SMOFcon 2007 Report

Because Kevin’s flight left much earlier than mine, I’m sat here at Logan airport killing time so I thought I might write a con report. [Later additions in square brackets.]

Let’s start with the facility. Logan airport is not the most attractive place in the world for a weekend vacation, but it is by no means as bad as it sounds. For one thing it is very easy to get into Boston. The Silver Line runs about every 12 minutes into South Station, from where the rest of the Boston area Metro system is accessible. The trip takes maybe 15 minutes, and the service runs late into the evening. Getting into Boston by car is also quite easy in the evening and at weekends (weekdays are another matter – Boston traffic is horrendous), though finding somewhere to park can sometimes take more time than the journey. Possibly we were lucky with the weather [with hindsight, very lucky indeed]. Although it was very cold it wasn’t wet, snowy or icy.

The hotel was very comfortable and with excellent rooms rates (I have stayed in the Logan Hilton on business – we were paying around half the usual advance booking rate and less than a third of the walk-up rate.) However, the function space was not ideal and we had to share it with a few very loud office parties. Putting some program items in a corner of the con suite is not a good idea. Ideally SMOFcon should have a couple of small rooms available for the inevitable committee meetings for other conventions that happen there, and enough program space to stagger the program so as to allow for overruns. (More on this later.) Whether the facilities problems were due to a stupidly greedy hotel, a lazy concom, or a concom that was more focused on food than on program, is open to debate – I’ve had all three suggested to me.

As might be expected with Geri Sullivan in charge, the hospitality was superb. The main con suite was larger than all of the program space combined, and there was a secondary con suite as well (though the services in it were not well advertised, leading me to buy breakfast at least once when I didn’t need to). It does seem at times that everything there is to eat in Boston is loaded down with cholesterol, sugar, or most often both. Kevin has managed to keep his blood sugar under control, but I’m dreading weighing myself when I get back [yep, gained 5lb]. At least my jeans still fit. But it does appear that in Boston even the potatoes are crammed full of cream and sugar (this is a con in-joke – I don’t know what the darn things are actually called but they do look like potatoes and they are delicious).

If I have one complaint about the hospitality it is that if you are going to do something as ambitious and wonderful as a cheese tasting then you should really put someone in charge of it and try to help people learn something about the cheeses in the process. Simply putting them out for people to eat is not good enough. Geri’s staff did mostly supply labels for each cheese, and sensibly left sample packaging by it, but the efforts that Kevin and I went to in order to supply information about the cheeses we brought, and about where you can buy them, largely went to waste.

The attendance was very good. Over 200 people turned up. There were attendees from as far away as Japan, Israel and Finland, and quite a few people were still in their 20s. The number of Brits was well down on past SMOFcons, but this might have been in part because folks in the UK don’t see any advantage in fleeing cold and rainy Britain for cold and snowy Boston, especially if you don’t know in advance that the dollar exchange rate is going to go massively in your favor just before the con. Still, we will cope stoically with the weather in Columbus next year, and we’ll all look forward to a warm and sunny weekend in Austin the year after.

The Friday night mixer – always an intended highlight of the con – went pretty well. As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m not good with mixers, but once it was divorced from the “Hi Di Hi” air of enforced jollity it was actually quite a good idea. I did enjoy writing a filk about con complaints. And if next time one of the attendees is faced with an unpleasant gripe session they recall the SMOFcon filks and smile, that will be a very good thing achieved.

As for the rest of the program, it was a lot better than I feared, but nowhere near as good as it might have been. I must admit that when I first heard that we were having a SMOFcon with a theme of “marketing” my first reaction was to think that asking a bunch of fans about marketing was about as sensible as asking a bunch of religious fundamentalists about sex. It is not just that they are ignorant about the subject; they approach it with an air of superstitious dread and have all sorts of absurd misapprehensions about what it actually involves. They also think that indulging in it is sinful, and will condemn you to an eternity of well-deserved agonizing punishment, which they are only too keen to make a start on themselves.

Some of the program item descriptions were not very hopeful either. There was a lot of loaded language, and words such as “horror” and “disaster” were rather prominent. Nevertheless, things often went quite well. If we had run this convention five years ago I think most of the panels would have been on topics such as “how can we prevent undesirables from attending our conventions” and “how can we keep our con out of the local media”. Things have improved a lot since then, but equally they still have a long way to go. Quite a few of the people on the panels seemed to know nothing at all about the supposed topic, and there were some pretty inappropriate things said, both by panelists and from the audiences. Perhaps the most stark demonstration of attitudes was that the panel at which people were to give presentations on successful marketing campaigns they had actually run struggled to reach double figures in attendance (including the four panelists), whereas the panel opposite, which was on “leadership” and should probably have been subtitled “so you want to be a Worldcon chair”, was packed out.

