You’ve got a ballroom, VIP badges, t-shirts emblazoned with sponsors, a distinctly clever and useful Twitter hashtag, and even check-in locations for your Foursquare-loving visitors. By all accounts, you’ve got everything you need for your big industry conference. However, there’s one thing missing from this picture: content. And that is exactly where all of those hard-earned conference attendees would love to help you out. Crowdsourcing, using the internet to gather ideas, actions, plans, money or just plain help from the online community, has been used increasingly in recent conferences for event planning, content selection, and even logistics.

There have been great successes in crowdsourcing’s history (i.e KickStarter, the online giving community which has launched millions of crowdsourced ideas) and sizable failures (i.e the White House being inundated with un-answerable questions every time it’s offered crowdsourced forums) However, crowdsourcing principles can easily be applied to industry conferences and tradeshows. These events gather large groups of people focused on the same or similar topics, most of whom probably want to know more about one specific issue. Gathering opinions from the people who are going to attend your conference about what they actually want to see at that conference is a win-win situation: you get to know exactly what your target audience desires, directly from them, and your audience gets to see only the product that they have the most interest in.

Doing research on conference marketing for a client, I came across some dividing opinions on using crowdsourced topics, events and products for conferences. On the one hand, you have direct interaction with your customer base. This interaction fosters community and trust, which in turn can foster purchasing and revenue. For member-based organizations, catering to the needs of your members in a direct and transparent way can set a precedent of goodwill amongst your members and attendees. However, both of these scenarios offer counterpoints. First of all, allowing the inmates to run the asylum and control the content of your conference can be asking for trouble. A few bad apples with voting power can turn your focused, taut conference activities into divided, roundabout attempts to please everyone. When your members create the content for your conference based solely on their own interests, you can come up with something totally “inside baseball”-irrelevant to outsiders and ultimately, useless to any projects outside of the immediate industry. Another problem-groupthink. Everyone rushes to create the same five conference topics or after-hours events without any form of mediation. This can be solved by instating smaller focus groups to curate individual events-these smaller crowds can sometimes crowdsource more efficiently, easily and directly.

Ultimately, crowdsourcing as a marketing technique and planning tool for conferences can walk a fine line. You stand to gain input and trust from your conference attendees, while enjoying free marketing from their word of mouth; on the other hand, you give them the reins too much, and you may have too many cooks in the proverbial kitchen. However, at the end of the day, allowing your attendees to have input into your creative process and truly engaging with your audience in any way possible can only lead to good things-enlightened conference organizers, and satisfied customers.

Editor’s note: See a lively example of conference crowdsourcing in-the-making for Digital Technology Week here: here.

(photo credit ChristopherSmitt)