When Fandom Speaks, Do Trees Fall in the Forest?

A fallen tree in a forestI was contacted by a major media organization last week for information on upcoming science fiction conventions. I used to stay on top of convention listings and news because as a convention operator I needed to be sensitive to trends in the industry. But since I stopped working with conventions (and, who knows? I may do it again), I have really fallen out of the loop.

So I was quite surprised to learn two things about the health of the SF convention circuit in the United States. First, many conventions seem to be reporting declining attendance. And I mean, a LOT of them appear to be suffering from shrinking memberships. That’s not a good sign for the long-term prospects of the fan-run convention tradition.

The second thing I learned was that convention Web sites look like drug-laced holdovers from the 1960s. And we didn’t even have a World Wide Web in the 1960s.

Can SF Web design possibly get any worse? I probably shouldn’t ask, because more-than-likely it will do just that.

Conventions don’t report very good information about themselves on their Web sites. Nor do they make their sites very visible. It’s hard to find convention Web sites. You pretty much have to know the names of the conventions and/or the organizations behind them. The old resource guides aren’t helping because they are either gone or they just aren’t what they used to be.

I’ve been threatening to open a fan sites forum at SF-FANDOM for months, but have delayed doing so because our moderators don’t have the kind of experience that would help fan site operators. Well, I do, but I don’t have that much time for forum moderation. I’m already missing in action for very long periods of time. If I could find a few experienced Web site forum mods with science fiction interests, I’d be set.

Well, that’s neither here nor there. The online science fiction community has been left behind by the professional marketing community. People need to realize that even their non-profit conventions have to be operated as functioning businesses. You need to make it easy for people to find your Web site, your Web site needs to be informative, and you need to make it easy for people to contact you.

Far too many conventions offer a non-descript email address with no guarantee of response time. Folks, you need to put someone’s phone number on the Web. Rent a cell phone with voice mail on the convention’s budget if you have to, and pass it around the concom every week so each person takes some responsibility for answering phone calls.

And way too many Web sites get caught up in emphasizing the size of their staffs. You need to tell people how many attendees/registrations you have. Does that embarrass small conventions? Maybe. But you’re not fooling anyone when you say you hold your event at the Holiday Inn Suites Express Motel in beautiful downtown Nowheresville on the outskirts of MegaCityOpolis.

Attendance numbers are especially important because there are media companies out looking for conventions to work with. They want to promote their books, shows, movies, whatever.

Deadlines and advertising rates also tend to get buried in the B.S. Put all that stuff in a very simple page that is clearly and obviously linked to from your front page.

In fact, I’ve concluded that convention Web sites need to take most of the garbage off their front pages and just put up their logo and a few links to the internal pages. The rest of the front page should say, “We are WhateverCon being held in OurCity on Dates-to-Dates. Our focus is literary / media / comics / anime / costuming / roleplaying / gaming / whatever.”

That’s it.

Your front page should tell people who you are, where you are, when you do your thing, and how to click through to deeper more detailed content.

Keep all that garbage about whose parties are being held for the party page. Stuff all the guest names (including the GoH’s) on your GUESTS page. Don’t blab endlessly about who your ConCom members are — put their biographies and pictures on the Management and/or Team and/or Staff page.

Tell people how many programming tracks you’ll have. Tell people how many rooms in your facility. Tell people where secondary accomodations can be found. Tell people what restaurants and other entertainment are in the area. Tell people where you’ll be having pre-reg room parties at other conventions.

Many conventions do some of these things, few conventions do all of them.

I could have helped send some major bucks to a few conventions this week, but I decided that since I couldn’t learn enough about what they are doing and how large they are and what their focus is, there was no point mentioning them to the media company asking for my help.

Like Jerry Maguire said in the movie, “Help me to help you.” Make it easy for me to find out what I need to know the next time a Fortune 1000 company asks me how to find appropriate conventions for its big bucks publicity campaign. I’m not the only person who gets asked for help. I’m sure other people find it equally frustrating to deal with the amateurish standards of convention Web sites.

Most fan fiction sites are better designed than the majority of convention Web sites.

Most fan directory sites are better designed than the majority of convention Web sites.

Convention site operators need to stop playing around with stupid glittery animations and put the information where it needs to be.