The Emamo Show: Event Planner Conversations

Event Manager Iva Donova of The Next Web Conference - Listen To Your Attendees

Episode Summary

Iva Donova, Event Manager at The Next Web, knows the importance of listening to your attendees and how their feedback impacts your event. As the Event Manager for The Next Web's flagship conference and Hard Fork Summit, she takes her deep knowledge of their audience to continue to streamline their event strategy. We talk about how important it is to talk to your attendees, their programming strategy, and what it takes to manage a 20,000 person event.

Episode Notes

Iva Donova, Event Manager at The Next Web, knows the importance of listening to your attendees and how their feedback impacts your event. As the Event Manager for The Next Web's flagship conference and Hard Fork Summit, she takes her deep knowledge of their audience to continue to streamline their event strategy. We talk about how important it is to talk to your attendees, their programming strategy, and what it takes to manage a 20,000 person event.

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Episode Transcription

Michelle Lee: Hey guys, this is Michelle from Emamo. Today, I’m talking with Iva Donova, event manager at The Next Web. We talk about how understanding your audience affects the program, the importance of attendee feedback, and how even after 13 years, they still make room to experiment and try new strategies. Welcome to The Emamo Show.  

Michelle Lee: Hey guys, we’ve got Iva Donova here from The Next Web Conference, and we’re gonna chat a little bit about her event, so thanks, Iva, for hopping on and having a conversation with me.  

Iva Donova: Yeah, thanks for having me.  

Michelle Lee: So, just want to talk about obviously The Next Web Conference, a big tech conference in Amsterdam, and we wanted to learn about a little bit of the background about the event for anyone who isn’t familiar, and also kind of talk through the process of how you and your team get it started from day one to the actual day of the conference. So, can you describe The Next Web Conference to someone who’s never attended before?

Iva Donova: Yeah, sure. So, TNW Conference is our flagship event that we do every year in Amsterdam, and it’s usually in May or June, when the weather is good in Amsterdam, and it actually started 2006, but it started as a really small event from our founders, Boris and Patrick. I think it was an event for about 300 people. So, now it grew to 20,000 people. We’re expecting to have 20,000 attendees next year.  

So, it is quite a big event. It’s a tech conference, so we have a lot of people attending obviously from the Benelux, from Europe, but also we have a lot of attendees coming from the U.S., and from other parts of the world. And our conference, basically the content is focused on different tracks, so we cover AI, machine learning, we have design, marketing, so there is everything for everyone, and we also have different programs at the conference, like a startup program, where we invite different startups in different sectors to pitch, or to showcase their products at our business floor. We partner up with a lot of corporate and other clients. We have a lot of investors coming in, as well, to connect with startups.  

So, yeah, it’s all about bringing together, and helping them out to do the right networking, have fun, because I think I may strongly say that we are… Yeah, not the regular conference, because we really try to be a fun and interactive event, so we also have throughout the week of the conference, we have a lot of side events. We have a lot of music events. Yeah, we try to keep it also, to have a lot of fun, so people don’t… Yeah, so they don’t feel like they’re in the office doing some work, so they’re actually… Yeah, they have fun.

Michelle Lee: Oh, that’s awesome. So, for you guys, obviously The Next Web, for anyone who’s unfamiliar, is also a website that’s reporting a lot of up-to-date news. Who are the attendees? I know you mentioned, is it kind of that mix? It sounds like a mix of both companies who are there for networking, and like people who are already in tech, so it’s mostly tech. Do you find there’s a lot of overlap with the readers of the website that attend? Or are they almost kind of separate?  

Iva Donova: Yeah, absolutely. There is quite a big overlap, and actually I think we try to sort of connect our media brand as well with our conference. For instance, we have content media brand, which is called Hard Fork, and it’s entirely about blockchain, so we decided, because we saw that there is a big interest from our audience in the conference as well into this topic, we’ve decided to have a track at the conference for this particular audience. So, that’s quite successful, and actually because of that, we decided to have a different, smaller event entirely related to blockchain, fintech, crypto, so that’s been going on already for two years.  

