Seven tips for running a successful web workshop

Being in the fast moving world of the web is fantastic but it can be a real challenge to keep your skillset up-to-date. That’s why I believe the current trend for running web workshops is so valuable to our industry and, with a little bit of know-how, you can run on your very own event for the benefit of those in your local web community and beyond.

Prior to November 2012, running a workshop wasn't an idea I’d ever considered. I’d never hosted a conference or run any type of event. When the opportunity came to run a CSS3 Workshop with internationally published author, speaker, trainer and consultant Estelle Weyl, I just couldn’t say no.

I’m glad to say that, on the day, the workshop was a great success. However, in the build up to the event I found myself having to make decisions about things that I had little or no prior experience of. Therefore, I’d like to share some of my experiences with you in the hope that it will help you to run your very own successful workshops.

1. Find a top workshop leader/speaker

I cannot stress enough that an expert workshop leader is worth their weight in gold. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how good the venue is - or how many free beers you put on after the event - if the person leading the workshop isn’t up to the job then the day will be unsuccessful.

An experienced workshop leader will provide you with a high standard of presentation and, as this is probably your first event, you'll need someone who is experienced enough to help carry the day forward without needing you to hold their hand.

So how do you find and then attract a top speaker to your event? My top tip is to do a lot of networking. Social media is a great place to start. You probably already follow the top people in your field, so just keep an eye on their movements. Are they in your country already? Are they actively seeking speaking opportunities? Have they already got other speaking gigs near you? All these things can help you pick the individuals who will be most receptive to your enquiries.

Once you’ve identified a few targets, contact them directly. Make sure you take the time to pen a well written, personalised email (do not send out a stock “invite”, you are not SXSW!). Be sure to outline your event and detail exactly why you feel they would be the perfect workshop leader. Also be sure to mention money - it always helps!

Hopefully your chosen individual will respond and let you know where you stand. If they can’t help, then ask them to introduce you to another suitable candidate. Keep doing this and you should soon find the person who is right to lead your workshop.

2. Gauge interest early

Once you’ve got your speaker provisionally lined up, it’s time to check whether your potential audience is interested in attending the event. There’s nothing worse than finding no one is interested in attending, or it’s the day of a major festival and everyone is out of town. Getting an idea of potential attendee numbers is vitally important as it allows you to extrapolate all the other information you need to set up the event.

So, how do you go about this without expending too much time and effort? My advice would be to set up a simple web form (Google Forms or Wufoo are quick and simple options) and start distributing the link over all your marketing channels. For me this was Twitter, LinkedIn and several industry contacts who were kind enough to help me spread the word. Be sure to capture email address so that you can promote the event to your network if and when it goes ahead.

3. Pick the right venue

Your workshop venue is where your attendees will spend the whole day so it’s important it’s up to scratch. Depending on the type of event you’ll want to check with your venue if they:

  • Have a dedicated conference suite. This indicates they have experience of running events
  • Can accommodate your maximum estimated attendees. How much variation can they provide for?
  • Provide unlimited Wifi - is it reliable and high speed?
  • Have a large modern projector/television and all suitable connections
  • Provide refreshments and/or food for attendees during the day

Other matters to consider when choosing a venue are:

  • A central location is often best but can be expensive. Are there good transport links? Is it easy to find?
  • Ambiance and suitability - consider if will your attendees will feel comfortable at your venue
  • Cost - the bottom line is important. Get a range of quotes and be sure to ask what can be added/removed in order to get the package that’s best for your event
  • Troubleshooting - can they provide a dedicated member of staff to be on hand during the day to help resolve any issues that may occur?

Obviously check your costs vs likely numbers and don’t be afraid to shop and around and negotiate. Most venues are used to competing and will be authorised to provide a degree of discount on rates especially at off-peak times.

4. Plan your finances and pricing

There’s no doubt about it running a workshop can be expensive - at least initially - as it requires a lot of upfront investment. I was lucky enough to have financial backing from my employer Burfield, but not everyone will have this luxury.

