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I had a chat with @jthake yesterday on Twitter about the process we go through when planning content for the SharePoint Conference later this year. Based on that I decided to do this post to help give insight into how we go about planning for a conference of this magnitude.  I hope this is interesting and that you come away not thinking that we ask for some sessions, throw them in a list & call it done :)

With over 240 breakout sessions + Hands on Labs etc. There is A LOT of preparation that goes into putting on an event like this for thousands and thousands of attendees.

I promised Jeremy I would blog out some of the process we go through to help folks get an understanding of how something like this works.

There are really two main high level factors that influence the content at a conference like this, I’ll chat about how we think about these below:

  • Attendee interests and needs
  • Conference Goals

Attendee interests and needs
When you plan an event this size for a product as diverse as SharePoint its important to realize that the attendees that come to the show are from all walks of life, professions, countries, disciplines, and backgrounds.  Some are experts and some come to find out about what SharePoint is.  We get both ends of the product knowledge spectrum and we strive to keep that in mind throughout the content planning process.  This is paramount in ensuring we meet attendees needs.

Conference Goals
At the beginning of the process we sit down and work out what the goals for the conference are.  What do we want people to walk away thinking about when they leave? What do we need to ensure attendees learn about to be successful? 

A lot of these are distilled from the many channels of feedback and input we get from people around the world.  Here is a sampling of the channels we are constantly monitoring:  Customer feedback (we have lots of channels for this), partner feedback, our Support group feedback, MS account team feedback, Microsoft Consulting Services & the internet (blogs, wikis, social media etc…)  We sit down and look at what is common across all of these channels and work out what are the common themes amongst all of these.

For the SharePoint Conference 2011 we distilled this all down into three simple themes:

  • Best Practices
  • Cloud
  • Core Learning

Best Practices:  SharePoint 2010 has been in the market for quite a while now, we are throwing a 10th Birthday for SharePoint at Disneyland at SPC11 and there are a lot of things about every facet of SharePoint that everyone has learnt about how to best plan, implement and manage it.  We want to make sure we share as much of these real world best practices are shared as much as possible to ensure everyone is successful.

Cloud:  Whether you like it or not cloud computing is a hot topic and even if you or your organization isn't planning on moving to the cloud for a while there is a lot of demand from folks who want to understand how to  get ready for it.  Then there are the folks that are actually doing it and want to know about how they should take advantage of it now etc…  This goal isn't just about Office 365, but cloud computing across all sorts of products.

Core Learning:  SharePoint is an expansive product and I personally learn something about it everyday.  There are a lot of people who come to the SharePoint Conference purely to learn about how to do various things with SharePoint.  We have a lot of people who want the raw nuts and bolts content of how something works or how to plan, build, deploy or manage SharePoint. 

Ok, so you have conference goals what’s next?
Now we form a group (v-team) across the SharePoint, Office, DPE & Project teams that “own” the content.  We do this because everyone has their area of expertise and knows how to meet the conference goals for their area.  Internally we divide up into focus areas such as Developer, IT Pro, Business User, Search, BI etc… and start working on what the goals are for that area given the overall goals.  We work out a heat map of relative priorities stack up for the conference goals applicable to that area and this gives us a reference point to work with throughout the rest of the process.  For example we might decide that in the Developer focus group we are going to do roughly 30% Cloud, 50% Best Practices and 20% Core Learning content (these are not the actual number BTW).  This varies by focus area.

At this point the team starts working on what high level goals are for their area and how they map to the conference goals.  At the end of this process you typically have a list of high-level topics you need to address in order to meet those goals.  For example in the Developer area we know we need to talk about Application Lifecycle Management because it is a big topic of interest from our customers and partners.  Another example might be Internet Site scalability, because our customers are using SharePoint more and more for delivering massive scale internet sites.

So now we have a high level topic list for each area, what's next?

Session Planning
This is when we start to formulate actual sessions.  Typically this starts by working out what sessions we need for each topic.  For example:  we might decide we need an “Introduction to Developing for SharePoint” session. 

We do this for each topic until we have a fully fleshed out list of sessions we think we need in order to meet the goals. 

This is harder than it sounds.  There are other factors like session allocation numbers.  As the content owner for the conference I get to also work out how many breakouts we can have based on lots of things like conference space, seating arrangements, attendee numbers, attendee profile etc etc etc.…   At the end of this I give each area owner an allocation number of the number of sessions they are allowed.

Right!  So now we have a list of the sessions we think we need in order to meet our goals.  What’s next?

At this point we turn to our experts to help us with sessions.  There are three major groups we call upon for this:

  • External experts
  • Microsoft
  • Customers

External experts: For SPC we run what we call a private External Call for Content.  This where we invite experts and trusted advisors to submit ideas on various topics.  For SPC11 we invited MVPs, MCMs and select other subject matter experts that our content team identified.   We ask them to submit topics via a form on the internet and all those submissions go into a database.

