Changing the Game

Chris Arning – on behalf of the Semiofest Organizing Committee

Chris Arning

“So why do a conference anyway? And what makes an event engaging? A well executed industry gathering is not just about educating your audience. It’s also about networking, space to think, and even having some fun.”
Monocle magazine, How to Organize a Better Conference, 2011

Having just co-organized Semiofest the inaugural event for applied semiotics, which seems from the feedback we have received (on Twitter, Linked In and in personal messages) to have been a roaring success, I wanted to let the dust settle and reflect on the event, the thinking behind the organization, what we seemed to have done right and what can be learned for the future. The inspiration for the event was a sense that semiotics did not have a forum for people to meet and share ideas – since March 2010 this has at least existed online in the form of the Semiotic Thinking Group on Linked In. Taking this forum and creating a face-to-face event however was a whole different proposition. None of the five of us who met on Portobello Road, West London in November 2011 to commit to organizing this event really had any experience of event organizing. We were however determined to make it a special event opting for small and perfectly formed rather than risk a spectacular flop. We were also clear about what we did not want – the dreaded average conference.

Semiotic analysis will often use binary oppositions in order to reveal or to create new meanings. The term ‘ unconference’ guided the formulation of the event. Pepsico developed the notion of ‘’uncola’ in order to position Seven Up vs Coke in the 1970s and remains a clever case study in brand repositioning. We had the ambition to do something similar with Semiofest. We wanted this gathering to be different from what characterizes most academic and commercial conferences. Let’s face it, neither academic, nor commercial conferences cover themselves in glory. Many academic conferences are characterized more by egos and long, impenetrable papers. Corporate conferences are soulless, impersonal and formulaic affairs where you rush from talk to talk, hoping to meet that killer client who never seems to show, cursing the many competitors cluttering your path all sharking for the same business and everywhere you turn bugaboo suppliers pitching you on services you’ll never need. In the end you leave the venue with a ‘goodie bag’ full of merchandising rubbish from huckster chancers and with the taste of stale sandwiches still in your mouth. Okay, so that diatribe was a little bit of an exaggeration but actually not so far from the truth.

So we wanted to do something different with this conference and to break the mold a bit. The word ‘unconference’ has entered the vernacular as beatnik happening often without any set agenda, a malleable programme and a spirit of total improvisation. As this was an initial event, we did not think we could do something quite as Situationist with the inaugural Semiofest… We did want to do something that would create an special ambience and to break down some of the stuffy imagery around semiotics.

The first challenge was what to call it. We thought about calling it a symposium or a colloquium but (although these monikers take it away from the impersonal), they made it sound too academic and stuffy, an image we wanted to move away from. In the end we plumped for the name Semiofest, which is easy to pronounce and to remember, quite unique (which means easy to trademark!) and nicely sums up the ethos of the event we wanted to organize – a real celebration of semiotic thinking – not an event to bludgeon people with self righteousness or to sell business services.
Hamsini Shivakumar, of the committee, was the originator of this excellent name…
The second challenge of course was actually making the damn thing happen; with no budget to speak of, only our good selves and the enthusiastic interest of semiotic geeks on Event Brite to count on! We resolved early that we would plump for a microfinance structure based on ticket sales. In terms of setting the price, we felt it was important to attract an global gathering of high calibre individuals and to welcome the self-funded as well as those sponsored by companies. In order to get a good group of people we did not want to price it to steeply and settled on a £50 fee for the two days. In hindsight we could have charged double that, but we have no regrets as the price made it accessible and attracted attendees from all over Europe and countries as diverse as Singapore, India, Brazil, Japan, Canada and Australia.

The magazine supplement “Guide To Hosting a Better Conference” published in Monocle 2011 set out guidelines for how to avoid soporific conferences and seemed to chime in with our thinking on what we wanted to accomplish with this novel event.
On reflection I wanted to refer to some of the salient factors they mention that helped Semiofest to be such a successful event and that can be taken to future iterations.

