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Reinventing

Reinventing the Online Summit

KD – Square Images-07

Written by Kelly Diels

You know those problematic Online Summits?

Here’s a non-exploitative, successful, feminist model for launching one

(while staying in alignment with your social justice principles!)

I want to introduce everyone reading to Dawn Serra, who is a sex education and speaker. Dawn is the creator of the Explore More Summit, in which she gathers thinkers and leaders in the sex-and-relationship space together, online, for a week, to speak on a particular theme.

This summit model of Dawn’s is a significant reinvention of the online summit model – and that’s a great thing, because the usual model most people encounter online, especially in female empowerment spaces, is personally exasperating and socially exploitative.

Side note:

There have been a lot of social media and blog posts explaining why this model is shaming and predatory and just plain bad marketing. Here are a few:

Jac McNeil: An Open Letter To Anyone Running Virtual Summits

Tara Gentile: Bad Marketing: Why You Should Think Twice About Hosting a Telesummit or Accepting an Invitation to Speak

Kate Courageous: Why The Telesummit Guru is Wrong

Melisa Dinwiddie: An Open Letter to Organizers of Virtual Summits

When I talked to Dawn, I was personally struck by the way she approached her own event. She specifically did NOT apply the conventional model, because it didn’t align with her feminist and social justice principles and because it did not produce the speaker and audience experience she wanted to create.

Now, while Dawn’s model and expertise is incredibly valuable, I’m not interested in pitting one model against another and saying we must now all rush to  adopt her model (although of course we can! That’s why she’s sharing it).

Instead, what I’m particularly interested in examining is the process she used to reject one model and develop a new marketing methodology and strategy.

Watching other people do that and learning that is how we lessen our dependency on experts and pre-made formulas and build personal and community capacity for reinvention and innovation in all of us culture-makers.

So that’s why I’m posting this long-ass transcript of our conversation rather than a bullet-point list of her techniques.

While her tactics are awesome, what I’m hoping we will learn from this chewy discussion is how to unlearn old models and reinvent new ones — and not just in the online summit space, but in all our marketing endeavours.

—-

Kelly Diels:     

Welcome, Dawn Serra! Today we are going to talk about the inventive online summit model you developed across two years. You’re going to walk us the creative process of how you rejected the current summit model because it was exploitative, and how you developed an alternate. You’re going to take us through the process of questioning the tactics so that we can learn how to systematically do this ourselves in our businesses, whenever we come up against marketing models with socially problematic consequences that we need to reinvent.

And what I want everyone to know is that questioning the problematic structure and deciding to do it differently allowed you to facilitate the creation incredible, valuable content (rather than superficial talks) on a particular theme, deliver a meaningful learning experience for your audience, pay your speakers, grow your list AND make a profit.

Many of us, as feminist marketers, activist entrepreneurs and culture-makers tend to object to the usual summit model. I know I’ve seen more and more public pushback against this model. So let’s riff on the conventional model and map out the problems so then you can map out how you developed a successful alternative. What are the usual objections to the conventional Online Summit Model?

Dawn Serra:

Well, the one that I see the most, and the one I see the most frustration about, is the requirement that to participate as a speaker you must have minimum list size of 5,000 people.

Kelly Diels:   

Okay. So let’s figure that out. Why does that upset people?

Dawn Serra:    

From what I’ve seen — and I’ve gotten those emails and it’s pissed me off too – it’s offensive because it assumes that if you have less than 5,000 people, you don’t have anything valuable to say.

So your value as a leader and creator is dependent entirely on how many people are on your list. Not if your list is engaged. Not if you bought that list. Nothing about the value that you’re delivering as a speaker. Your worth is just a number, because they want access to your list, not your thoughts and work.

Kelly Diels:    

Right. It actually reveals that they’re in fact not interested in what you have to say at all. They reach out to you in the guise of admiration and relationship. The email invitation usually reads something like this: “I think you’re so wonderful, I would love to have you speak.” And then it gets revealed, well no, actually, it’s just how big is your list? I don’t really care what you do or what you have to say. At all.

Dawn Serra:

Exactly.

Kelly Diels:  

So, it feels like a bait-and-switch, and it feels kind of like you’ve been profiled.

Dawn Serra:    

Yes. Exactly. And I think it’s also, not only do you have a list of 5,000 but you have to email them a prescribed amount of times because the summit creator wants the exposure to your people – and she wants you do that work for her, for free. There’s not really a mutual benefit.

Kelly Diels:      

That’s you creating the empire and profit for another entrepreneur, for free. That’s you contributing your uncompensated labour to generate profit for someone else. That’s not relationship or mutual rise. It’s a transactional relationship that skews toward the person that initiated it.

Dawn Serra:  

Yes, exactly. And often, those people [the summit creators] have very tiny lists themselves.

Kelly Diels:   

Okay, that’s fucked up. You’ve got to have a huge list to participate in an event created by someone who doesn’t even meet the requirements they created. Hypocrisy – but that’s the purpose of the event. The actual intent behind why people teach summit models is to teach summit-model-creators how to grow their list rapidly. By leveraging the lists of other people.

