LONG READ: What can the Commscamp unconference achieve in 2021?

The first two releases of tickets for the newest iteration of commscamp have seen 300 tickets snapped-up in seven minutes.

That’s an incredible set of figures that the attendees themselves can take pride in.

Commscamp Still At Home will be online across three days from September 21 with between 40 and 50 45-minute slots for sessions.

Eight years after the first event was staged in Birmingham it has both evolved and stayed the same.

It’s always the same

John Peel used to describe his favourite band The Fall as ‘always the same, always different,’ and that’s something I can recognise in Commscamp.

There is a core to the event that hasn’t changed.

It’s free for in-house public sector comms people.

It’s run by volunteers.

We book space, then tell people about it and ask them to come and they do.

The agenda is decided on the day by attendees with no slides and, lets not beat about the bush, no rooms of people being kept hostage with no opportunity to chip in.

On the day, the event is run on open space principles.

  • Whoever comes are the right people.
  • Whatever happens is the only thing that could have.
  • Whenever it starts is the right time.
  • Whenever it’s over, it’s over.
  • Wherever it happens is the right place.

There’s also one law, the law of two feet which means you can get up from a session at any time and find another one. Or just go and grab a cup of coffee.

As an organiser, once the sessions have been chosen at the start of the day our work is done. One year, I’m just to go home at this point because the day just looks after itself. Me being there is not essential.

Always different

Every yea each Commscamp event has had a different feeling and spirit.

The very first in Birmingjham in 2013 was about the excitement of new and emerging channels and how we could use them. In other years, there has been a feeling of group therapy and the need to come together to share experience.

In 2020, Commscamp Stays Home was our first foray online and there was a sense of shared experience five months into the pandemic.

This is fine.

Unmarketing

I’ve promoted events that are both paid for and free. It’s liberating having an event that almost markets itself.

We don’t have to spend six months of the year pushing the dates and flogging tickets because the tickets go through reputation and word-of-mouth.

That said, good luck to paid for events which are hugely profitable for those that run them but I think there is something pure about a free event so people can share their knowledge.

Untopics

For me, the difference between the actual unconference and one with a pre-approved agenda, speakers and slides is clear.

The real unconference gives space to tackle the issues facing everyone that day the traditional event tackles what faced one individual six months ago.

There is a place for the traditional, but I strongly think that the unconference route where you can tap into the hive mind makes for stronger solutions.

Coming together to solve a problem gives safety in numbers, reassurance, confidence and a network.

The traditional event has a handful of slots in a day which speak to the majority of the room. The unconference can give dozens of slots to tackle issues so its fine for people to find a sub-genre or niche that’s troubling them.

One of my favourite moments at a Commscamp was a time when someone pitched a session where only three people wanted to go.

Those three people were overjoyed to know that there were others also vexed by this pet niche. They had found their soulmates in the crowd. I remember speaking to one of them afterwards.

How did it go? I asked.

“Absolutely brilliant. There were two people who didn’t think I was weird and I think we’ve got something that can make it work and we’re going to stay in touch.”

Marvellous.

Unsponsors

It’s worth mentioning the sponsors because without sponsors the event wouldn’t happen.

Kirstie at Touch Design and John Paul at Council Advertising Network are examples of people I love to work with. They get the event and their session pitches add value. It’s no wonder why people want to work with them in the months to come.

We’re very lucky to have had some good sponsors who buy into the ethos of the day. It’s not about a 20-minute slide deck to the room or hard sell. It is hearing the hot topics, the kudos of chipping in with ideas and your research and development.

One year, a social media management platform came along to start to pitch their wares to the public sector. They were told their product was lovely but way overpriced. Oh dear, I thought. Far from it. The sponsors left happy. It would have taken them six months and tens of thousands of pounds to have reached this conclusion.

The unagenda

The reality is that I don’t know what the agenda is going to look like. We do always encourage discussion ahead of time but sometimes things which have flown on Facebook ahead of the event don’t get mentioned. That’s fine.

Here’s an example of last year…

The imperfect imperfections and the ones to leave

With any event there are things that work and things that don’t.

Some sessions work and some don’t.

You can’t be in two places at once for competing sessions you’d love to see.

Someone wise once said that if you have 100 people coming to an unconference then 10 won’t get it but 90 will.

Those 90 love it but just wonder if we could just tweak it slightly. Like, sort the agenda out in advance, maybe. The advice I’ve always followed is that keep it simple and trust the process.

Some things I do think we need to look at. How do you help new people settle in? How do you make it inclusive? How do you make it not feel like a place for in-jokes and an in-crowd?

This is always a danger for something long running.

How can a subsersive event stay cutting edge?

The unconference movement in the UK public sector started in 2007 when UK government people were fed-up at having to pay a supplier thousands of pounds to make a change to a government website.

Their ideas helped lead to revolutionary things like gov.uk and the Cameron government’s embrace of open data. In local government, they helped speed-up the ideas around using social media.

The challenge to be radical and well-established is a difficult one.

How can we get the ideas we talk about into effect? is one that still needs working on.

I’d love it if the model for an unconference was used by others. There’s no copyright on them. Come and then run one yourself. It’s not hard.

What Commscamp can do in 2021

All this leads to what Commscamp Still At Home can do this year.

For me, it can be online and accessible, a safe space, about technology but the right technology, about human beings, about sharing ideas and knowing you are not alone.

It can be whatever attendees decide it to be.

The perfect mix

I’ve always thought that the mix for an event was the veteran who knows the ropes and the novice who is prepared to put their hand up and chip into a discussion.

The head of comms sat next to a marketing assistant with equal weight to both their ideas.

I was that novice in 2009 at localgovcamp and it utterly changed how I work, think and do things.

I’d love more than anything for there to be people who do the same.

The first two ticket releases have taken place for Commscamp Still At Home with 300 tickets distributed. There will be 444 tickets distributed overall across the two days. Add yourself to the waitlist for a chance of a ticket. You can do this by finding the eventbrite for each day here.

Commscamp Still At Home runs from September 21 to 23.

The organising group includes Bridget Aherne, Kate Bentham, Josephine Graham, David Grindlay, Leanne Hughes, Sweyn Hunter, Emma Rodgers and Lucy Salvage.

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