uses Twitter at the Avectra blog…

Conference Newcomers: Make Their First Time a Great Time

A member walks away from registration with her badge and conference bag. She’s excited and a little nervous; this is her first conference. As she leafs through the program, waiting for the opening session to begin, she watches other attendees hug each other hello. She overhears snippets of conversation. It seems like everyone else already has friends here. What are these lounges and receptions they mention? There are so many sessions and activities listed in the program; it’s overwhelming. Day one has just begun and already she feels a bit lost, lonely and discouraged.

Oh no! Learn how you can make your first-timers feel at ease and welcome at Avectra…

If you are stressed, short of time and staff, and need help writing content for your organization’s blog, drop me a line, perhaps I can help.

raleigh blogger writer

Photo by the awesome Mike Licht (Flickr)

Clay Shirky’s Foreign Affairs article, The Political Power of Social Media (registration required), is a fascinating read that rebuts and shreds Malcolm Gladwell’s view about the power of social media to facilitate change. Shirky doesn’t like our Administration’s “instrumental” approach — social media used as short-term action-oriented political tools with the focus on computers rather than phones — because it “overestimates the value of broadcast media while underestimating the value of media that allow citizens to communicate privately among themselves.” He prefers an “environmental” approach using social media as “long-term tools that can strengthen civil society and the public sphere,” a role that media has played throughout history — providing access to conversation. His discussion of the conservative’s dilemma, formerly known as the dictator’s dilemma, reminds me of the fear of loss of control that many organization leaders have about social media.

Why not give Malcolm Gladwell a share of the spotlight too? In this 2-1/2 minute video (transcript provided) on Big Think, he discusses the creative urge to collect and consume what we come across, to not edit the chaos, but to embrace it. For who knows what nuggets of inspiration might lie within?

I would love to see organizations take to heart Soren Gordhamer’s Five New Paradigms for a Socially Engaged Company. Creating the organizational culture that will bring about these changes? That’s the challenge. Take for instance #2, Mindset. Yes, it would be great if staff had the right mindset for innovation. But how can an organization facilitate that when an employee is juggling a to-do list that’s three pages long. Nevertheless, these are important cultural concepts that must be absorbed.

My pal Jeff Hurt, a prolific writer and brain, explains Why People Join Social Networking Sites. Oh, you thought you already knew? Well, you might be half right, but let Jeff take you a little deeper to the root causes – motivation you need to consider when developing your community strategy.

I have a feeling that Josip Petrusa’s post, Attracting Millennials to Your Event and Why You’re Failing at It, will be the seed of one of my future blog posts. His reasoning applies to more than only events, think organizations too. Boomers may not like reading this, but his perspective is good medicine and rings a bit too true.

social media networking political millennials membership events creativity

Manila protest January 2001 ~ flickr photo by M.a.c.a.r.o.n.i.