Microsoft:  We also run an internal call for content where we invite experts from Microsoft around the world to also submit ideas.  We also talk with our engineering and support teams to submit session ideas on hot button topics that they are seeing from customer and partner support calls etc… 

Customers:  We have someone on our content team who is specifically tasked with finding customers who have great examples of projects or things they are doing with SharePoint to tell their story.  Again, that all tie back to our overall goals for the conference.

Once this “gathering” phase of the process is complete we have a HUGE database of session ideas.  Each tagged and with metadata indicating how it bubbles up to the overall goals for the conference.  At this point I like to pull it all into Excel and use Pivot Tables and Slicers to slice and dice the data into all sorts of interesting facts and figures.  This gives us a good view into content we received.

For example:  We had over 700 content submission ideas (external + internal) in total.  700!!  Its an amazing number and just goes to show the interest and passion people have for this stuff.  It was amazing to see.

Now the real work begins :)

Once we have all our session submissions we pull them into a SharePoint list (naturally :) who wouldn’t?!?!).  Then our content team can slice and dice those as they wish to see what kinds of things people have submitted.

Each person works slightly differently at this point.  Some (like me) to go through the sessions submissions and bucket them into my high level topics for my area.  Others like to go the other way and scan for sessions of interest.

This is A LOT of work.   We read the title and abstract for every session and evaluate it.  Will it be a good session? Does it map to the conference and area goals?  Is the speaker good?  What has the reaction been to a session like this at past conferences?  Is it new content or old?  There are lots of things we think about when evaluating them. 

After a lot of work we end up with an idea of what sessions from the call for content will be suitable given our goals. 

We also end up with a LOT of gaps.  These are sessions we know we need but we didn’t get input on.  This typically happens because it is a new topic, something only we are seeing via our support channels or something that doesn’t typically jump to mind. We need to go and work out what that sesssion will look like and who might be a good expert on that to deliver it.

Ok, so now we have a rough session list for the conference.

Review!, Review!, Review!
Next we start reviewing all the sessions and scrutinize everyone one in horrifying detail :) 

We do an all day meeting with everyone in one room for the day where we have each area owner present information about their area, the goals and the sessions they have.  This is where everyone in the room gets to critique the sessions, ask questions & provide feedback.  This is where we start to see overlaps, duplicates and, most importantly, gaps that are not covered across the conference.

We sit back and make sure that the content makes sense when seen together as a whole.  We fiercely critique our sessions, do they meet the goals, are they going to resonate with attendees, are the speakers the best experts we can find for that specific topic, are they great speakers & most importantly will the attendee get ultimate value from it?  etc…  It’s a brutal process and after the all day meeting I personally felt totally fried and ready to go to bed, my brain was spinning :)

Once we have our content review complete we ask people to work on the sessions based on the feedback they have received.

Scrub, Scrub, Scrub
Usually at this point we are pretty close to having a final list of sessions.  But there is a lot of work to do yet.  We obsess over the details at this point.  Finding speakers, tweaking titles, tweaking abstracts etc… We work as a team to make sure we still have the right coverage of sessions and topics.  We also look for speakers who have too many sessions.  We don’t want someone delivering too many and not doing a great job on all of them, so this is important too.

(Note: This is the step we are at in the SPC 11 content planning right now … we are close to finishing the scrubbing)

Finalize
Once each area owner is certain they have the right content I get to sit down and take one final look over all the content plans.  I make sure every session bubbles up to our goals, makes sense in the context of the other content at the conference & most importantly will the attendee love it?

Invite speakers
Next we invite speakers.  Sometimes if the session was originally from the call for content we invite that speaker to talk on the subject (usually the abstract and title are different at this point given the iterations and scrubbing done).  Sometimes we invite speakers who didn’t submit a session on that topic because we know they are the best person to speak for that session. 

At this point there is usually some speaker churn.  Some can’t make it or have other commitments for example.

Session development
I wont get into this topic in this post, but its worth mentioning that there is a whole other process for working with speakers to develop their content, review it, refine it and make sure it meets the goals of the sessions.   This is another huge amount of work multiplied by ~240 :)

Finally … we get to deliver the session at the conference :) 

Summary

I hope this gives you some insight into the process we have chosen to plan and build out the content for the SharePoint Conference 2011.  There is a lot that goes on behind closed doors and I hope this has unveiled that in an enlightening way :)

So … in summary … We start at the overall needs of our audience, we work towards goals for the conference, we build a team of people responsible for delivering content for their area to those goals, we ask experts internally and externally what session they think would work & then we work REALLY hard on working out what actual sessions will deliver on the goals & meet the attendees needs.

It’s all an incredible amount of work that really is not very visible from the outside.  But there is one thing that is very very visible on Oct 3rd – 6th 2011 … the conference & the content.  We the content team can’t wait to see everyone at the conference enjoying the fruits of our endless planning.

We cant wait for SPC… and hope to see you there too :)

Thanks,

-Chris.

SPC Content Owner 2011