So, by design, the conventional summit model is instrumental and transactional. It doesn’t feel like relationship. It doesn’t feel like a valuing of the other person. And it doesn’t feel like community building, wherein we generate skills and knowledge and mutual benefit. Instead, it feels like empire building.

Dawn Serra:          

Absolutely. I think the other thing that I’ve seen a lot, and I hope this language is okay, but I’ve seen a lot of people complain about how summits tend to be a circle-jerk of the exact same type of people over and over and over again.

Kelly Diels:    

So I refer to those people as The Usual Suspects. I would say those people are usually Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brands (FLEB) or people who look like them. It’s usually speakers who are skinny, white, middle-class, able-bodied, cisgendered, straight women who are visible online and celebrated as leaders. They’re basically the female version of the demographic Audre Lorde calls The Mythic Norm. Those are The Usual Suspects.

Dawn Serra:   

Yes, and I think that for summit organizers, they’re often looking more at how you appear with your FLEB-y pictures on your website, and reach out to people because of that and feature people like that, then about the message that you actually deliver.

Kelly Diels:

Right, so you as a speaker lend profile and status and prestige to the person who’s hosting that summit. And her summit looks more prestigious because it looks like a whole bunch of successful, conventionally successful, conventionally feminine superstars. But what’s actually going on there, if we get real about it, is the leveraging of white privilege and all the various forms of privilege in order to create personal profit.

Dawn Serra:      

Absolutely.

Kelly Diels:   

So that would be at least one reason why feminist entrepreneurs, people with intersectional identities and culture-makers would recoil from that and not feel welcome in that. People who participated in summits and felt, “Oh, this was not a good experience.” I’m talking about the speakers now. What do you think objections by the speakers who participated might be? Or what have they been? You’ve participated in summits. Tell me your experiences as a speaker.

Dawn Serra:          

I have attended a number of summits where the marketing copy was amazing, there were lots of people speaking on lots of different topics. So I wanted to sign up because the promise was, this will be worth your time, this will be something revolutionary. But then when you actually start listening to the talks, they’re very shallow.

So I’ve seen two different models: either the interviews are very shallow and they’re just kind of offering the bare minimum in order to get people on their list or to know their name, or it’s literally just the speaker giving an hour long advertisement for the product or service they’re selling.

Kelly Diels:

Selling from the stage kind of thing?

Dawn Serra:

Yes, exactly. So it’s 30 minutes or an hour of just selling from the stage, of all the reasons why they’re amazing at what they do.

As an attendee, you’re hopeful and you tune into the first one and you think, that wasn’t a good fit. So, you tune into the second one and that wasn’t a good fit either. By the time you tune into the third or the fourth, you start to realize, this is all just kind of empty. But it’s a lot of time and energy that’s been wasted.

Kelly Diels:   

It feels to me that you’re saying that the creator of the summit put more attention into the marketing and the positioning than the content…but the content is the point. Which reveals the priority of the creator. It’s not necessarily about outstanding talks and creating value. It’s more about the marketing vehicle.

Dawn Serra:

I think the content is the point for the participants. For the mainstream summit model, the point for the creator is getting all those people signed up. Once people are signed up, who cares? You now have 5,000 emails.

Kelly Diels:

We just keep coming back to the same point. The conventional summits are often purely transactional. The logic behind it was just “I’m trying to achieve an objective. I don’t care if I create the value for the speaker or their relationship with the speaker. I don’t care if the participants get what they were hoping for. I am trying to extract an outcome for myself.”

Dawn Serra:  

Right.

Kelly Diels:

Okay, so let’s dive back in and map what the conventional model is. What is the conventional model? I’d start by saying the conventional model is designed to help the creator grow their list.

Dawn Serra:      

Yep.There’s a handful of people out there who are all selling this one model of doing summiting. So you’ve got that information from someone who’s told you you’re going to get rich fast. Then you decide you’re going to do a summit and this is going to grow your list, and that potentially, you’ll make some contacts with other people, but it’s ultimately about just getting access to their list.

Kelly Diels:

Okay. And to do this, you organize, usually it’s one day, of a whole bunch of content around a particular topic or issue. You curate a whole bunch of speakers to speak on a particular theme.

Dawn Serra:  

Right.

Kelly Diels:   

So you might have eight speakers, you might have ten, how many is it, do you think, usually?

Dawn Serra:

I’ve seen anywhere from eight to thirty speakers, the thirty-speaker ones are usually spread out over three or four days.

Kelly Diels:

Okay, so one day or a weekend.

Dawn Serra:  

Exactly, a weekend or even a week or two for the bigger ones. Then, you send out this very generic invitation to all the people whose list you want access to.

Kelly Diels:

It’s usually very flattering invitation too. Like, I think what you’ve got is exactly what we need to hear, your work is genius, I respect what you’re doing… And it feels good to receive it. Like “Oh my gosh, really? You thought of me? Let me do this.”