One of the most important points is cashflow. Ensure you decide in advance how you are going to take your attendees money. Many people assume you can just “use PayPal” which, of course, you can. However it’s important to be aware that in order to protect themselves, many payment providers will withhold your funds for 2-3 weeks after the event has finished. This leaves you having to fill a large void in your finances and can lead to you being dangerously exposed.

For smaller events, consider invoicing directly and taking payments via bank transfer. This will allow you instant access to funds although it can be tricky to administer. If this isn’t an option, try finding a sponsor who may be able to help you cover the financial shortfall you will experience whilst you wait for your funds to clear.

Ticket pricing is also important. Too high and you alienate your attendees, too low and you won’t cover your costs. Do your research. Check out what other similar events charge in your region and also be sure to ask the speaker for their advice as they will be able to offer information on costs for previous events they have spoken at.

'Early Bird' type ticket rates are a good way to encourage early adoption and, if things are really tight, you can help to cover the cost of these discounts by charging slightly more for your main tickets. After all, the early bird catches the worm!

5. Choose your dates wisely (aka 'check out the competition')

One of the biggest mistakes I made while planning my workshop was failing to check which other events were happening during the same period.

Having set a date for our workshop we later discovered that we were in direct competition with one of the UK's biggest frontend development conferences in the South West, Full Frontal. Understandably, this didn't help our efforts to sell tickets! A little bit of research would have allowed us to time our event to avoid this issue.

Also make sure you consider the time of year you are running your workshop. Running an event immediately before or after a major public holiday or festival (eg Christmas) may see you struggling to meet ticket prices, as potential attendees will be strapped for cash. Similarly, don’t time your event to coincide with major sporting or political events. It sounds obvious but believe me it’s easy to forget.

6. Have a marketing strategy

Don't assume your personal network and social media channels will fulfil the marketing and promotional needs of your event. Put a clear plan in place early on and decide exactly what avenues you have available to you to help you promote and market.

Some things to consider are:

  • Do you need a dedicated website? Who will build or pay for this? Who will maintain it?
  • Which social media channels will you target? Who is responsible for maintaining momentum and how will you measure success rates?
  • Direct marketing - will you consider some cold calling to potential attendees to help drum up interest?
  • Can you involve your local (web) community? Which digital groups and organisations can you contact to help spread the word about your event?
  • Clients/industry contacts - if you have influential contacts within the business be sure to ask them if they would consider helping you promote the event. Similarly, if you have clients within the industry there’s no harm in asking them for a tweet or a post on Linkedin
  • Ask your speaker to help with promotion. After all, it’s in their interests to help ensure the event is a success

There are many other potential marketing avenues to explore, so it’s important to put a plan in place and assign responsibilities early on to ensure your event gains the necessary exposure to make it a success.

7. Don’t underestimate!

Finally, and despite what I said at the beginning of this article, the most important thing I learned from running a workshop was the sheer the amount of time and effort involved in putting everything together.

One of my biggest mistakes was to try and organise, plan, market and run my event all within one month. This was a poor decision. I simply didn’t allow myself sufficient time to complete the tasks required. Indeed, without a solid support team I may have been overwhelmed by the amount of work involved.

I would advise allowing a minimum of three months to setup and organise any event. This provides sufficient time for you to properly plan and ensure your event is fully attended. Anything less than this and you’re likely to get yourself into trouble.

Would I do it again?

Overall, running a web design workshop was one of the best experiences I’ve had in my career so far and I would highly recommend it to anyone who has the passion and motivation necessary to see it through. However, I would encourage you to heed the lessons above in order to prevent some potential pitfalls and headaches that can arise when running your own successful web workshop.

Words: David Smith

Dave Smith is front end designer based near the beautiful city of Bath, UK. When he’s not working on new and exciting web projects he can be found playing the trumpet in everything from Big Band jazz groups to Symphony orchestras. You can catch up with Dave on Twitter as @get_dave.

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