One of the good things about the program is that people did appear to want to talk about marketing issues. Kevin has noted on his LJ that several of the panels were still going strong at full time and could have benefited from another half hour. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we needed 90 minute slots rather than 60. Not every item is in danger of overrunning. But at a con where people are actually learning important things rather than just being entertained, or arguing for the sake of it, it is useful to be able to continue a panel that clearly has plenty of life left in it. Sometimes cons will supply an overflow room that the panel can decamp to for this purpose, or allow program items re-convene at a later time. However, this generally doesn’t work well because the energy of the discussion gets dissipated. A panel that was going strong when it had to finish may lose most of its audience in moving rooms, or find that no one wants to say anything when it reconvenes.

The best solution to this is to have a redundancy of program rooms. With a two-stream program, if you have three or four rooms you can run hour-long items and schedule empty slots at the end of items that you think have a good chance of overrunning. That way they can keep going if they want to. This does require good hotel space, and low function room costs, but if you can do it then it works very well.

I still think, however, that the actual selection of programming was poor. Part of this appeared to be because the people doing programming were not all that clear on what “marketing” actually means. The prevailing theme appeared to be “marketing = public relations”, with undertones of “marketing = manipulation” and “marketing = lying”. The odd thing is that no one seems at all concerned about running a discussion on how to moderate panels, and that involves many of the exact same skills that are required in the “manipulative” aspects of PR. And besides, PR is only a small part of a marketing operation. There are plenty of other things to talk about.

At this point you are quite rightly thinking “put up or shut up”, so here are some of the program items I would have, if I were running a SMOFcon on marketing.

I’d want to kick off with a panel on, “What are we selling, and to whom?” The objective of this would not be to help a con “find its focus”, but to teach people that every convention, no matter how small, is actually selling a range of different services to a range of different people. This doesn’t mean to say that you have to have panels on Battlestar Galactica and anime at Readercon, but it does mean that you can successfully cater to different types of attendees. Even SMOFcon has different market segments: there is the traditional experienced Worldcon crowd, the people from local conventions who want to learn from people in other parts of the world, and the newbies who have little con-running experience. A SMOFcon program should have elements that cater to all three of those, and it may market itself to those groups in different ways.

I’d keep the “words we use” panel, but instead of allowing it to sidetrack into a half-hour long diatribe on how “memberships” are good and tickets are “EVIL!!!” I’d want some strong planning and moderation to focus it on terms that we currently use that may have negative connotations to people we want to be marketing to. “Membership” might be one of those words, but I think I’d start with “Voting fee” and “Huckster”. There also needs to be some strong moderation of audience input, not only to prevent people from being abominably rude to people from different fannish cultures, but also to keep focus. There is a very clear distinction between having to use particular words for legal purposes – for example to avoid liability or certain types of taxes – and choosing to use particular words for marketing purposes. A lot of the audience seemed unable to understand that difference. Equally the whole point of such a panel is to get people to think what words might mean to other people, and how that might be different than what the words mean to you. Arguing that “huckster” must be a better word than “dealer” because for you personally “dealer” has negative connotations entirely misses the point.

Having a workshop on flier design is a good thing, though I think I’d be tempted to split it into two and have the people running them very clear that one was going to be all about graphic design, while the other was all about information content. I know that there are overlaps here, but I can see a single workshop getting hijacked into focusing on one or the other.

Another workshop might be on how to write a press release. This should also convey the message that the standard press release is pretty much out of date and that there are much better ways of getting your message across, though you do need to do traditional press releases as well for people who are lagging behind the technological curve. A panel on communication technologies might also be useful, asking questions such as, “should my convention be running a blog, a LiveJournal, be on Facebook, on MySpace? (To which the answer is probably, “Yes”, and here’s how to do them all with minimum effort.)

Talking of blogs, there’s a definite need to have a panel on how to moderate a convention mailing list and/or blog: things like how to deal with trolls and unreasonable complaints, and how to stop a rumor rather than accidentally pour gasoline on the smoldering fire. Possibly Teresa Nielsen Hayden could be prevailed upon to impart some wisdom.

And talking of technology, there is definitely a need for a Web Sites for D/u/m/m/i/e/s Con Chairs panel. I was amazed at how ignorant some of the attendees were about what a modern web site can do, and what they should expect of their webmasters. Just as an Events director needs to have a basic understand of what his tech guys are doing, so a con chair and/or the person managing the web site guys needs to know what the IT folks are doing, or could be doing. That way hopefully we’ll get away from con web sites being stuck in the 20th Century, and away from webmasters being able to get religious about what technologies can and can’t be used.

How communications technology affects con publications is another issue. These days I’m used to hearing people complain about how slow con committees are to communicate, and about what a waste of money and paper progress reports are. SMOFcon, being still full of older, more conservative folks, had very little of this. Instead there were a lot of people complaining that cons should not forget paper communication because some people don’t know how to read email or use a web site, and even that putting information on a web site before those reliant on paper communication could get that same information was somehow “unfair”. On the other hand, I was delighted to see that Montreal has gone over to an opt-in system for paper communications rather than an opt-out system. Hopefully every Worldcon from 2009 onwards will follow suit.

I definitely want a panel on how to measure the success of marketing programs, and I’d want it to actually keep on topic rather than talk about how to know if a con is successful. This might include input from people who have experience of using things like Google AdWords and Google Analytics.