Dawn Serra:    

Yes, especially because the really savvy ones will throw in one or two pretty big names that they somehow hooked, and/or they’re going to hook, so the thought is, “Well if they get those folks who are really big, then, of course, I want my name alongside them.”

Kelly Diels:  

Right. So leveraging status, name-dropping. And in that first email, it doesn’t tell you what the conditions are.

Dawn Serra:  

Usually at the very end of the first email, in my experience, it will say, “By the way, you need to have 5,000 people but I totally know that you do. Can’t wait to hear from you.” So that builds in the shame for any recipient who doesn’t meet those criteria.

And what I’ve also seen is if you write back saying you’d love to be a part of this, but you don’t have a list of 5,000, then the creator will respond, “Well, if you’re close, you just need to promise to do a little bit more marketing or send to your list three times instead of two, since I’m letting you in under 5,000.”

Kelly Diels:

So yes, conditional relationships. Conditional, transactional. There are so much posturing and manipulation and shaming.

And when you put someone in a subordinate position — and this is what’s happening here, you’re putting someone in a subordinate position because they feel embarrassed or ashamed that they haven’t met the criteria — what that happens is their internal, subconscious, obedience sequence gets triggered.

And when that happens to you, you’re reacting to stimulus on a subconscious level, which means you’re not critically evaluating what’s going on, and that, in turn, means you’re likely to do whatever this person suggests.

So what happens from there?

Dawn Serra:  

Then you either opt out or you opt in.

If you opt into the event, typically there’s a very tight turnaround in getting your interview. They don’t give you a lot of time. So in my experience, it’s “Oh, I’d love to do this, what’s your timeline look like?”

“Well, we’ll need to have the interview done within the next week.”

Kelly Diels:

So you, as a speaker, don’t have time to craft your content and really develop a deep talk on such a tight timeline.

Dawn Serra:

Right. And then, what I’ve found is that most of the time — I’ve only seen one person who didn’t do this — but most of the time, they ask you to tell them all the things you want to talk about so they don’t have to do any research or work to prepare to interview you.

Kelly Diels:      

Oh my God, in addition to contributing your list, and your expertise, you actually do their pre-interviewing work.

Dawn Serra:

Yes.

Kelly Diels:

So the person is actually putting in very little effort to develop or curate content on a particular topic. It seems like it’s irrelevant to them.

Then the other thing I’m thinking too, here, with one of the fundamental assumptions, is that you are going to do this for free for exposure. It’s the speak-for-exposure model.

They’re creating the sense that you’re lucky to be included, that you’re not a peer, you’re a subordinate.

You know what this is? This is manufacturing authority.

Dawn Serra:   

Yes.

Kelly Diels:

And people seek to manufacture authority because they want to get rich quick and build a list quick.

The conventional online summit model is a method for manufacturing expertise and manufacturing authority when you don’t already have the existing body of work and social signals associated with it.

Dawn, the more you map this out, the more I’m like, “Oh, God, this is sleazy.”

It’s free labor. And the value of that uncompensated labor accrues to the event organizer. There’s very little care and attention paid to the actual content and no compensation to the content creator.

Now, what happens?

Dawn Serra:

Then, the organizer usually emails you copy for what you’re supposed to send to your list x number of times, at a minimum. They will also tell you what you need to post on social media.

And the promo blurbs and emails they provide are typically very much about the organizer. It has a lot of copy like, “You don’t want to miss this, you need to be in on this, especially if you’re struggling with food and diets…”

Kelly Diels:

That’s pain point and scarcity. It’s social triggers.

Do you, as a speaker, have to use that content as-is?

Dawn Serra:

I’ve seen different options, like, “Here’s the copy as a starting point” has come from a couple of people. But from a couple of other people, it’s like, “Here’s exactly what you send to your list.”

And then when the event is going, what I’ve noticed is that for most summits, the content that’s being pushed out is highly prescriptive.

I think there’s definitely some exceptions to this — I’ve seen Emily Rosen do a telesummit that was a little bit different, where it’s more about self-inquiry — but for the most part, most of the summits that I’ve been a part of have been based on a posture of expertise and problem-solving. Basically, the content and marketing say, “Here’s how you fix the thing.”

Kelly Diels:

Right. So the event and the content are not usually designed to facilitate opportunities for exploring, inquiry, creative thinking, or critical thinking. It’s not empowering. It’s not facilitating opportunities for discernment or capacity-building. It’s about listening to an expert and following a formula.

Dawn Serra:     

While I have seen some summits organized for audiences of cis men, most of the time, the summits that I get invited to are aimed at mid-twenties to mid-forties white women.

That’s who the usual target audience is. When you ask the organizers who’re going to attend this event, that’s usually who we’re talking about.

When I get an invite, I now ask about the other speakers and how they’re making their event inclusive and it seems that those questions are super threatening. When I ask that question, most summit organizers, they simply won’t answer.