We are trying to find ways into streamlining, seeing what our readers are interested in that we can also incorporate in our event.

Michelle Lee: Totally.  

Iva Donova: That is our strength.  

Michelle Lee: Right, because you already know what people are engaging with, and kind of you’re always on the cutting edge of what people are talking about.

Iva Donova: Yeah, and that’s also how, so for instance, we’re not only doing the flagship conference. We have other events throughout the year, so we’re also looking to what our attendees are interested in, which tracks are most interesting for them, and then we sort of look into our speaker database, and client database. We see which are the top ones that would be interesting for our audience, and from then, we do research, and we try to create a strategy to create a new event around that.  

Michelle Lee: Yeah. Cool. Okay, so I know Hard Fork was a track at The Next Web Conference, and now is of course the Hard Fork Summit, which is a fall event you guys hold. What made you guys push it over, like, “We’re gonna have a new track. We’re gonna try this. There’s interest in blockchain, fintech.” Was it just that particular track got so popular that you thought your team was… This makes sense to move to its own summit?  

Iva Donova: Yeah. Well, I think in a way, we also experimented in person with-

Michelle Lee: Awesome.  

Iva Donova: It was I think the first time we actually did a separate event around a particular track, so blockchain at that time, two years ago when we did the event for the first time, was obviously-

Michelle Lee: Yeah, huge.  

Iva Donova: It was blockchain and crypto, so that was… You know? And we did it in London, so we had a lot of partners involved, and yeah, London, of course, is the finance capital of Europe, so it was the perfect place to do it. And yeah, it turned out to be quite successful. This year we decided to do it in Amsterdam, and again, we changed a little bit the focus. It was more fintech and business related, rather than crypto, so we also experiment a little bit to see, yeah, what would be interesting for the people.  

Yeah, there is no real script for how to know what-

Michelle Lee: Yeah. You just started trying. Trying something new.

Iva Donova: Yeah. Yeah.

Michelle Lee: That’s really cool.  

Iva Donova: So far, it’s been working. I mean, obviously there is a strategy behind it.  

Michelle Lee: Right. But it’s more-

Iva Donova: Yeah.

Michelle Lee: Oh, that’s so cool. I love that you guys have been throwing events as an organization for 13 years, and you’re still, there’s still that room to experiment and try something new, and kind of like have that audacity to be like, “Oh yeah, we’ll see if this works.” I love that. That’s so cool, because so many… That’s, for me, what I think is great about events. No matter how much you plan, there’s always gonna be something. You have to just be able to be flexible, and try something new, and be brave to do that, so that’s really cool.  

Before the event actually takes place, what does your team, do you guys have set goals for a particular event? How do you know, how does your team determine if an event was successful or not? Whether that’s building leads, or awareness, or content, or kind of how do you guys determine that internally?  

Iva Donova: Yeah. Good question. Of course that’s… I think it’s very strongly related to the revenue, of course.

Michelle Lee: Yeah.  

Iva Donova: But no, that’s not the most important thing that determines our success. But yeah, I mean we of course look into… For us, it’s most important that the people that have attended, to have a good feedback about the event, so we really strongly look into that, and their whole experience.  

So, if we see something didn’t work, then we need to change it, so we take these things seriously. We take our attendees feedback very serious, so for us, that is very important. And if the majority says we’ve done a good job, then we believe that this is true. And yeah, it’s also from a speaker perspective, it’s all about creating a good experience for them, as well, because they’re our main ambassadors, right? So, I think for us, having the sort of successful finish, and hearing good feedback from our attendees, for us is what success looks like.  

Michelle Lee: That’s awesome. Totally. So, obviously 20,000 attendees, that’s a lot of attendees, a lot of humans. How do you guys, just talking about the feedback, how do you… Do attendees generally reach out to your team? Do you do post-event questionnaires? How do you guys start asking for that feedback from, whether it’s your attendees or speakers?  

Iva Donova: Yeah, so of course after every event, we send out a simple survey with a couple questions, and we’re hoping that people will be-

Michelle Lee: Yeah, take the time?

