It’s Time to Ditch WordCamp Tracks (and What to Do Instead)

This is post 3 of 3 in the series “WordCamp Organizing”

I was the Speaker Team co-lead for WordCamp Seattle 2017. I’m really proud of the work we did, and the conference went fabulously. I want to share some reflections, ideas, and processes that helped us.

WordCamps often use “tracks” to categorize the sessions on the schedule. These are well-intentioned and work for some folks, but I’m thoroughly convinced they aren’t the best way to help attendees.

What Are Common Tracks?

“Big” WordCamps often have three sessions at a time and therefore three tracks. Probably the most common tracks are “Developer”, “Themer”, and “Blogger”, though you can find all sorts of variations. You might see “Beginner”, “Intermediate”, or “Advanced”, tracks. Business tracks are fairly common too. In 2015, Seattle even experimented with “tracked” WordCamps, holding separate Beginner and “Experienced” conferences. Here’s an example of one WordCamp schedule that uses tracks. (It’s one of dozens, so this isn’t to single them out!)

The idea is that labeling sessions (or events) helps attendees find the most-appropriate track for them. I just don’t think it does.

The Problems with Tracks

There are a few major problems with tracks. Let’s go through these one-by-one.

1. People are Bad at Self Identifying Tracks

Ask people if they’re a beginner or advanced WordPress user and you’ll get wildly inconsistent answers. Ask people how they use WordPress and you’ll get 20 answers from 10 people. In the annual WordPress survey, I usually end up clicking just about every single option for the “How do you use WordPress?” question.

I’m a blogger. I’m a designer. I’m a themer. I’m a plugin developer. I’m a contributor. I’m an educator. I’m a meetup and WordCamp organizer (sometimes). I’m a business owner. I build sites for other people. I maintain my own sites.

Simply put, my interests and skills don’t fit into a neat category and nobody else’s does either. Developers need to know about social media. Designers should see the code so that implements their designs. A blogger can get inspired from hearing how they might turn their hobby into a business.

It’s hard enough to come up with a good talk title that will communicate to potential attendees what they will learn and whether it’s worth their time. When a talk is preceded by a track name like “Beginner” or “Blogger”, huge assumptions follow that are as often wrong as they are right.

2. Trapping People & Splitting the Group

I know from attendee feedback and conversations that some people, once they’ve picked a track for themselves, stick with the presentations in it almost regardless of the topic or other options they have. I bet that track names that have any hint of “beginnerness” to them may also keep experienced users away from potentially interesting topics and maybe even stigmatize people who attend them.

Even without tracks, folks often don’t even read the description of a talk before attending, and tracks exacerbate this problem. While I’m sure this is unintentional, tracks can result in folks ignoring 2/3s of conference sessions as even a possibility for themselves!

WordPress is a broad and diverse community that gets stronger from cross-pollination among its members of different skillsets, jobs, identities, and viewpoints. But even if someone picks a track that’s appropriate for them and every session is interesting, they will miss out on sitting in sessions with a majority of conference attendees.

This will always be true to some extent. WordCamp’s can’t force people to interact. But tracks can severely hamper serendipitous learning and interaction opportunities.

3. Good Tracks Don’t Exist

Having helped design the schedule of many WordCamps Seattle and co-leading the speaker selection team in 2017, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to cram presentations into tracks. I can definitively tell you three things:

  1. It’s impossible that every session will fit cleanly into a small set of tracks.
  2. There are no three track labels that all attendees will understand in the same way.
  3. Starting with tracks unconsciously discounts potential sessions that are unique and cross-disciplinary.

These really are the clinchers for me. Even with WordCamp 2017, we did consider tracks—more on that in a moment—but we had more tracks than rooms and lots of in-between talks that got tracked, re-tracked, and re-re-tracked. Tracks just don’t work!

What are Tracks Good For?

With all the bad, I do want to take a brief moment to defend tracks for internal usage. The aforementioned incredibly diverse audience for a WordCamp makes it extremely hard to develop a schedule that will hold everyone’s interest. Tracks can help.

Categorizing talks behind the scenes when developing the schedule is an important check to make sure people can consistently find sessions they’re interested in throughout the conference. (Though in the platonic ideal of a WordCamp, all the talks are so interesting that there are tons of hard choices for attendees!)