Kelly Diels:

Right, because inclusion is not at all a priority. The priority is, “I need to build my list by having prestigious speakers.”

Prestigious speakers, in our current culture, are usually going to be predictably white and The Usual Suspects.

And the event is for an audience of white women. It’s designed to center white cisgender women.

So, presumably for organizers of conventional summits, “This is not an issue. I’m not going to think about this. Thinking about this or doing something about this would actually undermine the speed with which I could put this together.”

Dawn Serra:

Yes. When I’ve been a speaker at a summit, which has only been a handful of times, I have found that the organizers don’t tag me in their social media or do shout-outs to me; it’s just really about the event. In some cases, I get a single thank-you email afterward. But it’s definitely not about building each other up. It’s about: this is my event, let’s get as many people signed up, how many tweets did you send, the event happens and then it’s just kind of radio silence.

Kelly Diels:   

When you’re mapping out the details, I’m having this rising fury about it. It’s so manipulative, and it’s so … I’m going to say it, it’s predatory. It is about extracting value and labor from other people in order to build your thing. It’s not about creating value. It’s not about building community. It’s not even about creating awareness around a particular topic. It’s about leveraging the interest in that topic to build your thing.

Dawn Serra:

Yes, I think that’s why so many people are constantly like, “Ugh, I got another one of these crappy things,” Or “has anybody done these well?”

I mean, I’ve attended summits from lots of different industries. Ones that featured hundreds of speakers, one that featured dozens of speakers, some that just featured five to ten speakers.

So I’ve attended a lot, and I’ve seen a lot of things done right, and a lot of things done very poorly, but specifically within the FLEB circles, it has become this very specific model and it’s very ugly.

Kelly Diels:      

Okay. So keep going. Then there’s the actual event. There’s all this social media going out from all these speakers. Let’s say there were fifty speakers. All fifty speakers are putting out social media, so there’s like a buzz building about it. But the organizer is not tagging individual speakers or trying to raise the speaker’s profiles. Again it’s really about directing the attention back to the organizer.

The event is happening, people are attending it, they’re probably tweeting about it or reflecting back on the talks. All this media is happening. And then what?

Dawn Serra:  

Usually, in my experience, that’s the end.

Kelly Diels:  

What about the participants? What happens for them?

Dawn Serra:

For some organizers, it’s like, “Hey! How’d the summit go? Here’s stuff that you can buy!”

Depending on what happened during the summit, this might be okay and useful.

For other summits, what happens is now you’re on this person’s newsletter list, which, depending on the person, again, is okay.

Other people invite you to their private Facebook group, which, then, is where they have an opportunity to do even more selling.

Kelly Diels:

So how do all these people end up on the organizer’s list? How does that happen? I don’t oppose that, I just want to know how it happens.

Dawn Serra:   

When you sign up for the summit, you have to use your email to get access to the talks.

Kelly Diels:

Cool. I have no problem with that at all if, in exchange for your email address, you are promised to receive all this content AND IF it’s explicitly noted that after the event you’ll be receiving communiques and sales offers from the organizer (that’s consent in action). That seems like a fair exchange.

But let’s think about the machine. The machine is all of these speakers are contributing their content, contributing their labor, contributing their lists, and doing all this sales and marketing work in order to drive traffic to another person’s list.

That is so fucking predatory, honestly. There’s no compensation, no credit or shout-outs, and not even any support in developing the content offered to the contributors.

TED, for example, when you speak, they give you a coach. They actively help you develop that presentation. There’s support there in creating the content that is their actual product.

This – the telesummit model – reminds me of a sweatshop. Create a product so someone else can profit from it for next-to-no compensation.

Dawn Serra:

Right. And if what I was getting, as a speaker, was some type of continued access to the people who signed up for the summitor we had plans to collaborate on something, then even if I’m not being financially compensated, there is some form of exchange and fair compensation. That might be something I would consider, depending on where I am in my career.

But the current model is literally just show up, contribute your stuff, send it to your list so I can have access, the end.

Kelly Diels:

So is it literally “exposure?”

Dawn Serra:  

Yes.

Kelly Diels:

The implicit – or explicit – promise is this: “There’s going to be thousands of people or hundreds of people, and they’re going to see your thing. You’re going to have all these new audience members.”

But in reality, you delivered your audience.

You may not actually have any new audience. The only people who see your talk or stay with you afterwards might be your pre-existing people.

Dawn Serra:   

I think the activating principle here is FOMO. When someone says, “Hey, I’m having 25 dating experts, so I’d like you to be a part of this.” What often goes on underneath, inside of you, is if you don’t join, someone else will, and now you’re not one of the 25.

Kelly Diels:  

Scarcity and FOMO.

In your experience, have you seen the explicit promise from some organizers that you’ll see the piggybacking effect? Do organizers tell you that you might actually get new audience members on your own list and that new people will discover you?

Dawn Serra:

Yes. Well sometimes, that’s actually in the email. “Hey, we’re going to do this summit, there’s going to be 25 speakers, you’ll get in front of all of these people’s people.”