There should be a panel on dealing with the media, which should include how to run a press room, and what the media kit on your web site should contain. But also I’d like to see a panel talking about how to sell your con more broadly to the local community, and one specifically about how to sell sponsorship opportunities. All these things are related. If the local media is only likely to portray your con in what you see as a negative manner then you’ll probably have inappropriate marketing that you are not in control of, and you’ll have difficulty getting sponsors. But if you market your con successfully to the local community – and that means everyone from the local council and tourist authority to bookstores, libraries, educational establishments, tourist attractions and so on – then you have a positive story to hand to the journalists and a much better chance of getting the right message across to the public.

I’d love to get someone in to talk about the possibilities for podcasting and videocasting parts of your convention over the Internet. Live telecasting is probably a bit expensive, even for a Worldcon, although Kevin and I nearly managed to get the budget to do the Hugos in 2005. It will happen, soon.

Rather than a panel on how to “socialize” young writers who haven’t grown up in fandom, I’d like to see a panel on how to work with writers, agents and publishers so as to increase the benefits to all concerned from author appearances at conventions.

I’d want to see a panel brainstorming about what aspects of current practice (particularly Worldcon practice) currently hinder the marketing effort. For example, I’m convinced we could have got a lot more members to Glasgow if we had one or two central tracks of major event programming that we could advertise several months in advance. Obviously the entire program can’t be fixed that early, and there will inevitably be the risk that one or two advertised events may have to be cancelled. But that is much better than having nothing to sell except the Masquerade, Hugos, Art Show and Dealers’ Room.

I’m sure that there are other possibilities. Hopefully we’ll have some more marketing-related panels at future SMOFcons.

6 thoughts on “SMOFcon 2007 Report

  1. A lot of good ideas.

    I find the “huckster” vs. “dealer” argument amusing, particularly in that “dealer” was considered to be the more negative term. In my experience on the other side of the table, conventions that have a “dealers’ room” have been much more respectful of the occupants than conventions that have had a “hucksters’ room.”

  2. Ah…wonderful stuff, good analysis an ideas.

    The problems of the meanings of the term “marketing” looks so similar everywhere…


  3. As a programmer with an intense interest in usability issues, and as someone who has seen a lot of really bad convention Web sites in the course of compiling listings for her fanzine, your enthusiasm for extending the technology used by conventions fills me with dread. Sure, technology is merely a tool which can be used for great evil or great good. But when I see a convention site using anything more advanced than HTML, it is nearly always clear that the webmaster has figured out what the technology *can* do, but not what it actually *should* be used for to actually help the visitor out. If you are going to evangelize about Web technology, please, I beg you, include some education on appropriate and inappropriate uses for it.

    A thing I’d like to volunteer for next time I have the budget to go to Smofcon (couldn’t this year, and probably won’t next year either) is to do a session on Web site design. I’d start with some basic principles, then show a few sites that make really good examples of what not to do, and then invite members of the audience to volunteer their sites for real-time constructive criticism.

  4. Point taken, Petréa, I really should have taken time to talk about what convention web sites should be doing, and not worry too much about boring people with technospeak.

    But to reassure you, I’ll state here that when I talk about using better technology I absolutely do not mean using Flash or DHTML or any other such whiz-bang special effects creation. What I’m talking about is at least knowing how to create a template for your pages so that they all look the same, about the need to have a blog (possibly several if you are a Worldcon) and RSS feeds. Having a web site is about a) looking professional and b) communicating. Many con web sites fail on both of those counts.

    The trouble with critiquing web sites amongst fans is that any web site you build will consist of a mass of compromises. Every fan you talk to will have their own set of pieces of information that they want to find on the web site, and they will all want those items easily accessible off the home page, at worst by a single click. When you tell them that other people want different items available they’ll dismiss those items as “unimportant”. If you listen to fans’ requirements for web site design you’ll either go mad or end up building sites the way Chaz Baden does them.

  5. Thank you. My mind is at ease now.

    Blogs are actually the one bit of added technology I occasionally see used constructively by conventions. (But I also see them horribly misused.)

    “Having a web site is about a) looking professional and b) communicating. Many con web sites fail on both of those counts.”

    Absolutely. Every time I update my listings, for instance, I come across several sites where the dates of the convention are either not on the front page, or buried in unimportant-looking text, or only in the title, or hidden on a low-contrast background, or stuck at the bottom of a slow-loading image, or not findable on the site at all.

    “If you listen to fans’ requirements for web site design you’ll either go mad or end up building sites the way Chaz Baden does them.”

    Well, the idea isn’t to have the whole room critique sites, but rather that I would provide a critique based on my knowledge of usability to educate all present. I know that a certain percentage of the audience will decide that I am an idiot who should not be listened to because I don’t really understand their special corner of fandom, or I don’t share their opinion about some piece of software. But I really think that such a presentation would attract at least a few people who would come with an open mind and actually learn something from it.

    (Okay, so I’ve only been to Smofcon once so far…)

  6. Well, who knew there was something called a SMOF after all these years? I am really pleased now that you posted on my blog about Denvention. I always wanted to know who was out there behind making it happen.

    Thanks again,

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