Iva Donova: Take the time to fill it out. So yeah, in most cases we have a great response rate, NPS score, which is great. A lot of our speakers are also recurring speakers, as well as the attendees. We have a lot of super-loyal attendees, that have been attending since we’ve started, which speaks a good thing, of course, about the event.  

So yeah, we really appreciate that, and yeah, this is more or less the way we get insight from our attendees, and we count on them to give us honest feedback.  

Michelle Lee: Yeah. Very cool. I love that, and I love that when you mention you guys have attendees that have been attending since its inception. That’s so important, that community around the event, because then they trust you guys, they trust that you’ll listen to their feedback. I love that. Whether it’s tech conferences, or teacher education events, building that community and that trust is so important about growing the event, right? That’s so cool.  

Iva Donova: Yeah, and I speak from a perspective of a customer success, because before starting as an events manager, I was actually customer success, so I was dealing with all that. So for me, it was quite an important task, right? Be able to understand our customers, our attendees, and knowing, learning more about their experience, which is super important for me, so yeah.  

Michelle Lee: Oh, totally. I also have a background in customer support, customer success, and that’s so key to understanding their feedback, and making sure that they’re happy. That’s so important to extending the life of your product, your event, whatever, right?

Iva Donova: And actually, one thing to add about this. Apart from the survey, I also took for two years in the role I did, I reached out to a couple of our attendees, and I tried to schedule calls with them, to get more in-depth feedback.  

Michelle Lee: Very cool.  

Iva Donova: Yeah. People are happy to give their feedback, no matter if they had a bad or a good time. They know that they will help if they share their feedback, so it was great. I was super happy that I did it, and I wished I had more time to do more. But it was a good start, and I think, because a survey, you can get good insights, but if you want to have more in-depth conversation, then you really need to start talking to people.  

Michelle Lee: And digging into more than just their one-sentence reply, or five stars out of five stars.

Iva Donova: Yeah, and we found some really valuable insights out of these things, which made us change certain things in our strategy, or the things that we were doing at the event. So, it’s very important talking to your customers and to your attendees.

Michelle Lee: Yeah. Totally. I think that’s kind of part of that post-event, right? There’s sort of a process to events, right? There’s pre-event planning. Everyone’s stressed, we’re getting it together, you have the event itself, making sure it’s running smoothly, and then so much… You can never neglect that end point, right?  

Iva Donova: Exactly.

Michelle Lee: That finish, you know? Are attendees having a good time? Are speakers? Did speakers enjoy speaking? That kind of stuff, and that-

Iva Donova: It is a fun moment, though, because obviously there is such a huge build-up moment to the event, and then when it’s finally finished, you’re like, “Okay, what now?” But we have so much still to do, so yeah, it’s never ending. It’s like a cycle, you know?  

Michelle Lee: It’s definitely something I’ve heard. Yeah, it’s just like… So, one of my questions is always kind of, for you guys, obviously The Next Web is happening over the summer, June 18th, 2020. It’s December now. What is that first step? I mean, obviously we know we’re kind of continuing the cycle, but planning for this upcoming event, what’s the first thing you guys do?

Iva Donova: Well, after the survey, we’ve done all that, we gather feedback, so then comes the process of looking into our content, the tracks that we had, and then yeah, it’s sort of a research process when we check which contents were successful, which other content we can add that will be relevant for the audience. So yeah, that’s quite a long process of researching around different topics, and seeing what’s, at the moment, what is relevant. And then, of course, it takes time until you write the abstracts, the explanation, the whole subtopics and things like that, so that takes months.  

And yeah, the program team is busy the entire time already with recruiting speakers and getting them on board. But of course, the first, most important thing is to have defined the different tracks, so you can actually dive into finding the right speakers for your… for those specific tracks.  

Michelle Lee: Right. Oh, okay.  