1. Event Architecture: the main innovation was having a smaller group of people in an informal setting and positioning the event as being ‘for us by us’. This idea of just providing a venue and co-ordination rather rigid conference helped to manage expectations and pitched it somewhere between a summer school and a symposium. It also placed the emphasis on sharing and on celebrating not on judging. As for the content of the two day agenda, we were keen to innovate a format which would engage and involve, retaining attention spans and providing an upbeat atmosphere.
The most vexed question was over the length of presentation slot. Having shorter than usual slots for presentations we felt would guard against pontificating speakers and force presenters to be more succinct – yielding the gist of the thinking. In the end we opted for 12 minutes with 3 minutes for questions. Our thinking was that TED talks manage to pack in a lot in 18 minutes and Pecha Kucha which is snappy and fun, is 6 minutes 4 seconds in duration; we felt that 12-15 was a happy compromise. This enabled us to accommodate at 18 presentations from the semiotics of colour to semiotics, design rhetorics, measuring connotations in ads through to counterfeit luxury goods and text mining. In addition to this we had two keynote speeches, creative inspiration slots – using art and film to provoke thinking on semiotics – and a co-creation slot where delegates worked in teams to analyze a corpus of UN print ads. This last slot got people out of their comfort zones and helped to break the ice…

2. Funding Model: in the end we went for minimal sponsorship (we went for a £500 donation from Leeds School of Design) because for a number of reasons we felt sponsorship put too much pressure for an experimental event in terms of expectations for delivery. We had considered a micro-finance structure with several agency sponsors. There was also a plan to solve a live brand problem for a client in a two session co-creation exercise in return for a more substantial donation. In the end decided against this and have no regrets about not having major sponsor. We believe it made for a purer event with fewer agendas and less pressure and this proved to be the case. Our deliberately low cost structure with a very modest venue and catering budget allowed us to provide a great venue, lunch and refreshments for only £50 and to still break even. As unproven event organizers we felt we needed to incentivize people to overcome their trepidation, take a bit of a punt on Semiofest and book their trip. Our ticketing take and from T-shirt sales covered the outlay for venue hire, catering, printing materials, filming, insurance and sundry expenses (£4000).

3. The Venue: we looked at a number of venues in the run up to Semiofest. These ranged from the Nash Room at the RIBA to a workaday corporate suit at Paddignton Basin to the crypt in a Shoreditch Chruch or a lecture room at Londn Metropolitan )(the Liebeskind wing). None of these had the charm or the quirkiness of the venue we eventually chose. In the end, the solution was right under my, nose – Westbourne Studios a funky shared work space in Ladbroke Grove nestled under the Westway. Centred around a well lit atrium including palm tree and leather divans and populated by a diverse group of start ups, designers, film production companies and creative agencies in all sorts of fields Westbourne Studios provided a perfect forum for Semiofest and the project screening which seats up to about 80 people… At £500+ VAT for two days it was fantastic value for money and gave us a cool venue with an uplifting ambience a million miles away from the usual strip lighted corporate sheds.

4. Event Organization: another key aspect of the Semiofest conference was the administration of the event. As Monocle says: “Long before the keynote speaker takes the stage, a team of organizers… Seamlessness is the key and the only way to get there is by meticulous organization… It’s up to the team behind the scenes to set the agenda and make sure it’s a satisfying and productive experience – from the first handshakes to the final address, and all that comes in between”. As organizing committee all working as independent consultants, we had our work cut out organizing a conference for 60 people in our spare time! Many people said it could not be done. Most conferences had a salaried team dedicated to making things happen. The truth is that we were somewhat floundering until we advertised for internship help and had an offer from a translator interested in semiotics, Pavla Pasekova, with ample experience organizing events, who stepped in and took control of most of the admin as far as dealing with delegates. This was a godsend as it took all the burden of time consuming e-mail correspondence (requesting information on the abstracts back and forth, fielding queries etc) and allowed us, the organizing committee, to focus on the strategic event design and making our vision a reality.

5. Branding and Service Design: we were aware that all brand touch points would effect perceptions of the event. Of course, as an inaugural event, a main concern was to project a professional image. Particularly when you are setting up a new brand, credibility indicators, those intangible cues that tell people what sort of organization this is, are crucial. Having a smart logo was absolutely essential for this. We were lucky enough to be able to call upon the services of Lucia Neva of Visual Signo who designed a logo for the Semiofest. She has described it as one of the most stressful briefs she has ever received and you can only imagine how much scrutiny any logo designed for a meeting of semioticians might be subjected to! What she produced in the end is a gem of simplicity and holism; symbolizing both festivity and communion. Using this logo prominently on all our materials, in our e-mail sign offs, the website, conference materials (programmes to feedback forms) as well as on banners, balloons and presentation title slides as well on delegate name badges and on the T-shirts reinforced the resonance of the brand and imbued it with the surprising professionalism with which this inaugural event was implemented. Semiofest now benefits from the positive associations this event generated in the minds of participants and is on a solid footing to become a force for good in semiotic.
We wanted the sign posting to be good too because our logic was that if a semiotic meet up cannot do decent sign posting we might as well just pack everything in now! So we placed clear signs from the station on trees and buildings all the way to the venue to make sure there was no way to get lost. One delegate admitted after the event that he was dubious about how we were going to pull the event off but that before he’d even got to the venue he knew it was going to be a ‘resounding success’.

