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Way back in the 1970s, an economist, scientist, and philosopher by the name of Herbert Simon heard everyone around him talk about the “information age.” While the amount of data people had to deal with in an era of rotary phones and black-and-white TV might seem laughable today, computers were just entering the public psyche, and there was no turning back.
But Simon chafed at the term. Economies are powered by supply and demand—and they value what’s scarce. Information was abundant; it’s what it consumed that was interesting. Simon coined the term the attention economy, and it’s the reason Facebook exists. We literally pay attention. Our time and focus are currency. When there’s too much to pay attention to, the human brain focuses on what’s novel, or dangerous, or useful, or funny—in other words, what’s interesting.
Our species is shifting from atoms to bits, and for me, interesting things happen where the rubber of technology meets the road of society: Digital government, artificial intelligence, widespread automation, and the sum of all knowledge is in our pockets. Even Simon would be proud of what we’ve built.
We don’t know each other yet
By now, some of you are asking, “who’s this guy in my inbox.” You don’t know that much about me, so I’m going to introduce myself a bit.
(I should point out that the people who do know me and are reading this are saying, “shut up already, Alistair!”)
Many of you signed up for this because you wanted to learn more about the future of events. That’s great—I work in, and on, events. And figuring out what’s possible as they move online is what I’m interested in today.
I get interested in lots of things, from how data is changing music, to making boardgames with my daughter, to digital redlining, to how big companies should think about innovation, to crapweeding. But I wanted a more direct conversation about these things with other folks who are thinking hard about possible futures—so here we are.
If that sounds like your jam, stick around (and read all the way to the bottom.)
Followup on the Future of Events
As most of you probably know—since you signed up for this newsletter when I launched it—last Friday, I ran a webinar on the future of virtual events. It went as well as I could have hoped, particularly since it was my first one. Here are some details on the analytics, and how I got the word out.
Of the 652 that attended the event, over 300 stuck around for a Q&A after the end of the session. Given that I was expecting fifty people, this seems like good conversion. I used a few hacks. I may have used some of them on you.
But I don’t want you to feel tricked—after all, we just became friends. So I thought I’d share them here in case they’re useful for events you’re running or content you’re working on:
1. Get buy-in before you do the work, then remind people they wanted it
One reason people attend an event is a sense of obligation. Once they show up, it’s the presenter’s job to pleasantly surprise them, so they’re engaged. But if you can make them feel responsible for you, the content, or the event somehow, they’ll turn up.
When I decided to write something, I asked people online if I should. Then, when I was done writing, I messaged them to tell them about the webinar.
2. Share something people feel smarter for sharing
My One Rule of Twitter Sharing is this: People share things that make their friends think they’re smarter. This isn’t a criticism—we all want the approval of our tribe, and this is a good way to help your friends. It might sound cynical, but it’s an excellent litmus test for social sharing.
So I took a detailed diagram and added some event information, and posted it on social media. People shared it widely, because it had concrete information and offered a structure for thinking about things.
3. Get influential reviewers, then ask them to share the work
I had roughly 30 people review the big report I’ve been working on. Many of them are executives at event, marketing, or publishing organizations. They have big networks, and make a living putting content on stage. So once they’d contributed to the document, I sent them an email thanking them all, with three links:
The URL of the event itself.
A link to my tweet announcing the event.
A link to my LinkedIn post about the event.
This made it really easy for them to amplify the message with a click. I shared with friends directly, of course. The platform gave me a bit of analytical detail:
4. Several kinds of content
People learn in different ways. The initial diagram I posted was fairly technical—and I thought it might turn off some executives and managers who would otherwise find the event interesting. So I wrote a list of eight non-technical bullet points.
I’d have turned these into an infographic if I’d had time, but this was the morning of the event itself, so I settled for a Twitter thread and a LinkedIn article (a longer-form post.)
5. Keep the audience on its toes
Just because people turn up, and share with their networks, doesn’t mean they’ll pay attention. So I used a platform that could pull people from the audience. If you’re in the audience, you pay attention—because you don’t know if you’re next.
As one friend who watched pointed out, however, this can be a real risk. I was lucky to have smart, friendly guests and no technical issues. The fact that they’d asked questions others found relevant was a good way of screening that they were legitimate, but this was still skating on some thin ice.
6. Let people know what they’re in for
I should have realized this before the event, but only realized it as I spoke to people afterwards. We consume a huge variety of content: Horror movies to kids’ anime; standup comedy to sci-fi drama. On the radio, we listen to podcasts and talk radio, morning DJs and late-night instrumental. Why should online events be different?
I’d hoped my event would be relatively informal, and it was. Having a few dozen friends and familiar faces in the pre-game chat helped set the tone as casual, and probably made people feel more comfortable. I’m sure my unkempt hair and home setting helped, too. But I could have done a better job of setting expectations.
In fact, there’s no reason a particular event brand can’t have several formats, from casual discussion to formal talks to furious debates—as long as you let the attendees know in advance. Changing up the format breaks the tedium.
What’s next for these future-of-events things?
Glad you asked! I have a few things ahead of me to work on:
Asia edition, on Run The World
Despite the number of people who joined us, I heard from a bunch more in Asia, Australia, and New Zealand that the time didn’t work for them. So I’m going to do another one on May 19 at 8PM Eastern Time. I’m also going to try a different platform for this one called Run The World (it has some neat “cocktail party” features we’re going to try out.)
The tool is mobile-first, but when I spoke with the founder, Xiaoyin Qu, last week, she told me they now have a web front-end as well. So if you want to see another tool, you may want to attend again. And if you have colleagues who missed the first one, hopefully they can make this.
The report itself
I’m still editing and cross-checking things; I learned a ton just running last week’s event. So I want to be sure to capture all that and edit it properly, which will take a couple of weeks. I quickly checked out over 160 products, a third of which I’ve really dug into deeply. I’m thinking of putting them in a web database so they’ll be searchable. If you know of anyone else who’s already done this, please let me know!
I’m going to send out a few more posts on the future of events, including excerpts from the report that you won’t find elsewhere. I hope they’re useful; you can always mail me with feedback, which I’ll do my best to incorporate and share.
I have a number of other topics I want to get into:
Scarcity and abundance;
the ethics of technology;
predicting the future;
disaster and resiliency
and hopefully some surprises.
I also want to try out some unusual event formats—from gameshows to hackathons to open mic talks to Oxford-style debates—live online. This is the best place to find out when and where they’re happening.
I’ll try to make it interesting.
One last thing
I’ve set up a Discord server. Discord is like Slack, but for gamers; it has voice and video chat channels. Like Slack, it runs in a browser or on a desktop.
The server is very informal, and I’ve created a channel for discussions about the future of events (and I’ll add other channels as we touch on other topics. Discord invites last 24 hours, so if you’d like to join it, contact me.
Thank you! Delightful and informative, as always. I'm definitely crashing the Asia-edition & inviting a few overseas colleagues.