Kelly Diels:

So even the way that we’re getting taught to get new community members is by leveraging other people’s accomplishments…

I physically want to crawl out of my own skin. This is violating so many of my commitments that I can’t even get my head around it.

Okay. Have we covered it? That’s the telesummit/online summit model?

Dawn Serra:            

That covers the basics.

Kelly Diels:

Okay. In a nutshell, the conventional telesummit model goes like this: We’re not compensating the contributors, and we’re using in-group cool-kid marketing to get you to contribute.

That’s the mechanics. But there must be some positive deviations. Can you tell me some things you’ve seen done creatively or well in online summits?

Dawn Serra:

There’s this really huge food revolution summit that gets put on by Ocean Robbins called the Food Revolution and it’s all about organic eating, health, vegan juicing type of thing. It’s massive and massively successful.

I reached out to Ocean Robbins, and he actually answered my questions about how he puts his summit on.

  • They get a couple of million people enrolled each year.
  • They sell products — and that was something that I hadn’t seen done well at other summits.
  • They have a few dozen speakers in ten days.
  • It’s something like ten hours a day for ten days.
  • They sell the talks and the transcripts and have all these bonuses at varying price points.

The first year I participated, I actually bought all the talks at the cheapest level, which was still pretty expensive, but I liked that they made the talks available and then had bonuses that were pretty relevant.

Kelly Diels:

Okay, I have a question and it’s a little off-side. In conventional summits, do speakers get recordings of their talk?

Dawn Serra:  

I’ve never gotten a recording of my talks.

And I don’t make mine available, right away. My speakers don’t get theirs until a year has gone by since participants are paying for exclusive access when they buy. I want to ensure that the videos remain exclusive (so that someone didn’t pay for anything!) for that period of time.

Kelly Diels:    

That makes sense. Back to Food Revolution.

Dawn Serra:      

I really liked that it was super clear what the summit was about and that they had the talks available at prices that, considering what you got, were pretty reasonable.

Emily Rosen put on a conscious sexuality summit about five years ago, and the thing that I loved about that summit was it was beautifully designed and instead of being the typical prescriptive lecture about the one and only way to do things, there were these very intimate conversations between Emily Rosen and the people she was interviewing, where stories got shared, mistakes got shared, even some of Emily’s own insecurities got shared.

That was the first time I’d ever seen a summit where it wasn’t prescriptive and where there was some vulnerability and storytelling as part of the summit. I knew right away I’d want mine to be like that.

Theirs was also very easy to access, so I appreciated that too. I’ve attended summits where the recordings were terrible quality, they were running late if it was live and times ran over, the technology was ancient, the websites were horribly designed, so you never really actually knew when the talks started or how to access them. The web pages went up and down. Some of the videos weren’t loaded correctly, so tech issues from top to bottom. I saw good tech and really good organization in Emily’s.

Kelly Diels:

Who else did you learn from? Were there little things you stored away, like “I’m going to do that”?

Dawn Serra:  

I attended another summit I liked that it was just a little bit of a push to watch all the talks, a little bit of a stretch, so then you had some incentive to show up — without it being ten hours a day, the way that the Food Revolution one is.

I’ve done other summits where it’s five hours worth of ten half-hour talks, and I don’t care who you are, sitting there for five hours to listen to ten talks? That’s exhausting. So I wanted things a little spread out, but also with a sense of urgency. The content is important and deserves attention.

Kelly Diels:  

As a side note, I do mastermind daylong intensives, and I figured that piece of wisdom out after several events. Before I figured it out, though, I scheduled five speakers back-to-back. No lunch, no breaks. Just five speakers back-to-back, and it was fucking exhausting for everyone.

Recently what I started doing is having a five-hour day, but having a half-hour talk and then a half-hour space, and then a half-hour talk, and a half-hour space, and then lunch, and then another talk. So it’s still a long day, but there’s actually room to lie down, eat lunch, take a break, process, think about it, you know?

It seems like such a small thing, and still, people at the end of the day are like, “I’m overwhelmed.” But it’s totally a different kind of overwhelm.

I figured that out as I went. I wish I’d known that earlier.

Can I ask you a question, Dawn? Did you take any of these, “Here’s how to do a telesummit” course?

Dawn Serra:  

Nope. I have been through a handful of invitations, enough to figure out what was being taught, and decided I was not interested in that model or those offerings at all.

Kelly Diels:

And yet, you managed to develop a parallel model that sidesteps the issues we oppose and is really successful…

Interestingly enough, I think that is sometimes why I succeed, too – not by following the rules or following a pre-tested formula or blueprint teaching me how to do the thing I want to do. Instead I kind of wing it based on my own experience, my own commitments and causes, and the outcomes I’m trying to create.

It’s both scarier and less scary, all at the same time. It’s a little frightening because it means you don’t know if it will work because you’re inventing it, piece-by-piece. But because you’re not following a formula, you feel less frightened about, “Okay, well if I don’t do that thing that’s apparently an essential element for success – and that I object to — the whole thing’s going to tank.” It also means we’re less dependent on others to tell us how to market and more personally responsible for the design of our own systems and outcomes. That’s both scary and liberating.

