The Spark Camp Playbook

Part 1: Creating A Network

Spark Camp’s Cofounders (from left): Andrew Pergam, Amy Webb, Matt Thompson and Amanda Michel.

Note: This is a seven-part series from the founders of Spark Camp for anyone who enjoys throwing events or aspires to do so, and everyone wants to explore different approaches to bringing people together, whether for a meetup, conference, or party.

For the past five years, we’ve crafted an event series we think is somewhat unusual for the quality of the connections and insights it produces for participants. We published our reflections on what we’d learned back in 2013. Since then, we’ve experimented a lot, and learned countless more lessons along the way. So we wanted to produce a guide describing exactly what it is we do, how those practices have evolved over time, why they’ve developed that way, and where we think they still need refinement. In each posting, we’ll take you into a different part of our process.

Part 1: Creating A Network

One of the most frequent (and gratifying) comments we hear about our Spark Camp events is some variation on this: “I don’t know how you did it, but somehow, you managed to assemble what feels like the perfect group of people for this event!” So here’s how we do it.

What we’re aiming for:

A “productively diverse” group. We strive for diversity across a number of dimensions. Some of those are dimensions every event organizer considers (or should): gender, race and ethnicity, age, income level. Given that our events are always focused on a particular theme, such as “giving” or “vision, leadership, and management,” we also strive for a diversity of professional relationships to the topic, considering things like expertise and experience level, background, and employers.

“Sparkliness.” We’ve defined this quality as a mix of curiosity, humility, and generosity. Our events tend to involve a good amount of improv, so we need participants who will be collaborative, won’t dominate conversations, and don’t require us to spell out exactly what’s going to happen.

A critical mass of alumni, but not too many. We find that having some known “sparkly” folks at the event who have some familiarity with our process and our quirks helps to cultivate the spirit that makes the event warm and enjoyable for all. Having too many alumni, on the other hand, risks making the event a bit too clubby and unfriendly to newcomers.

Our process:

Step one: Create an “attendee matrix.” Once we’ve settled on the theme for an event, we construct an ideal breakdown of eventual attendees. We take the number of people we aim to include, and divvy that ideal number into a broad matrix. The purpose of creating the matrix isn’t really to set quotas for different types of attendees; the ultimate makeup of the event is unlikely to be the precise breakdown we specify at this stage. What this forces us to do is be both deliberate and creative about the mix of attendees before we start discussing individual prospects.

Matrix for our sixth event, Spark Camp :: Visionaries, Leaders, and Managers
Matrix for our news industry-focused Newsroom Summit on Leadership and Management

Step two: Prep the communication calendar. Once an event date is booked, we know we have a precise calendar to follow to make sure we can get people there. We have target dates for the first round of invitations to go out, and for the invitation process to be complete. We know when follow-up emails need to be sent, or by what date we need to have food requirements tallied so we can convey those to caterers. That calendar dictates the process that follows.

Step three: Research and solicit names of people to invite. Matrix in hand, we set about researching as many prospective invitees as we can. We set up a form for people to nominate themselves, and promote that form through our various lists and networks.

A call for nominations before Spark Camp :: Visionaries, Leaders, and Managers
The nomination form for the same event

We make sure to hit up alumni for recommendations of people they know who’d be good additions to the event. And we do a lot of research — holding in-person conversations with practitioners in relevant industries, trawling through social networks, and doing copious Googling, podcast listening, video watching, and article-reading. We’re not necessarily seeking “newsmakers” or “influentials” or anything that might show up on a Klout score. What we want to find are fascinating projects, developments we’re curious about, and thoughtful perspectives, and we’ll go to great lengths to find the people behind them. Everyone we find — usually many times more names than we’ll ultimately invite — gets pulled into one big spreadsheet.

Many people we know who would be great participants will not get invitations, purely because we limit the number of attendees, so we typically recuse ourselves from nominating or voting on individuals we work with or serve on boards with. This is tough! And often awkward! Our day-to-day colleagues are terrific people, and we each secretly cheer when one of the other organizers nominates one of them. But we find it important not to stack the decks with our colleagues in order to create a more balanced group.

Step four: Vote! Invitations to a Spark Camp get sent after a round of voting. Each of the four of us gets a certain number of votes per round, which we can allocate however we’d like.

Voting form for a Spark Camp. Names, titles and other information are all invented.

The bottom of our voting screen shows a running tally of how many votes you have left. After you’ve made your selections, hitting the “Vote” button will take you to a page where you can see the aggregated votes for that round.

Results of the first-round vote. Names, titles and other information are all invented.

After each of us votes, we’re taken to a rundown of every nominee who received at least one vote from one of the organizers. This allows us to see a demographic breakdown of everyone we voted for and all vote recipients, so we can each have a sense of how our individual voting patterns are contributing to the racial/ethnic and gender diversity of the event.