Iva Donova: Yeah, so at the moment, it’s more or less finalized, of course, this content, the tracks, and we’re about to announce them in the coming weeks, and we have already booked some speakers, we have confirmed them, and now we are more or less at full speed ahead, getting partners on board and rolling out our startup program, our investor program, and yeah, basically trying to get everyone in and excited for the event. Of course, we were just recently, in October, end of October was our Hard Fork Summit event, so that was taking a lot of our time.  

Michelle Lee: Yeah.  

Iva Donova: So, now we have shifted our focus… And there is a lot going on at the moment towards… So, in those months, we’re pretty much prepping all of our campaigns, getting partners on board, so we also have different campaigns like women in leadership, and we are also trying to attract more younger people under 30 to attend our event, so we have a campaign around that. Also developers, so yeah, it’s all that. … things going on.  

Michelle Lee: A bunch of things. Yeah. Wow.  

Iva Donova: Often difficult to find, to keep track of everything. But for the past few years since I’ve joined, I’ve been at The Next Web for two and a half years now, so there are certain things that changed, but within the campaigns, and the tracks, obviously, we also try to expand, but there is a lot of things that we see, “Okay, they’re working.” And we just keep doing them, you know? Improving them, of course, but a lot of the things we are doing at the moment, we have already done, so yeah, it’s just improving them and making them better, right?

Michelle Lee: Right. That’s awesome. Just kind of touching back on something you mentioned earlier about that process, so your team at The Next Web already planned the tracks, so when you guys fill… Obviously you’ve already done this part, but at the moment you start deciding on content, so you guys have the tracks, and then you… Do you reach out to speakers that might fit those tracks? I’m assuming it’s not like a proposal, it’s like, “Oh, I’d love to speak on this.” Or does that happen? How does that… What does that look like?

Iva Donova: Yeah. Our program team is basically, once we have defined the tracks, and of course we have already a speaker database, so we have some contacts, but we often reach out to new people that are leaders in the industries that we are looking at, so often it is… It requires a lot of research, and it’s just our program team behind their laptops researching on LinkedIn, and looking at other talks, and reading articles. Then we are just reaching out to them with the proposition, with the track idea, and the topic idea that we want to get them on board with. And yeah, it’s up to them, of course. It’s super transparent.  

Yeah, it is basically connected to the tracks that we’re doing. Yeah. I think two years ago, we actually introduced the different tracks, because previously it was all… The content was kind of categorized by the different stages we had-

Michelle Lee: Oh, I see.  

Iva Donova: But now, we actually have decided to streamline them to different content tracks, like machine learners, AI, design, marketing, so we have these different topics, and yeah, we had… We started with 18, I think, two years ago.

Michelle Lee: Wow.  

Iva Donova: But then we realized, “Okay, 18 is a bit too overwhelming for people.” They are just not physically able to go to all of them, and when you have two days, you can only go to-

Michelle Lee: So many. Yeah. Yeah.  

Iva Donova: Okay, we took this is as a learning point, so we decided, “Okay, let’s break them down to a few fewer tracks, that are really interesting and important for our audience.” So, so far it’s working good, but yeah.  

Michelle Lee: That’s crazy.  

Iva Donova: … more or less the process that we start.  

Michelle Lee: Yeah, and you’re just refining it as the years go on. It’s worked for you guys.  

Iva Donova: Yeah.

Michelle Lee: Cool.  

Iva Donova: Of course, being on the main stage, we have massive stage that holds up to 3,000 people, so on this stage, it’s often, we have different very big, big speakers, big names, like last year we had Guy Kawasaki, so we’re looking to more inspirational speakers, leaders that can share their story, and then on the other stages, we sort of break them down for tracks.

Michelle Lee: Oh, I see. That’s so cool.  

Iva Donova: Yeah. It feels like a good way for speakers also to meet with others that are interested in those specific topics, other speakers that are attending the events, or speaking for this particular topic, so yeah, and it is sort of connected in different-

Michelle Lee: Yeah, that’s really cool. Do you guys, obviously there’s a lot of people and a lot of teams involved putting this together. Can you speak to some of the tools you guys use? Is it a lot of stuff you guys have built internally to help manage the programming? Like the online schedule, even the feedback surveys you guys send out, are there certain tools you guys use? Or, I mean obviously you guys are at a scale. Did your team have an engineering team build something that you… an internal tool kit?

