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Design an Insanely Memorable Conference: From Branding to Signage (And Every Detail in Between)

Attendees from last year’s Call to Action Conference

From busy trade show floors to professionally-lit celebrity panels, it seems every marketing brand wants a South by Southwest-style event all their own these days.

But, with so many conferences for your target market to choose from, it’s risky running a large-scale event as a mid-sized brand. It’s the ultimate faux pas to host a forgettable, generic conference, so how can you stand out from the rest and leave attendees smitten?

At Unbounce, we’ve learned that a good conference is a designed experience: your attendees need to feel the effort that went into the event with every single detail. With Call to Action Conference, we work for months to book unparalleled experts and ensure quality talks. But, as an interactive designer here at Unbounce, I’ve learned that the visual branding of your conference, from the typeface to the venue’s wayfinding is just as important. 

This year I’m responsible for CTAConf’s branding and can share that part of our event’s strategy is to stand out. We want you to remember exactly where you were when you heard remarkable speakers on our stage, built important relationships at our after parties and received valuable insights (not to mention cool swag).

In this post I’ll share a behind-the-scenes look at our 2017 branding, and 5 design tips to ensure every event your brand hosts is unforgettable.

CTAConf 2016

1. When branding your conference, prep a solid pitch

To meet our goals this year, our team decided we wanted to create a new image for our event based on last year’s feedback and key learnings. Ultimately, we want to:

  • Increase brand awareness: It’s essential people remember the conference’s name and associate it with us.
  • Deliver a stunning 360 experience: We want to offer an online and offline cohesive experience for our attendees from touchpoint A to Z. Everything should feel integrated.
  • Use resources wisely: We’ve got a large marketing team, and we need to optimize the use of our internal resources to balance time, effort and impact.

If you’ve run an event before and have decided on developing a new visual look (or you’re running your first in-person event), I find it’s useful to start by reviewing last year’s learnings and/or your upcoming conference goals. This review puts everyone on the same page for understanding the reasoning behind your future design choices.

Once you have your art direction concepts ready to present it’s all about how you sell the story of your vision to your key stakeholders internally. People can’t evaluate a design without knowing its intention, so as a designer—or a marketer working with a designer—ensure you use a kickoff meeting to guide your stakeholders with storytelling and a proper visual presentation.

Here’s an example of the presentation I gave to our internal stakeholders around my proposed brand concepts for this year. In this deck I painted a clear picture for everything from concept development to moodboards to an exploration of the Instagram ads:

Pitch deck
Stakeholders pitch deck.

By sharing the rationale behind each concept and putting together some quick explorations I was able to clearly explain my choices. This helped to generate internal buy in for our refreshed look.

This year’s Call to Action Conference is a designed experience you don’t want to miss (and you don’t have to!). You’ve found the blog readers 15% discount — use the code “Blogsentme” at the checkout from May 8 to 12 to join 1,300 of your marketing peers.

When running your branding kickoff, you’ll want to include all stakeholders who have input or final say in the conference’s look and feel. It’s best to get the majority of feedback at the beginning of your design process instead of during execution.

Also, use real content instead of lorem ipsum in the quick explorations of your design. Presenting banners, posters or landing pages with actual words forces you to explore the branding further and will help you present stronger ideas.

2. Details matter: Build a consistent experience

Perfect execution of the visual design for an event falls on the shoulders of the designer, so you’ll want to define the brand guidelines of your conference early and apply these guidelines across every asset. Using a grid system, and agreed upon typography, colors, photographic and graphic styles will help you maintain visual consistency and you’ll increase the learnability of your brand.

Here’s a look at how we planned our consistent visual treatments this year:

Visual treatments
Example of Illustrations and photograph treatment

As you can see, every single detail counts — from the napkins at the snack bar to the precise measurements of the screen on the stage. As we’ve found, if you don’t pay attention to details, your audience will. To catch inconsistencies that don’t make complete sense, we’ve found it helpful to invite people from other teams to review our design and confirm:

  • Is the message clear?
  • Is every asset pixel perfect, with no spelling errors? (When printing massive banners and expensive materials, you can’t afford mistakes.)
  • Is every photograph, illustration and logo in high resolution?
  • Does every asset feel part of the same universe?

When your running an event, start with a massive list of all possible design needs and go from there. Invite people from many different departments who think differently to review and refine.

You’ll often find there are (literally) hundreds of tasks you or your designer needs to work on, so instead of cutting things from the to-do list as you get closer to the event, sacrificing your vision, plan ahead with these design recommendations:

Develop a clear brand guideline document

This offers internal and external direction should other designers or teams need to jump into the project and ensures a cohesive look no matter who helps with design work.

