Ignite, Syndicated Events, and Social Media Marketing

As we approach Global Ignite Week, a collection of Ignite events around the world during the first week of March, I can’t help but think about the future of conferences, one of O’Reilly’s major businesses. Here are some of the things we’re learning from Ignite.

  1. People love the rapid-fire format. Steven Levy once said that Foo Camp is the wiki of conferences, an unstructured space where the attendees make things happen. Well, by that measure, Ignite is the Twitter of conferences, a way to quickly share information and spark enthusiasm. The Ignite slogan: “Enlighten us, but make it quick.” is a great way to force speakers to focus on the essentials. It’s amazing how much you can pack into five minutes when you’re on the clock.

    We’re increasingly using the Ignite format at our traditional conferences as a way to highlight lots of great ideas that people can dig down into later. We’ve had 5 minute “Lightning Talks” at the Open Source Convention since 2003, but Ignite has a social environment halfway between structured sessions on stage and the “hallway track” that is so exciting at many conferences. As a result we’re now holding Ignites in conjunction with many of our conferences, both as part of the program and as a social event in addition to the regular conference content. We’ve also organized Ignites at other events, such as Google I/O and Adobe Max, and upcoming at SMX West.

  2. Self-organization enables amazing scale. Since Brady Forrest and Bre Pettis launched the first Ignite event in Seattle in December 2006, there have been over 180 Ignites held around the world, with over 80 of those held in the past six months. Each Ignite has the same format: an evening event, often in a bar or other informal meeting place, starting out with a Make: contest, followed by a series of short talks, with 10-15 speakers given five minutes to speak on the subject of their choice, each with 20 slides auto-advancing every 15 seconds. Organizers invite speakers and, like any event organizer, pick people who will engage the audience. Events usually draw at least 100 attendees, and the largest Ignite to date has had 800 attendees. 2-300 is the average.

    We learned a lesson when Foo Camp led to Bar Camp, and hundreds of other “camps” (City Camp and Crisis Camp being two fabulous recent incarnations), and so, with Ignite, we set out from the first to make it a self-organized event, providing instructions and a mailing list for Ignite organizers.

  3. Syndication allows a decentralized event to gain some of the benefits of aggregation. Accordingly, we provide a central calendar listing of upcoming events, a video portal, and other opportunities for organizers and participants to share what happens at their local event.

    We’re working to develop additional mechanisms to support local Ignites, including social networking tools, and a much improved video portal (to be released in time for Global Ignite Week). Each Ignite provides its own factory for innovation, so we’re looking for the best ideas from local organizers and working to spread them more widely.

    We’re particularly interested in developing mechanisms for syndicated sponsorship.
    Up till now, there has been some local sponsorship of Ignite events. Local sponsors might provide beer in exchange for a banner, or give away product from the stage. Ignite Portland began showing short sponsor videos during the socializing breaks. Here’s an example:

    With Global Ignite Week, we realized that we’ve reached the scale where we can engage major sponsors. Global Ignite Week will have the reach of a large trade show, with 15-20,000 participants. Across all Ignite events this year, there may well be significantly more than 50,000 participants.

    We’ve come up with a sponsorship model in which major sponsors can contribute a video to be shown across all participating events. If sponsors understand the format and deliver entertaining, informative video rather than traditional marketing spam, this can be a huge opportunity to engage passionate, interesting (and often highly technical) audiences. (In the future, we hope to have these video sponsorships in the form of actual syndicated Ignite sessions.)

    There’s a particularly interesting aspect to Ignite that we’ve come to realize. It’s a social event, and so sponsorship at Ignite is fundamentally social media marketing. In addition to the people who attend each Ignite event, millions more are exposed to the event via Twitter and Facebook. We’ve been working with PeopleBrowsr Analytics and O’Reilly Research to understand the social media impact of Ignite events.

    We compared the tweet count and reach from the Web 2.0 Expo NY and Web 2.0 Summit events last fall with the tweet count and reach from the Ignite events happening in the same timeframe. (For purposes of comparison, we decided to use a date range from 10 days before the Web 2.0 Expo till 20 days after the Web 2.0 Summit.) For the Web 2.0 Expo, we counted tweets using the #w2e and #w2expo hashtags; for the Web 2.0 Summit, we counted tweets using #w2s and #web2summit; for the various Ignite events, we counted tweets using either #ignite and the individual hashtags recommended by the organizers of the Ignite events held between 12 October to 24 November. As you can see from the figure below, the Web 2.0 events each generated a huge, concentrated spike, while the Ignite events provided a repetitive series of spikes, each much smaller, but important in the aggregate.


    The Web 2.0 Summit generated 8,723 tweets from 2,356 individual users with a combined reach (aggregate of all followers of unique tweeters using one or more of the hashtags) of over 11 million, with 74 million potential tweet impressions (aggregate of all tweets seen by all followers.) The Web 2.0 Expo NY generated 11,950 tweets from 2,953 users with a combined reach of 6.4 million and nearly 42 million potential tweet impressions. Meanwhile, the 26 Ignite events held around the world during October and November generated 8,026 tweets from 2,585 with a combined reach of 3.5 million and over 11 million potential tweet impressions.

    Clearly, the numbers were stronger for the traditional events – especially the Web 2.0 Summit, whose tweeters included a much higher proportion of “influentials” with high follower counts. But the Ignite movement is gaining steam. While the numbers for the sample period were smaller than those for the traditional events, when you use the Ignite data to project the expected tweet count from Global Ignite Week, the numbers are quite comparable. The sample period included 26 Ignite events spread over two months, and a total of perhaps 6000 participants. With more than 79 events currently scheduled (and perhaps as many as a hundred, as more are added each day) over a period of a week, Global Ignite Week (#giw) should generate more than 3 times the attendance and the tweet traffic that we saw during the sample period – as many as 25,000 tweets with a combined reach of 10 million followers and 35 million potential tweet impressions. Over the course of a year, several hundred Ignite events will have an attendance and a social media impact that exceeds that of even large traditional events.

    We’re still working out how to manage the syndicated sponsorship opportunity. Challenges include finding sponsors (prospectus pdf here) who understand the opportunity, making sure that those sponsors understand the Ignite culture and provide valuable content, developing mechanisms for sharing sponsorship benefits with local organizers (for example, we’re talking with Facebook about providing in-kind advertising that organizers can use to bring attendees to their events), and working to understand the demographics and interests of the attendees. With tools like PeopleBrowsr analytics, it’s increasingly possible to measure these things (and much more, including attendee sentiment) via the twitter “data exhaust.”

    There’s an important twist to this story. A recent study showed that 70% of companies plan to spend more on Twitter & Facebook marketing rather than traditional marketing channels. Given the new social media marketing disclosure rules put forward by the Federal Trade Commission, you’ve either got to do explicit ads, or sponsor content that will spread on its own. Ignite is a great way to do social media marketing right.

There’s a nifty Bing map from Global Ignite sponsor Microsoft that makes it easy to find an Ignite near you. Click on the heading of the map below to see a larger version that lists all the Ignite locations alphabetically beside the map.
Click to use the larger version.