Growing a WordCamp Year After Year

The fourth WordCamp Ann Arbor just wrapped up, and the initial feedback is that it was the best one to date. Two years ago I wrote a post summarizing what I had learned leading WordCamps prior to stepping down as lead organizer. Now I’ve been involved in another two and have seen the camp I started grow into something much bigger than I had imagined.

The truth is many great WordCamps lose steam and fade away after a few successful runs. Starting a WordCamp is difficult. Keeping one going is even harder. Yet somehow we managed to do so and looking back I can see several key things that lead to growth and improvement every year.

First and foremost you have to think about who’s your successor.

Develop a Line of Successors

The WordPress foundation strongly recommends a new lead organizer after two successive years. This is for good reason, no one should monopolize an area. It also creates an opportunity for new energy and ideas. That said I’ve seen more than a few camps fade away when an organizer stepped down and there was no one to take their place.

I had my successor in mind after the first year.

I knew Kyle Maurer was the right person to take over as lead organizer. My recap post from two years ago is all about providing a solid, enjoyable experience. Focus on the essentials: planning, the venue and quality sessions — which are all important but not aspirational.

Kyle is a creative, big thinker. I was focused on building foundation while Kyle was focused on standing out. Had I led WCA2 for another year it would have been a worthwhile local camp, but Kyle shifted it to a different class of conference.

I say “develop a line of successors” because two years will go by quickly. Once again you’ll be faced with the same question, who will take over? We were prepared this year passing the torch to Ian Wilson who’s already working on innovative ideas. Additionally, we have several others in mind who could lead the camp after Ian’s two years are up.

While the lead organizer is necessary, a WordCamp is too overwhelming for one person to handle on his/her own and there is no greater factor in the quality of a WordCamp than the team putting it on.

Grow Your Organizing Team

You’ll find that over time some organizers are unable to participate every year. People move, jobs change, life gets complicated. At the beginning of this year we found our team shockingly small. We reached out to some local superstars and they all joined with enthusiasm.

We ended up with our strongest organizing team ever, it’s no surprise it was our best camp to date.

With a strong team comes two amazing assets–creativity and follow through. When you don’t have to oversee what’s getting done you can put your energy toward improving. This year everyone owned their roles from start to finish and Kyle was able to focus on bigger things.

Throughout the year, Kyle hosted regular meetings where we brainstormed new ideas. Afterward the team would execute on them. No one had to follow up on each other, it wasn’t one person contributing or dictating the direction. We collaborated and got things done.

With the right team in place you don’t have to worry about getting things done but you still need to push your comfort zone.

Improve on What Works

Between your own qualitative analysis and feedback surveys you’ll get a sense of what worked and what didn’t. It’s easy to focus on negative feedback, but don’t forget about improving on what worked. This is how you go from good to great.

Our open campus lunches have always been popular. Attendees love exploring Ann Arbor in the fall, dinning at unique local restaurants. Year three we improved on the concept by creating groups around discussion topics.

This made it easier for people to decide where to eat, created another learning opportunity and facilitated new connections. Most are unlikely to ask a stranger out to lunch but are happy to go out with a group interested in the same topic.

Randomly asking someone you don’t know to lunch is intimidating. Going to lunch with people who also want to talk about selling website projects is exciting.

Test New Ideas

Push yourself to experiment with new ideas every year. Some ideas will be a hit and others you won’t repeat, but the hits can be a defining element of your camp.

Last year Kyle and Ashley came up with the idea of “afternoon activities.” There is only so many sessions anyone has the energy to attend. What if we could engage attendees in a different way in the afternoon after the first round of sessions is over?

We organized a wide range of activities including a pub crawl, scavenger hunt, hack-a-thon, and tour of the University of Michigan Stadium. Honestly, I wasn’t sure if anyone would go for them… but attendees loved the activities.

This year we added more activities. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive.

Consider Every Moment

Every year will get a bit easier. Securing a venue, selecting speakers, and building out a schedule will become second nature. Use the extra energy to consider what happens at every stage of the camp.

Early on in the year Kyle asked us all to consider what parts of a WordCamp are less exciting and how we could make them more interesting. Opening remarks came to mind and this year instead of just explaining the mechanics of the day we give away prizes.

Next year we’re already looking at how we can better manage transitioning from sessions to lunch and back. How can we better manage the timing of sessions, giving speakers a better opportunity to answer additional questions after their session ends. There is so much untapped potential in the gaps that is rarely considered.

Closing Thoughts

It would have been easy to focus on my two-year window, not caring what happened after, but I would have missed out. Ann Arbor is a small(ish) town and WordCamp Ann Arbor is not a huge camp—but it is unique. We’ve worked hard to make it a destination camp. To have contributed in some way even though my lead contribution came before this moment is an amazing feeling.

There will always be room for improvement, new ideas to test, and previous ideas to refine. With a strong organizing team you’ll find each year go a little smoother, become a little bigger, and be that much more memorable and exciting.