Brand guidelines for CTAConf
Example of logo, typography and color palette guidelines

Create a Creative Cloud asset library

This provides an easy-to-follow, organized structure for files and folders. The libraries are available in every design app and you can even use them when you’re offline.

Asset Library

Use artboards and smart objects in your Photoshop files

Using social channel banners as an example here, having individual artboards for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn all in the same document speeds up your workflow. These artboards facilitate fast content replication, ensure cohesive design across platforms and speed up the export process. As a marketer or designer, you only have to modify your smart objects to quickly create completely new banners where needed.

Smart objects

3. Consider online and offline for every attendee touch point

Event organizers and designers must work together to craft an educational and emotional narrative before, during and after the event. This begins online with the conference’s website, landing pages, app and social channels but extends to offline curation: posters, venue wayfinding and swag items.

To plan exciting journeys through physical spaces at your conference venue, you need to jump into your attendees shoes — but also those of the speakers, media, sponsors and staff. This will help you think of every single touchpoint you need to design for, both online and offline. What are the main tasks attendees want to achieve? And how does each step enable someone to get to the next one?

Here are two examples of user journeys we’ve designed this year:

Online:

online journey

Offline:

offline journey

Besides a better understanding of your attendees needs, this 360 approach also indicates where every design element needs to be located and how individual elements can work together in a larger ecosystem.

For this year’s online experience pre-event, we’re promoting CTAConf in our regular owned channels including our website, monthly newsletter, social accounts and blog, but we’re also trying exciting new approaches you can experiment with for your events too. Here are a few we think are especially cool:

  • Lead gen, traffic shaping and rev gen Convertables – we’ve designed overlays to appear on various pages of our site to increase tickets sales and redirect traffic to our conference site.
Convertables
Want to try overlays on your own site? Overlays are modal lightboxes that launch within a webpage and focus attention on a single offer. Learn more here.
  • Personalized banners for all social media channels. These branded banners appear in Unbouncer Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn profiles to help promote the event and link to the conference’s homepage.
social banners
  • CTAConf viewfinders and personalized letters. Recently we sent VIP media invitations out with these custom retro viewfinders. Each wheel contains photos that tell a story from last year so potential attendees can get a sense of what’s just around the corner.
CTAConf Viewfinder

4. Make info prominent to strengthen conference awareness

It’s critical to remind attendees what event they’re attending — verbally and visually.

In our case, it’s tricky because our company’s name is not included in our conference’s name — so many people have called the event the “Unbounce conference.” We want to minimize that awareness gap, which is why this year’s visuals reinforce our conference name (yes, those big letters you might have seen on our emails, banners, landing pages or in our our social channels).

Email banner
Here’s an email banner example.

As a conference planner, look for ways to use all design real estate to communicate key info around the event. When is it? Where is it? Who’s organizing? As obvious as it might sound, always include your company and conference’s logos because this is the only way people will begin associating them together. You want these two things to be synonymous.

Finally, look for ways to ensure all the conference details are clear. Make the session titles, speakers, times and locations very prominent, accessible from multiple locations and keep them up-to-date.

5. Integrate design in your event strategy from the start

Designers are a key part of conference creation, so it’s best to involve us early, often, and continuously instead of turning to us as asset generators on a whim. Involve designers from day one to discuss the message and feeling you need to convey with your event. Additionally, ensure designers feel free to explore new ideas for accomplishing goals.

A key part of a successful collaboration is feedback and how it’s delivered so create a process that works for both parties and stick to it as this will strengthen your communication and boost the quality of your work.

As an example, in early designs of our conference, name badges were focused on communicating the attendee’s category (speaker, sponsor or attendee). This was a communicated requirement, but we realized it’s way more important to facilitate personalized conversation at an event, so for the next round of name badges we made everyone’s name prominent and legible. As simple as this example sounds, it illustrates the importance of focusing on the function of assets rather than just the visual.

Overall, avoid telling a designer exactly how to design, but instead, communicate the key goals of an asset.

Tip: Consider gathering feedback from your attendees, too. Gathering instant feedback is a great opportunity to continuously improve your conference design and branding. This year we’re going to run concise face-to-face surveys to dig deeper and understand which design aspects worked or what could be improved. We’ll ask questions like: What was memorable about this year’s design? Was anything unclear or confusing? What was your favorite piece of swag?

Don’t miss this incredible experience

Overall, designing a conference for 1,300 attendees is not an easy task, but when you see every detail connecting to create a delightful experience, it’s totally worth it. Hopefully my tips have inspired you to design your very own large-scale event and pay careful attention to opportunities you have as a host.

As I mentioned, this year’s CTAConf is truly a 360 experience, and you you’ll want to see it with your own eyes. You can join us and your marketing peers on June 25th – June 27th in beautiful Vancouver, Canada. It’s going to be full of exciting takeaways and well-planned surprises. Hope to see you there.

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