Dawn Serra:

Oh, yes. If I had known what I was getting myself into the first year that I did it, I don’t think I would have done it. I just kind of flung myself in and was like “Whoa, there’s a lot to figure out here,” but then I figured it out on my own terms and it felt really good.

Kelly Diels:  

Have we got it all? We’ve nailed the model, we’ve picked up some things you saw that were done well. Were there any other things that someone did really well?

Dawn Serra:     

The other thing that I really took away was something I wasn’t seeing anywhere. No matter what summit I attended — and I’m not saying nobody’s doing it, I’m just saying in my experience I didn’t see this — there was no opportunity for engaging and processing as a community.

I never got to know any of the other people that attended these things or find out whether they have the same questions I did. There was just no place to coexist in the process and to geek out with people who were doing the same thing as me, and so it felt very lonely.

Kelly Diels:  

Right. So it seems to me that you would need a gathering space, or a hashtag, or both, to process those communal learnings.

Okay, that’s good to know.

So then, what do you do when you put your own summits on? What’s your model?

Dawn Serra:

So the first thing that I wanted to do was to find a way to center my participants and make this feel like an experience.

Kelly Diels:

Are you talking about the audience right now?

Dawn Serra:

The audience. I started there. I knew I wanted my audience to be blown away by the content, I wanted them to feel held and nurtured. I knew that I wanted self-care to be a big part of the summit. And so from the get-go, I knew that every single day, there was going to be self-care tips and breaks. I knew that as someone who had attended a lot of summits, that I never felt held and nurtured, and so I needed that to be kind of my driving force for what I was delivering.

Kelly Diels:    

So this is, of course, going to deliver a fundamentally different summit. In the other conference model, the summit is designed around this first principle: What do I want to receive as the organizer?

And everyone else’s experience is really not considered.

Dawn Serra:

Right, exactly. So I wanted to first center the audience, and I knew I also wanted to over-deliver because, unlike most telesummits, I was going to be asking them for money.

I knew I wanted it to be free with a paid option. This meant I could make it accessible to all income levels in my audience and have money to pay my speakers.

I started with brainstorming all the ways I could make my audience feel amazing and feel like they’ve never had this much value before.

And then right behind that came, how can I compensate my speakers in a fair way?

And when it came to selecting speakers, what I care about is deep, moving content that’s overturning existing paradigms. This meant I did not give a hoot whether their list was a particular size.

Kelly Diels:

It seems to me that you actually had faith that the content and your ability to promote the event. You knew those two things are what would grow your list.

Dawn Serra:

Yes. And I will say, to refine what I just said, that the size of someone’s list does factor in a little bit. I never ask anybody how big their list is, but I do a little bit of research to ensure that I have a rough estimate on their audience size. It’s the best guess. And then I deliberately create a mix of big and small audience sizes in my speakers, and a very rich, diverse mix of messages. The message is the important part.

The first year I got Dan Savage and I got some other people that were huge to speak. I also had some therapists or activists who didn’t even have an email list at all. But I loved their content so much that I needed them to be part of it — and they ended up being some of the favorite talks from the summit. People asked for replays.

Kelly Diels:  

Okay, deeply moving content that overturns paradigms.

So here’s what we’ve got as a starting point: center the audience, over-deliver because there will be sales, a free model with a paid option so you earn the revenue to pay speakers.

What would come next?

Dawn Serra:

Then I started figuring out the technology because I knew I wanted it to be very easy and stable. I didn’t want any of my speakers fielding questions about how to do stuff.

That also was centering the experience for the participants – a very simple, easy-to-use flow.

Then, I scheduled the talks, and I spent a couple of hours researching each speaker.

The way that I conduct the interviews is very deliberate. I want to find out all of the things they’re always talking about and then not ask them any of those things.

Kelly Diels:

Okay, so I’m never going to interview with you. I’m canceling everything we’ve got scheduled.

I’m just kidding. You know what that means for us? It’s actually going to be fun, and because you’re not going to get my elevator speech. You’ll get something really rich and deep and unexpected.

Dawn Serra:

Yes. One of the other things that I designed into my summit (that I don’t recommend for everybody) is I designed overwhelm into my summit because I wanted people’s comfortable edges to be pushed. I want people’s existing patterns to be threatened. I want people to ask themselves questions that are scary and provocative.

So the content that’s being delivered in each hour is exhausting and overwhelming, but I’m going to keep going. That’s on purpose because I want people to be pushed into places where now they have to be vulnerable and they have to question things. They can’t just sit there and be like, “Yep, same thing I read in Cosmo every month.”

Kelly Diels:  

How long did you spend with your speakers?

