Rise of the unconferenceWhich tech conference would you rather go to – one where the vendor maintains rigid control over the agenda and speakers (with no input from you) and you shut up and listen while they do all the talking, or one where attendees shape the agenda, you take an active role as a participant, and the conversation changes depending on the dynamic of the group?

For my money, it’s the latter. The unconference, as it’s called, is replacing the stale, vendor-driven conference, for which those of us who regularly attend these events should be grateful.

Unconferences use wikis to gather suggestions for sessions prior to the event. At the beginning of the event, they let attendees weigh in on what they want to hear. And at the end of each conference day, participants can review the highlights communally and decide if they want to keep talking about hot topics or add in fresh ideas.

The unconference has its roots in events created by the pioneers of open source – their user-driven approach to creating software was a good match for reinventing conferences. Events like ApacheCon, OSCON, and EclipseCon first started tossing out the conventional structure along with the static lineup of PowerPoint-driven lectures, instead encouraging participants to debate, discuss, and share what they know.

The governing idea is that the sum knowledge of the participants is greater than that of the people running the event. You just have to provide a structure that lets the ideas blossom. It’s the opposite from top-down conferences like Dreamforce and Oracle OpenWorld – no surprise since the sponsoring companies are still focused on proprietary software models.

On the other hand, events like Google I/O share their parent company’s open ideals, while mixing in what we’ve learned from social. Now that social tools make it easy to draw a far wider audience into discussions, unconferences can really tap into the collective intelligence within the event community.

If you’re a frequent conference attendee, you should be cheering about the influence of unconferences on all industry events, since even the traditionalists are adopting unconference tactics like BOF (birds of a feather) sessions that bring together attendees with shared interests for moderated, open discussions.

If you’re a vendor, you might be somewhat terrified by the unstructured nature of unconferences. And it’s normal to have a few nail-biting moments when planning and staging events with an unconference feel – at my own company’s annual SugarCon event, we let attendees nominate and then vote on the sessions they want to participate in, which certainly adds some unpredictability to our planning process.

However, the payoffs for taking the leap into the unconference model are lucrative. Attendees are much more passionate about these events and will give them good word of mouth. You get the chance to participate in your customers’ conversations – and as you’ve no doubt discovered from social media, they’ll have these conversations whether you participate or not, so you might as well be one of the voices. As the provider of this conversational framework, you will earn greater respect for creating an open, interactive community – a reputation that reflects favorably on your brand.

Nick Halsey is chief marketing officer and executive vice president of corporate development at customer relationship management software provider SugarCRM. Previously, he served as vice president of marketing and product management at Jaspersoft Corporation, was a co-founder of Biz360, served as the founding vice president of sales and marketing for Brio Software, and was CMO and executive vice president of corporate development at Alphablox.

[Top image credit: Clara/Shutterstock]