It’s important for us to note that although we’ve developed an app to accommodate our process, we started out doing this with plain old Google Spreadsheets, so anyone can accomplish the same thing without fancy tech.

Step five: Adjust votes and research additional potential invitees. A voting round isn’t “over” until invites are sent. Before that happens, we convene for a call to discuss the results of the vote (“Does anyone else feel like we’ve got an unusually large contingent of folks from the papercraft sector?”) and make adjustments to our individual votes if necessary (“Yeah, you’re right. I’m going to shift some of my votes away from a few of the scrapbookers I was pulling for”). We also typically go back and research more potential invitees at this point. Those new prospects are vetted just as thoroughly, and the same voting system determines who’s invited.

Step six: Prepare the invitee list. The top vote-getters (by whatever threshold we determine) will all get invites to the event … if we have email addresses for them. Usually we have no trouble securing email addresses for at least 75 percent of our would-be invitees, but there’s always an elusive faction, and we’ll try to track down their information however we can, up to and including calling the companies they work for to solicit an email address.

Our rule of thumb is that about 50 percent of the people we invite in the first round of invitations will end up saying yes, and that acceptance rate will go down in each subsequent round, as we search for increasingly-more-elusive needles in various demographic and psychographic haystacks. Alumni are also more likely to immediately confirm upon receiving an invite, so as later rounds of invites go out to new folks, our response rate declines accordingly. So the first round of invites usually includes at least as many invitations as there are attendee slots, and sometimes it’s 150 percent of that number. If there are 70 spots, for example, we might invite 100 people, expecting about 50 of them to say yes, and leaving another 20 spots available to ensure a well-balanced group.

We vote on and invite attendees in rounds to ensure we can continue shaping the composition of the event as people RSVP. The results of the first round of confirmations, in our experience, will almost always reveal that some demographic groups among our invitees have accepted at a lower rate than others. We usually find, for example, that women and people of color are slightly likelier to respond that they can’t make it. Keeping this in mind allows us to over-index on those invitees at the start of the process, and adjust later rounds of invites to balance the final group. One thing that definitely doesn’t work is expecting that a diverse group of invitees will yield a diverse group of attendees. Achieving a true variety of backgrounds and perspectives requires work and planning, and we’ve found that putting in that extra work increases the quality and variety of the final group in many ways that go beyond racial and gender diversity.

Step seven: Prepare the invites. Our mailings have a pretty big job to do. Because our events are pretty small (none has been larger than 150 people) and are usually invite-only, our invitees often have no idea who we are. So our invitation email has to serve as a friendly, brief, compelling intro to who we are and why the invitee should attend. First-time invitees aren’t going to read anything over-long or anything that stuffs vital information behind a hyperlink. We try to give that invitation email a careful edit for content and tone.

Step eight: Send the invites! When we hit the magical button, our voting and nomination app exports our list of attendees to Mailchimp, at which point we may discover a few issues with the list. (Perhaps one of the email addresses has an errant space in it, for example.) We’ll correct those errors, update Mailchimp, and then press send. RSVPs — yeses, nos, and maybes — typically start rolling in within a few hours, as well as inquiries about the event. Each invitation comes with an RSVP deadline, after which would-be registrants are put on a waitlist, so we can reach out to them if a slot becomes available.

The early Spark Camps taught us that attendees are most communicative right when they register and then again when they’re on their way to the event. In between those two moments, it can be tough getting ahold of folks to ask about things like dietary preferences. The more we can anticipate our attendees’ needs, knowing things like food allergies and dietary restrictions and preferences, the more likely they are to feel comfortable and settled at the event, rather than — for example — having to be constantly vigilant about finding food they can eat. New registrants should have all the information necessary to start planning for the event right away, and we take pains to convey to registrants that RSVPing yes is only the first thing we need from them before the actual event date. The moment you register, you’re shown the hotel discount code and hotel booking deadline; the dates for the event, including beginning and ending times so you can arrange travel; and forms to submit dietary needs, headshots, and bio details.

Step nine: Send follow-up emails. Because many of our invites go to strangers, we find a personal touch is helpful in getting a decent response rate. Before we send invites, each of us claims a number of one-on-one contacts from the invitee list. Within a day of the initial invitation email, we’ll each send a short personal note to any of the contacts who haven’t yet responded, often with a little more information on how we found them and why we think they’d find the event valuable. Very often, these personal emails manage to hook folks who would otherwise have lost our invitation in a spam filter or trash bin.

As the RSVP deadline approaches, we send a couple follow-up emails to anyone who hasn’t responded or opened the invitation, including a “last chance!” email the day before the deadline itself. Most of the attendees from the round have already registered by this point, but these follow-ups often yield some wonderful stragglers.