Dawn Serra:

One hour. The way that I centered my speakers was I made it very clear: here’s how you’re going to get paid; I need one hour with you face-to-face; I will design social media images with quotes from all of our talks; I will design and write all of the social media and email content. I will tag you endlessly in the month that we’re promoting, as well as on the day of your talk, and I just ask that you share this with your audience in the way that feels good for you. But when people get their quotes, about a month before the summit, and they see how good they are, they want to be sharing this stuff. So I don’t need to be prescriptive and force them to share. I supply great work and they want to share because it serves them, too.

Kelly Diels:      

Okay, keep going. Do you edit the talks?

Dawn Serra:

I edit the talks, but most of the talks require almost no editing.

Everything’s built into the talk so that I don’t have to add anything to the beginning or the end.

I also tell the speakers ahead of time that the expectation is that we’re going to have fun, that it’s going to be intimate, and they’re going to get vulnerable.

The time between filming the talks and promoting is just all the behind-the-scenes stuff of editing, getting them hosted, getting all of the website and technology ready to go, creating the social media images and quotes.

I also offer my participants a daily workbook. They have journal prompts and questions that help them go even deeper and to self-reflect. As I’m editing the videos, I’m pulling out the quotes and the themes. The quotes become the images and the themes become the workbook questions.

Then we promote for a month. I do lots of tagging, lots of interacting with the speakers. Lots of asking questions that are super relevant to the summit talk to get people interested.

I created a Facebook group that’s just for summit participants. That was my way of creating the community I had been craving. Leading up to the summit, we do lots of fun questions and exercises in the group.

It’s a community space meant to get people talking about who they are, what they’re excited about, the speakers that drew them in – and some of that, of course, is useful marketing information that I use later to help me deliver something even more valuable to them.

Once the summit starts, everything that’s happening in the group is about facilitating the big questions and the big feelings. The speakers are in the group helping to answer questions. I want it to feel like we’re all on a journey together.

The talks are only available for 24 hours for a very specific reason. A lot of people get a little pissy about that, but I want to make sure I’m curating a specific experience each day. I treat the summit more like an in-person conference than an online conference in that, if you’re in an in-person conference and you can’t make a session, you can’t undo that time that’s passed. We’re all kind of going through these sessions together and so I want the summit to have a very deliberate progression and arc.

Unfortunately, last year I didn’t really have much post-summit planning in place.

This year is a different story. For people who are buying the packages, everything gets delivered the day after the summit wraps. That way they stay in the arc I designed even if they missed a couple of sessions. Afterward, they can fill in the blanks.

Everybody’s pre-purchasing everything and it gets delivered the day after the summit.

And because of the payment structure for the speakers, they are also incentivized to be promoting the talks that they can buy and bonus materials and stuff.

Kelly Diels:

So how do you compensate your speakers?

Dawn Serra:

The first year, I did an affiliate payment program that really didn’t work for me, so I didn’t do it again this year.

I think it would work for someone in a non-sex industry, but I used Tapfiliate. All the speakers got their own custom affiliate link and then they promoted the heck out of the summit content, and whenever anybody bought, they got a percentage of the sales. Which incentivized everyone, of course, to promote the products because they got 50% of whatever their affiliates were.

The problem I had with that model was that the people with great big lists who were mostly white, cis, and popular made way more money, and the people who were more obscure or POC or talking about edgier topics like trans issues and disability issues, made no money.

That felt pretty terrible.

Kelly Diels:

How did you build diversity into the speakers?

Dawn Serra:    

I specifically knew going in that inclusion was going to be important to me. The first year, I invited lots of people that I had connections with because I was confident that they’d say yes. This year, I was a lot more deliberate in saying, I need more representation at this summit. I want to decenter whiteness more. And so this year, it was more like 50 or 60% of the speakers were POC, disabled, fat-bodied, queer, or sitting at various intersections of marginalization in some way.

It took a lot of research, to be frank. But I consciously knew this was not going to be an all white, all-cis, all-straight event.

Kelly Diels:        

Did you have to do any work around making sure people in the audience felt included, the actual experience of being a participant in these Facebook groups, was there anything that had to be done there that we should take note of?

Dawn Serra:

I was so lucky, but the Facebook community guidelines are very clear and I haven’t had really had any issues beyond a post here or there that people happily removed when I reached out.

At the end of the first year’s summit, I got lots of emails from people of color and from queer folks saying, “Thank you so much for having such diversity. I’ve never experienced this at a summit before.”

Kelly Diels:

Wow, that’s so great.

The affiliate thing…so the first scheme did not work. What was the second model that you used?

Dawn Serra:   

The second model was everyone’s going to get paid the exact same amount, but we’re going to have group bonuses, kind of like you do with Kickstarter, right?

I offered all of the speakers a flat speaking fee, regardless of how big they were, and then if we hit X number of registrants, they were going to get a $50 bonus; if we hit X number of sales, they were going to get a $50 bonus; and, if we hit even more in sales, they’d get another $25 bonus so that everyone had the potential to make $225.

They also got 50% of individual sales on their individual talks, which were going for $3 each.

