The First Blog Post about Sensational Claims at Tech Events

The tech community, and especially hackathons, has a problem with making grand claims and using titles to promote events. The temptation to make these claims is understandable: you want to market your event, you want it to look impressive. Countless events launch with copy the likes of “The first hackathon to do X” or “The biggest hackathon in Y”. Lately, because such titles are so hard to come by, some have been growing a prodigious tail of qualifiers, leading to websites that proudly list “The Universes’ First North-East Dentistry-Student Organised Hackathon with 561.4 attendees owning 7 dogs with a combined mass of 120kg”. Let’s talk about the problems of claims and titles, and how your event marketing can be effective without them:

Target Audience

Hackathons are a fantastic educational and community building tool. For this to be true, they have to be a welcoming, friendly and inclusive environment. And organisers try very hard to make their events more welcoming. Sometimes the community does something horrific and there are unfortunate incidents at tech events. Diversity and inclusivity in tech is a widely discussed topic, and I’m not going to dwell on the problems here, but I will say that titles and grandiose claims are intimidating and scare potential attendees. If your event is shouting loudly about being The Best and Most Epic event Ever in the History of Tech, then new or inexperienced people are going to pause before signing up and wonder if they’re good enough. This reduces the inclusivity and thus diversity of your event.

Equally, there may be issues with the tickets you do sell. Are people who are drawn to your event because it’s claiming to be the first and biggest coming for the right reasons? Are they coming because they love tech, they love helping others learn, they love doing and making cool stuff…or are they coming because they want to be able to share your snazzy title with prospective future employers? The attitude of your copy reflects the attitude of the attendees who buy into your event, which in turn will decide the atmosphere throughout.

New Organisers

Titles and claims don’t only affect attendees, they affect others looking to host their own tech events. Every time you make a claim or title about your event you are propagating the lie that they are needed for an event to be successful. This is really intimidating to those wanting to hold their first event. Schools miss out on hackathons because potential organisers think they’re not worth doing if they’re not the biggest in the area. Communities miss out on conferences because they’re not the first to cover the topic. Sometimes it can lead to ruin, with inexperienced organisers aiming too high to get that title they feel they need when they are not prepared to do an event of that scale. This leads on to:

The Title Arms Race

Ambition is admirable, if for the right reasons. The priority for events organisers should always be how do I deliver the best value and quality to my attendees and audience. This message gets distorted and lost when everyone is trying to be the best, biggest, first. You want to double the size of your event second time around, that’s cool. Is that to serve more members of the community, create more opportunities for collaboration and engagement…or is it so you can say “bigger than ever”, “biggest in region”, etc? Are you creating value, or creating hype?

Whether consciously or not, we as events hosts and organisers are actively competing against each other when we use these claims and titles. Why are we competing? We serve the same cause, to build tech communities. “Biggest” and “Firsts” don’t build tech communities: “inclusive learning experiences”, “opportunities to collaborate”, “tools to build”, these things create tech communities.

Fact checking

Another problem with these claims is that often enough, they just aren’t true. As a culture that spends an awful lot of time on Google, we seem to be remarkably bad at basic fact checking. Is your event really the biggest or the first to do what you claim? How hard have you looked? How far back have you looked? Particularly for students, it is easy to forget that hackathons are older than the student hackathon scene we enjoy today, and looking outside the bubble is hard. Many also only skim for other events making the claim; what if there was an event that has done what you claim, but didn’t feel the need to shout about it publicly? How will you check that fact?

Listing a fact which is easily shown to be untrue is not only embarrassing, it says things about your event and you as an organiser. It says that being sensational is more important than providing quality. It says you’re willing to put past events down to get a title. Fundamentally, it says your priorities to your attendees are in the wrong place. If you’ve sold an event solely on the perceived uniqueness, there’s going to be a whole lot of disappointment when it’s proven untrue. Sell your event on the value and everyone will be happier.

You don’t need Hyperbole to be Awesome

This goes back to the earlier point of using titles spreads the need to use titles. Perhaps you’re only using a title or claim on your event’s site because you think it’s needed, because when you first started this, the events you attended also did it. Now is your time to stop this cycle. You don’t need it, your event doesn’t need it. Your event will be awesome, and you know it will, and you can communicate that value without the hyperbole, without the claim. By using a title you are conveying doubt in the value of your event; that bold heading on the top of your website extolling your record breaking or uniqueness is not the most important thing you have to say about your event, and you don’t want attendees to think it is.

The unspoken side of event hosting, especially for students, is that it does help your career prospects. It’s a rare organiser who starts a hackathon or conference at their school without thinking at least once of how it will look on their resume or CV. Your event not having a sensational claim is not going to harm your chances of employment. Organising events is really hard! Employers know this, they’re going to be equally impressed that you managed to arrange and hold a successful hackathon regardless of what records it claims to break.

Convey your value: The Hacked.io example

The purpose of your website copy and promotional material is to convey the value of the event to potential attendees. It should clearly explain the benefits of the event, why they should give up their evening, day, weekend to entertain your sponsors. You’re the first to hold a hack on a ox-drawn carriage, that sounds pretty cool. Now what does it add? Why is this better than in a normal venue? Being the first to do something isn’t in itself a value add, why should it be the first thing a prospective attendee sees upon hitting your site?

You’d ship just as many tickets or get as many applications if instead of making a sensational claim, you clearly explained your value proposition. I’m willing to bet you’ll ship more. For example, check out the website for http://hacked.io. This hack was one of the biggest ever held in the UK at the time, with 500 places. The copy makes no mention of this, and in fact, is incredibly understated. There is no hyperbole, no “awesome” and “epic”. It clearly explains the value of the event; you will learn, you will build, you will share, and you’ll have a great time. I asked the organisers for some stats about how registration went.

500 tickets, in under 10 minutes.

Now, think again; do you need that claim and title?

To summarise, tech event organisers are gifted and enthusiastic. Whether it’s due to insecurity, marketing gone awry, or just peer pressure, a harmful culture of sensationalism has crept in that naturally perpetuates itself. We can stop it now, we can do better, for ourselves, for our events and most importantly our audiences.

Some readers commented that their event is competitive. This post still applies to events more focused on competition than inclusion and learning, see http://battlehack.org for a positive example. Disclaimer: I am a developer advocate at Braintree and work with the team responsible for BattleHack.


Originally published at jna.sh on January 26, 2015.

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