When doing these internal checks, though, I find it useful not to just check against “skill” tracks like “Themer” and “Blogger”, but other speaker categories like gender, local vs. out-of-town, experienced vs. inexperienced, big names vs. less-well-known folks, etc. We were also glad we looked at low-interest vs. high-interest topics to decide what sessions when in which rooms. The more ways you can slice-and-dice a schedule and find it’s balanced, the better!

Better Way to Help WordCamp Attendees Find Sessions

So enough nay-saying! Here are some things to do!

For starters, don’t put all similar sessions in the same room. Put a “How to Select Your First WordPress Theme” session right after the “REST-API: An Enterprise Case Study” talk. Make people move. (And make sure your venue is accessible so they can!)

Forcing people to switch rooms helps promote the “hallway track” with mingling and networking, wake people up by escaping those dark presentation rooms, and keep tracks from turning into cliques. And maybe the best part of moving rooms: each person has to look at each session title to figure out where to go next. Make people refer to the schedule!

Next, help people find sessions. Since tracks are too broad and impersonal, find ways of making recommendations that are targeted to each individual. Here are two ideas I like:

  1. Put experienced outgoing volunteers at the Help Desk and registration table. Make sure they have schedules and encourage them to give session recommendations to new attendees.
  2. Publish multiple “itineraries” to the website ahead of time and link to them from the Schedule page.

The itinerary posts in particular work really great. (I get compliments every year!) They include way more than just three tracks. Since they’re not tied to rooms or scheduling, they can mention multiple talks in a session or overlap with other itineraries. There are lots of them so they are more personalized and people can easily review multiple all the ones that interest them. And itineraries still force people to reckon more with the schedule and make proactive choices about sessions to attend.

Here are all the itinerary posts I’ve written:

The WordPress Community is Gloriously Diverse. Embrace it!

I think every WordCamp organizer (myself included) who has ever added tracks to the schedule was well-intentioned and wanted to help people find the best sessions possible for them. That’s a good thing, it just turns out tracks don’t work very well for that.

Making sessions recommendations in creative ways and ditching tracks is how we can help people find even better sessions. With dozens of WordCamps a year all over the globe, we need more creative ideas! So I hope others can write on their blogs or in the comments with more  ways to engage WordCamp attendees and get the right butts in the right seats.

(I heard from one person that WordCamps have been encouraged to move away from tracks, so hopefully this post is preaching to the choir for some. I haven’t been able to find anything official written on, though, and there’s not much information about designing schedules in the WordCamp Handbook speaker section. If other people have information about this, please share!)

6 thoughts on “It’s Time to Ditch WordCamp Tracks (and What to Do Instead)”

  1. Thanks for articulating an issue I’ve experienced, without being able to say*what* the problem was and *whose* problem it was. Your generosity of spirit in writing the “Itineraries” is to be commended.

  2. Mark, as always, a great post. Interesting timing for me as I just got off a 90 minute call where I’m on the organizing team for a national conference (not WP). We were talking about tracks. I just sent them the link to read this even though it’s a cohousing conference. I think the non-track approach will better encourage cross-pollination and building of community at our conference too! Thanks.

    1. I love that this post has already escaped the world of WordPress! It seems the more diverse the audience and topics, the less tracks work. So I can totally see why that would apply to a cohousing conference. (Which sounds really interesting by the way!)

  3. I haven’t been to a Wordcamp conference yet, but find this article thoughtful and creative. I agree about the limitations of tracks and the benefit of having people move around! Yes, it will encourage more interaction but stretching out the body also helps people to absorb information better.

    Speaking of movement, I’ve always fantasized about having a room to dance for 5 minutes in between sessions, to clear my brain and wake up my sluggish body. It’s also a fun way to interact with others in a playful, creative way.

    I’m looking forward to attending one of the conferences this coming year.

    1. You’re in for a treat, then, Laura! At WordCamp Seattle we’ve had a Zumba session, and I’ve heard of other camps with walks, runs, cycles, and yoga. If that’s something you’re interested in leading, your local WordCamp will likely be thrilled to have you lead the charge on making attendees more active!

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