The 24th annual Nonprofit Day 2011 conference hosted by CompassPoint at the Oakland Marriott was a wonderful gathering. Part edification and part celebration, Nonprofit Day is a chance to gather with other Bay Area folks who work in the nonprofit sector. The event is friendly, informal, and sincere.
As part of the conference design team, I attended the conference with an eye towards how the visitor experience could be improved in the future. I took stock of the overall vibe and flavor of the event, not just the details. With attendance lower this year than in previous years, it seems like a good time to assess what’s working and what’s not.
Let’s start with the visitor entry. This first sign should shout “Nonprofit Day”. The event host (CompassPoint) should be secondary. Yes, I understand the need for economizing on signage with reusable signs at different events. However, generic reusable signs take away from the experience of the event as ‘An Event.’ Nonprofit Day requires attendees to pay a sizable fee, with so many “CompassPoint” signs instead of event-specific visuals, it offers up a decidedly mixed message. And because this conference has a sector-wide focus, it also seems overly partisan (and marketing-driven) to see so much CompassPoint promotion on the signs. And since Nonprofit Day is a celebration, event signage would carry the idea of the day’s specialness — its unique occasion-ness — much further than generic signs.
So our visitors arrive at the hotel and begin searching for “Nonprofit Day.” The only event poster visible is a giant arrow with “CompassPoint” written on it (pictured above). Better would have been a simple sign with just the words “Nonprofit Day” on it. Even without an arrow, people searching for an event will gravitate towards anything with the event name. A sign with “Nonprofit Day — Welcome!” would be an even better signal that you’ve arrived. You’re here. This is the place and we welcome you. Way-finding and directing are not as important in small spaces (such as hotel lobbies).
The “Registration” sign gets lost by being off to the side and next to plants. Suggest positioning it directly behind the registration desk to improve its impact. Suggest increasing the sign’s contrast and color vibrancy, too. Using an event-specific graphic rather than a CompassPoint corporate color scheme would help make attendees feel more like they’re at an event.
A person always trump a paper sign. It’s better to let people greet and orient, not signage. We’ve go four or five wonderful volunteers hosting the Registration table. Their smiling faces and willing engagement is where you want attendees to focus once they’re at the desk. Detailed, text-filled signage become a distraction when there are volunteers right there. This sign (pictured) had very limited, esoteric bit of information on it. It’s also important to let conference-goers get their materials without feeling like they must pay attention to signs for instructions. Registrants don’t need any information off of a sign at this stage of their journey to the event — though it’s not clear that the signs can/should be ignored when they’re right behind a desk. Suggestion: remove all signs at the Registration Table unless the sign contains absolutely necessary directions.
Opening the conference folder is our is our first private moment with the event — away from public transit, from the hotel lobby, from the registration desk, and the casual greetings of friends in the entry area. Opening the folder is our first experience with the conference in a personal, individual manner. And how this packet speaks to us conveys the nature of the event. The packet’s tone tells us something about the mindset of our event hosts.
The folder (pictured above) presents lots of small details rather than guiding our participants with a clear sequence of reading materials. All the big logos on the left shout that the most important thing that participants are to glean from this conference is: Who Is Sponsoring It? On the right, a mash of small text is a letter from our host, Jeanne — yet it isn’t formatted like a letter. It has bullet points. It has subheads. It has logos. This makes the letter less of a ‘personal greeting’ than an ‘info sheet’. The bright yellow raffle/sticker gets in the way of the greeting letter, too.
Maybe all of these elements are important. But it’s impossible to tell which is most important, which medium important, and which least important — because everything is coming at our participant at once. There’s no sequencing, no flow. Even the event banner (which should be the primary graphic) is smaller than the Bank of America logo. Surely, this isn’t the tone and message we intend?
Suggestion: put everything on the right pocket of the folder. Leave the left pocket empty. Sequence the pages of the right pocket into a narrative flow, beginning with a personal welcome message from Jeanne and continuing on to each item in order of it’s importance/relevance. Let users move stuff to the left pocket as they see fit.
If you’re runing these out on a color copier, I say “use it all the way.” There’s no reason so much of these materials still look like xeroxes.
I’d suggest setting up tables and chairs for 80% of the expected attendance. If more people show up, have extra tables and chair on hand to add to the back of the room. But better to have people crowded and squeezed together eleven-t0-a-table, than to have only three or four people at any table.
I’d suggest, unless there’s a technical limitation, place the tables on the horizontal axis of the room. That way, the most tables are the closest to the speaker. Or better yet, set the tables in a “C” shape around the podium. Even if people have a side-ish view of the speaker, they feel better being closer to the action. Staring long distance over the backs-of-heads has a disengaging effect.
Even if the hotel lacks spotlights, grab a standing lamp from home and a few photographer’s clip-lights. Put them next to the podium. The signature event of the conference was too lost in the dark.
Even though these sessions are called “Plenaries”, they have an intimate and informal tone. They could easily be called “Wisdom & Experience Sharing” instead of “Plenary.” In this age of The View, Rosie O’Donnell, and Ellen, people are used to being up close and personal in these contexts. Nonprofit Day’s 18-foot gap between speaker rostrum and first seats could be lowered to a mere 6 feet to improve the connection between audience and speakers.
We should be moving away from hierarchical presentations and format, I believe. The potency of social media speaks volumes about the shifting nature (and expectations) about information sharing. The less events look “top-down” in form, the better.
Or even Twitter straight to Jeanne’s account, which she could check while on stage but in a lull while other people are talking. Each Plenary speaker had a fair amount of downtime. Or perhaps a CompassPoint volunteer could monitor each Plenary’s hashtag feed and field select questions or points to the rostrum?
But the lesson here is: go vertical for booth signage. The other lesson is: don’t bury the lede.