Iva Donova: Yeah, we have a lot of tools that we’re using. For instance, one of our biggest sort of projects that we built throughout the years is our ticketing and registration system, which is called Early Bird. Basically, that is our… the main tool that we use in our attendee database, where we have everyone, all their tickets being registered, all our main communication with attendees, so they’re basically all the updates that our attendees receive is being more or less sent from Early Bird. But for the more common marketing campaigns, we use Mailchimp.

Michelle Lee: Classic!

Iva Donova: I’m not even speaking about using Google Sheets, because we’re still using that for part of our work. So yeah, there is obviously lots of room for improvement there, but we are a small company. 120 people. We still use the classic.

Michelle Lee: Oh, of course.  

Iva Donova: But we also have others, like we have a live chat that is available on our website to basically get questions from our attendees, or-

Michelle Lee: Oh, okay.  

Iva Donova: … in the conference, or our events, so yeah, we have then a customer support person who is handling those requests on a daily basis. We have an Airtable account that we use for our speaker database. And then other teams use tools like Pipedrive, and other project management tools. But we don’t have really one consistent tool yet, which yeah, we are looking to change, because as we grow, you need a better way of structuring your information.  

Michelle Lee: Right. Of course.  

Iva Donova: So yeah, this hopefully will improve for us as of next year.  

Michelle Lee: Yeah. Awesome. I mean, that’s definitely something every… Right, as your event, when you start small, everything is kind of in all these places, and as you grow, it’s hard work to maintain it across a different number of platforms. It’s hard. It’s like more work for your team. You know what I mean?  

Iva Donova: I think we have quite a big advantage having our own in-house built ticketing platform in the past two years to build our networking app, so we are improving that. It is very difficult to build a networking app.

Michelle Lee: Oh yeah!  

Iva Donova: We thought, “It’s okay. We can do this. We got it.” But yeah, when you build an app for 20,000 people using it.

Michelle Lee: That’s a whole other set of problems you don’t even think about. Separate from features, right? It’s just, “Will this work?”  

Iva Donova: Yeah. It’s really cool that we have that, and we decided to do it ourselves, because yeah, of course it’s easy to find someone, another company to help you with that, but it’s even more sweet when you are-

Michelle Lee: Of course.  

Iva Donova: When you can do it yourself.

Michelle Lee: Yeah, that’s awesome. Okay, so you guys, we talked a little bit about the process for your team, obviously the post-event, so what’s the first thing you guys announce? Is it the dates? Do you already know the dates as even when the last conference ends? Or what is that first announcement for the upcoming event? What does that look like?

Iva Donova: Yeah. Well, it changes, because obviously last year, we were at another venue. We were in a park here in Amsterdam.  

Michelle Lee: Wow.

Iva Donova: But outgrew it and we needed more space, so then we started looking for another area in Amsterdam, and that took a while, so for instance, we weren’t able to announce our dates for a few months after the conference was held. But announcing our dates is basically the main thing that we want to announce after the event, so when we moved to the new location, we already knew more or less the dates for the year, the next year to come, because this is something you… Yeah, it’s always a bit of a struggle with every event organizer, of course, to have a clear vision of the next year, and when you can do the event again. That is the first thing we do, and we have of course other companies doing campaigns for those that want to join again.  

So, we have another, like a presale round, and yeah, normally the best thing is to already have something to announce, like a big speaker name, or something that is going to happen again next year. But yeah, it’s usually we try to find something that would drive people to return, so yeah, it’s always different and we can’t plan it that much.

Michelle Lee: Yeah. I mean, that makes sense, right? The date is often the first thing you’ll know, and after that it becomes sort of, “Who did you book? What does your programming team decide?” All that kind of thing.  

