Industry Watch

Sparking ideas

Why for many curious minds Ignite Minneapolis is now a must-attend event

"The best audience is intelligent, well-educated and a little drunk." Alben W. Barkley, 35th Vice President of the United States

Earlier this year, volunteer organizer Patrick Kuntz searched around for pithy quotes, such as the above, to embellish the free-beer coupons he'd designed for Ignite Minneapolis. The coupons drew chuckles from the May event's 400-plus attendees, who paid $10 each to enjoy extempore spiels on subjects ranging from energy vampires to viral marketing.

Since the original Ignite event in Seattle in 2006, volunteers such as Kuntz have launched 50-plus local versions around the world. Kuntz founded the Minneapolis version in 2009 after watching a live online Ignite event from Boulder, Colo. He liked its structure: People sharing their passions and ideas, or simply telling their stories, in front of a live audience, in five minutes, with the help of 20 slides that auto-advance every 15 seconds.

By day, Kuntz is a web developer and designer for Allianz Life Insurance in Golden Valley. But along with his fellow volunteers, he's put significant time and effort into developing Ignite Minneapolis. In addition to the logistical work of organizing a large event, they maintain a website, an organic email list, and a group of loyal Twitter followers.

Such efforts have encouraged a steadily growing number of attendees and presentation submissions. The event received 35 submissions in 2009, 71 last year, and nearly 100 earlier this year. In response, Kuntz is planning a second event for November, making Ignite Minneapolis a biannual affair for the first time.

As with other Ignites, the one in Minneapolis is not about advertising or making a sales pitch. Instead, says Kuntz, it's about letting loose your creativity. Whether you sink or swim while delivering your talk at Ignite, you can be certain that the audience will root for you because it's a collective experience that engages, entertains, and educates, he says. Attendees appreciate new ideas and perspectives.

For Heather Munro, a Minneapolis-based copywriter and volunteer photographer for the event, Ignite Minneapolis "captures the zeitgeist of our times." It's a free market of ideas that are not part of the mainstream discourse but provide a glimpse of what's to come. She considers the event a "growth experience" and says it renews her "faith in people's intellectual curiosity  especially in this age of short attention spans."

To Mykl Roventine, a former Ignite speaker who now helps with the selection of speakers, the beauty of the event lies in its challenging format, its variety, and the unique voice of the participants, who are chosen for their originality and creative fire. His 2009 presentation, "When Good People Pick Bad Fonts," has more than 28,000 views on YouTube. "I'm a font snob," chuckles the freelance web designer from Robbinsdale, describing the reasons for his tirade against a particular font in his talk. (Some might argue that a presentation suggesting people need design help is a subtle form of marketing for a designer, but Roventine swears he wasn't thinking about marketing himself.)

Streamed live on the Internet, Ignite Minneapolis has attracted a number of sponsors (disclaimer: including this magazine) interested in leveraging online buzz and reaching an urban, influential audience that tends to be well-heeled, techsavvy, and between the ages of 21 and 40. Sponsors cannot influence the selection of speakers or topics, but they have various opportunities to show their brand's personality  including via short and amusing videos between talks.

Events such as Ignite reflect a buzz-generating participatory culture, says Henry Jenkins, an author and media scholar at the University of Southern California. "This is a very different mode of engaging audiences," he notes. Today's consumers still like product information and engagement with a brand, he says, but not in the traditional way, which is why they tend to zap through TV commercials that are merely projected at them. Many marketers thus prefer to have brands become participants in the social media landscape, or in hybrid spaces (such as Ignite) that are local and embedded in personal experience and shared knowledge. Ignite events, he says, are "partially a civic and partially a marketing device." They show support for community processes while helping local businesses create awareness around their brands.

While the sponsors help support the event, Kuntz and his friends are not making money off of it. "It's a labor of love," he says. He isn't sure he wants to form a nonprofit agency to run the show. It's too much paperwork, he says. So far, he's used his web design firm, 612 Interactive, to organize it.

He can't recall deriving any direct benefits from the event, except that a lot of people have come to know him, and maybe it has helped him hone his event planning skills. Regarding the latter, he's learned to rely on social media and organic email marketing to get the message out. For the first Ignite Minneapolis event, he gave away 350 free tickets and ended up with about 500 attendees. He's also learned that volunteers should be trusted and not micromanaged, to get the best out of them.

The greatest lesson Kuntz has learned? Make sure the bar isn't too close to the stage. "We've found people's level of obnoxious noisiness will increase in direct proportion to their proximity to the beer supply."

Some of our favorite Ignite Minneapolis presentations:

"Viral Sucks" By Craig Key, associate media director at Space 150
"Make Mistakes" By Greg Flanagan, director of operations at The Mill
"Why Making Matters" By AnnMarie Thomas, engineering professor at the University of St. Thomas
Find these and others at youtube.com/ignitempls.

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