Step ten: Go back to step three, and repeat from there. As the RSVP deadline for round one draws to a close, we’ll know what types of attendees we’re missing. So we’ll do another round of nominations, votes, and invitations with those characteristics in mind. We’ll do this again and again in smaller and smaller rounds, usually about three or four times, until the attendee roster is full.

What we’ve found:

Individual feedback from each of Spark Camp’s cofounders

The good.

  • This process is optimized to find a particular type of person, although we didn’t discover that until we’d done it a few times. Because we keep a relatively low profile and are usually mysterious to new invitees, that means the people who accept the invitation tend to be naturally curious. They’re the type of folks who are comfortable with a leap of faith. Because we make such a point of crafting diverse attendee lists, the process selects against egotistical careerists who have a very particular idea of the people they need to meet and impress. So that tends to net us people who are remarkably generous with their thoughts and attitudes. The diligence of the process itself, though, is probably what yields the fantastic outcomes. (Matt Thompson)
  • We don’t recycle attendee lists from other events. And we don’t drop in names on the basis of a press mention. It’s really satisfying to discover people, especially those who are really behind a great product or organization. We’ve also come to realize that our attendees love a great surprise, too. We’re often thanked for introducing people to each other who might never have met. (Amanda Michel)
  • We have become very good at surfacing what I like to call the “unusual suspects.” People who are tremendously interesting, generous and insightful, but who aren’t typically on various conference stages. It takes a significant amount of elbow grease — and time. The process of curating a great Spark Camp list of invitees can last a few months, but it’s a period of happy productivity for us as we learn about so many new people, their ideas and their work. (Amy Webb)
  • Starting from scratch means we have an opportunity to avoid some of the repetition you might see in guest lists from other conferences. We’re explicit about finding people who are not out to sell themselves or their services, and being upfront about that early helps people realize that this isn’t “that type” of conference. (Andrew Pergam)

The challenges.

  • As much research as we do, we can’t know what type of Camper a person will be until they arrive, of course. So we can’t say honestly that every person at each event is 100 percent, er, “sparkly.” We do, though, have a remarkably high hit rate. (Matt Thompson)
  • There’s always some attrition a week or two before a Spark Camp. That’s to be expected, of course. But, in our case, the effect can be massive. In the week leading up to Spark Camp :: Money, everyone who dropped out happened to work in the advertising industry. So many Camp attendees asked us why we hadn’t included the advertising sector! We wish it weren’t the case but our attrition is more female than male. So, we’ve learned to invite even more women to ensure a balanced group. Last-minute drops happen too late for us to research and invite another great guest. (Amanda Michel)
  • We are asking our attendees to take a leap of faith — to spend 3.5 days at an event about which they’re intentionally given very little information. We don’t offer a program or agenda, and we don’t share the list of attendees until just before the start of a Camp. This has made it a challenge to convince some of our invitees to join us. Some people find our process intriguing, but others find it off-putting. Those who willingly take the leap with us tend to have a transformative experience at Camp. Curiosity is one of our core values, after all. (Amy Webb)
  • There’s a careful balance between curated and exclusive, and we take that very seriously. We give everyone careful consideration. At the end of the day, we believe it’s really important that there be a mix of diverse voices at the table; those who do attend reflect those values and are expected to carry those conversations on to broader groups. (Andrew Pergam)

Ideas and questions.

  • At an early Spark Camp we thought we’d halve our workload by offering attendees the chance to bring a +1. We asked our alum to play matchmaker and connect us with someone fabulous they knew who was also ideal for that particular Spark Camp. Fewer people took us up on the offer than expected. Some people used the +1 as a chance to catch up with a former colleague or friend. Not everyone carefully considered the topic when selecting their invitee. What we didn’t anticipate was how the +1 affected the at-Camp dynamic. We had inadvertently created a buddy system that persisted for all of Camp. People stayed close to their buddies instead of interacting with other attendees. (Amanda Michel)
  • One question I have going forward — more of a curiosity, really–-is whether our process of intense research and curation can be replicated by software. Our events are immensely satisfying because of the people who generously give up their time and ideas. Could a computer system do as good a job surfacing, researching and curating groups of people? (Amy Webb)
  • I’m always wondering whether we’ve cast our net wide enough; it’s nearly a full-time job for someone to be scanning the universe of possible invitees. The farther afield, the better, we’ve found. Thinking about how we continue to uncover those gems — and ensure those invitees are aware of Spark Camp and up for the adventure — is also something we continue to evolve. (Andrew Pergam)

Spark Camp is a 501(c)(3) organization that brings extraordinary people together to discuss challenging topics confronting society. Spark Camp’s cofounders are Andrew Pergam, Amy Webb, Amanda Michel and Matt Thompson.