6. The Personal Touch: in seeking to put on an event with a difference we sent all delegates a short survey asking semiotic related questions prior to the event. We then put them on the back of name tags for an icebreaker exercise enabling fun networking amongst delegates from the outset. People could find out what their neighbour’s favourite logo was or read about their reasons for coming to the conference. These are the sorts of conversation starters missing from most conferences. We also made a virtue out of necessity by phasing delegate lunch in two waves depending on their choice of dish allowing people to get to know those they were queuing with. These are the sorts of quirks that foster a warmer, friendlier, and more collegial atmosphere than might otherwise have been engendered. This special ambience people felt (almost familial in tone) came out strongly in feedback.

7. Online Presence: we of course drew heavily upon social media in the set up of the conference with the event primarily organized through an expression of interest on initially Linked In and then Event Brite the main sources for the delegates. What then took things to the next level was the Semiofest website. Our technology officer Kishore Budha realized that Facebook and Google have privacy and intellectual property issues, so it was important SemioFest maintained its independence. Thus, the unconference went about developing a web presence that would incorporate important announcements the ability to upload and archive unconference documentation and to act a hub for other information such as directions to the venue, programme of speakers and a link to PayPal for ticketing. After trialing with Open Conference Systems, it was felt that WordPress offered CMS flexibility to adapt it for SemioFest. We realised that small global conferences face an uphill struggle with web-based payment, unless they allow themselves to be locked into proprietary web-based conference systems. Support from the bank (Lloyds TSB, you should be ashamed of yourself!) to set up a payment system was incompetent and unsupportive. Frustrated by their dilatory response, we decided to take matters into our own hands and to set up a payment system via one of our personal PayPal accounts. This demonstrated the trust amongst team members and the ability to expose oneself to considerable risk and potential loss of good name. This was the final piece of the “set up jigsaw puzzle” that enabled this unconference to go ahead.
We then ported ticket sales over to the www.semiofest.com website via PayPal for ticket sales – we also promoted the event on Twitter and set up a hashtag Semiofest which was used during the event both in order to chronicle speakers and to give feedback on the day after the event. What we feel we have achieved through this is getting a global group of influencers into the same room to experience a unique event. What we have seen since has been the galvanizing effect this has had on the community. Everyone seems primed them to go and talk about the event and better promote semiotics in their own home markets. A number of articles, blog posts and new threads on STG have appeared – a testament to the Semiofest experience!

What we tried to do was to put on a semiotics event with a difference. We wanted to imbue the event with a less formal aura and banish droning academics rehashing their pet theories and bring in a breath of fresh air into the world of semiotics. We brought in T-shirts and balloons, a hip venue nestled under a motorway with palm trees and a bar – where the dulcet tones of Detroit hip-hop preceded presentations and where slick Prezis were as prominent as bullet point heavy Powerpoint. Of course, not everything went according to plan. The microphone failed a number of times – we had trouble with a Skype presentation from Singapore and the schedule had to be swapped round to accommodate everyone when we were running behind.
If we had to do it again – we intend to in 2013 somewhere else – we would do things a bit differently with more input from client commissioners at the event, a less packed schedule and more opportunities for networking. Nevertheless, it was a successful event and we seem to have had a +90% satisfaction rating from the feedback forms received, which is a great vote of confidence for any event – bring on Semiofest ’13.
Here’s a flavour of the response we have received so far from Semiofest participants:

“Many, many thanks for a great two day event. I learnt so much that I thought my head was going to burst.” “Best 50 quid I have ever spent on a conference, really”
“Best conference I’ve ever attended. 10 out of 10! I really appreciated the more informal approach”
“The level of respect that carried throughout the event among the presenters, the audience, the volunteers, and everyone involved made me appreciate that kind, intelligent, compassionate, people can come together and produce amazing results”
“The bar is set very high. Incredibly inspiring. Thanks to all organizers and delegates for sharing their thinking. One thing that really struck me is how NICE semioticians are.”
“Yep – I feel like I’ve eaten a fifty course dinner! Thanks to all for an incredibly inspiring few days. Here’s to Semiofest 2013”

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