Iva Donova: Yeah. Last year the first major thing we announced was actually the change of location, right? Because we moved to a new location, so that was a great story, great momentum to share, so yep. Who knows what we are-

Michelle Lee: That’s cool. No, I love that, and so kind of touching briefly on… We don’t have to go in super detail, but what does day one of the actual event look like for your team? You know? You’ve done all this work all year, prepping, anticipation, the stress, right? And then you’re day one, you’re at the new venue, or you’re at… What does that look like for you guys?

Iva Donova: Wow. Well, first day it’s always… Yeah. Quite stressful. Everyone’s running around. Your phone is going off the whole time. That leads to thousands of messages, and yeah, it is pretty crazy, and I think the first half day of day one, it is always… Yeah, quite stressful, and you try to keep sane, and to have control over what’s going on. It’s always quite overwhelming, but towards the end of the day, it usually gets normal again, and yeah, the next day it goes much smoother, because then-

Michelle Lee: Everything’s settled.  

Iva Donova: Everything settles, yeah. First day, it’s always like you’re putting fires here and there.

Michelle Lee: Of course.

Iva Donova: Try to make sure everything runs well. Yeah, we always, we joke around that we’re happy to have two days of conference, because we can actually enjoy the second day, because the first day it’s always crazy.  

Michelle Lee: So, busy first day, hopefully settles the second day, and then it’s you kind of just go into that post-event like we talked about before, like the success reaching out to people. Just for me, I’m curious, because I also came from this background of customer success. Do you think that’s affected how you approach the event managing side of it? Do you feel like maybe you’re more aware of the attendee, the value of the attendee feedback, and that they feel good and happy? Or has that kind of been a cultural… Has that been a value already when you started doing the events with The Next Web?  

Iva Donova: Yeah, definitely. I think it’s played a big role for me, starting as a customer success. It also helped me a lot to understand how our company works, and to learn more about our audience, our attendees, so now when I’m asked for an advice, or when we’re working on specific strategies, I can always take this back from what I’ve learned, and from what I know about our attendees. It’s definitely something that can help me when we are planning, and when we are organizing our next event.  

Michelle Lee: Yeah. That’s-

Iva Donova: Yeah. It was definitely a good start. It was great learning process. Yeah, I feel a lot more confident now when working in more in depth into the events. I will definitely feel more confident having that background.

Michelle Lee: Yeah, for sure. I think as a person who has worked at events, and also attended events, that’s so much of an event’s success, like you talked about, is did people like it? If people didn’t like it-

Iva Donova: Yeah, it’s that simple. This is the most simple question you can ask, but it’s actually the most important one, right?

Michelle Lee: Yeah, definitely. And I think it can be so easy to be overlooked when you’re getting bogged down in the like, “Oh, no. We need to book this person.” And, “Oh, this…” You know, are people happy at the end?

Iva Donova: Right. Exactly.  

Michelle Lee: I love that. Yeah. Even just for me, the magic of being at an event, I mean we spoke about it in Portugal. It’s like getting to meet other people, and that experience, having that, putting people together, making sure that’s a valuable, rewarding experience speaks so much to me, like did I enjoy that event or not? You know? Of course, programming is a huge part of it, but it’s also… I love that. I love that you guys focus on that.

Iva Donova: Yeah. It’s almost meeting the right people, and creating the right connections, right? So yeah, for us, we are throughout the different programs that we have, we really try to get interesting, and people that would be valuable to one another throughout our startup program, for instance, our investors, so we really try to find a way to connect them, and yeah, to know that the right people will be there to meet each other, and to create some long-lasting relationships. Because that is another successful moment, right? When you know that you have helped other people meet and create valuable relationships.  

Michelle Lee: Yeah. I love that. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us. Good luck. I know you guys are diving into a couple insane months before the summer, but thanks again.  

Iva Donova: Thanks for having me. Bye.  

Michelle Lee: Thanks for tuning in this week, and thanks again to Iva Donova for sharing how The Next Web stays connected with their attendees, and how it affects her conference strategy. Find links to their event in our show notes and visit us at That’s E-M-A-M-O dot com. See you next time!