The earning potential is a lot less now for my great big speakers, and so I specifically told them that in my invitations to them this year.

Kelly Diels:

Right. If someone made a huge amount of money last year, and this year they’re going to make $225, you need to let them know.

Dawn Serra:  

A couple of people last year [in the first payment scheme she’s since abandoned] made $400 or $500 but that was only two or three of them. All the rest made $0 to $75.

I’m really interested in making sure that everyone’s being compensated fairly, especially people who are in marginalized situations, so the previous model didn’t work and the new one, to me, is the way to be fair. 100% of the previous big-earners who’d take a pay cut said, “This sounds great, I’m in.”

Kelly Diels:

So you know what gets me excited about this is the contrast. Most summits are just about list-building. They’re predatory, they’re extractive, and the experience is designed for someone else’s profit. Even so, in the conventional model, the organizers don’t make a financial profit. They’re just building their list, and they do that in the hope of realizing future sales.

And yours — where you’re building in inclusion and diversity, honouring your values, centering the audience and community experience, and compensating the people creating the content – actually grows your list AND you make money.

So this is an example proving that you can do all of this thoughtful, deliberate, justice-oriented, non-manipulative stuff, and actually, realize all the same success markers…and more!

Dawn Serra:

Absolutely, yes. After the summit last year, at least half of the speakers reached out and said, “This was an amazing experience, I got so much attention, so many people reached out to me. I felt like it was so easy for me, thank you so much. I’d love to be part of next year’s.”

So that told me that it was working for the speakers, not just for me.

Kelly Diels:

This is so smart, Dawn. I am just so knocked out.

Okay. How did you sell stuff?

Dawn Serra:   

It was so easy. Once I did the talks, I knew immediately that if someone made the time to watch just one or two of these talks, they were going to want to own all of them. They’re that rich and deep.

So I did three tiers of products.

  • The first tier, silver, was that you could get all the talks on audio and the workbooks for $27. They’re paying less than $1 per talk.
  • For the middle tier, gold, I did something very different last year than this, and I’m so glad I changed it. The first year, the gold tier was $47 for the audio, the video, the workbooks, and a bonus from each of the speakers. But what I found was most of the speakers gave me their opt-in. It was not special or unique.Which was fine for a lot of people, but it still just kind of felt like eh, that’s not quite the value I want to give at this event.
  • And then for the platinum package, which was $97, they got everything in the gold, plus two group calls post-summit.

Then I just casually mentioned at the end of each talk, “Hey, if you loved this talk, and you want to revisit it with a partner, or you want to dig into it again because there was so much here, you can buy all the talks. Here’s how to do that.”

Kelly Diels:  

And you also had it so that people could buy individual talks too?

Dawn Serra:

Not last year. Last year it was just those three packages.

By day two of the summit, they were flying out the door.

Another thing that I do, is the day after the summit, the prices go up $10. So it’s not so much that it’s offensive or exploitative because you’re still getting all the talks for like $1.20 if you do the lowest package. But it’s just enough that if you’re on the fence, you know there’s a time limit.

Kelly Diels:         

So what did you do this year, then?

Dawn Serra:

This year, the silver $27 package was all the audios, again, and this year I did the workbooks a little differently.

This year I had free mini-workbooks each day of the summit, and so the silver package folks got those mini workbooks resent to them.

For people who bought at gold or platinum, they got expanded workbooks.

The mini workbooks were six to seven pages each, the expanded workbooks were ten to twelve pages each. You’re still getting a lot with the free workbooks.

The gold package, again, was the audio, the video, the expanded workbooks, plus, I ditched the speaker bonuses and instead they got six weeks of weekly group calls.

We’re taking the topics that came up in the summit, and, as a group, talking about overwhelm, talking about insecurity and vulnerability, talking about the really big topics and allowing people more time to share and exist in safe space together, and it’s been phenomenal.

Kelly Diels:

Okay, fantastic. So, silver, gold. What’s in the platinum?

Dawn Serra:  

The platinum this year is everything in the gold plus a one hour, one-on-one coaching with me, which is converting to additional coaching sessions really great. Plus access to all of last year’s audio and two little relationship workbooks that I already had created, they’re in my shop.

Kelly Diels:   

Cool. And then you also could get individual talks if you were so inclined?

Dawn Serra:       

Yep, this year I put all the talks up on Vimeo, and people can rent them for a year for $3 each. Almost no one bought individual talks. Everyone wants the package.

Kelly Diels:

Okay, that is genius. So then post-summit, what do you do?

Dawn Serra:

Last year, beyond the two calls I did with the platinum folks, I did almost nothing. So don’t do that.

But, I just remembered, there’s a couple other things I didn’t mention. The last day of the summit, everyone gets a chance to vote for their favorite talk and that gets the Viewer’s Choice award and gets a replay the day after the summit.

So the day after the summit is Viewer’s Choice award and all the products get released. Then, two to three days after the summit I send out a customer experience survey that includes a giveaway to incentivize them. Last year I gave away a $200 vibrator that a company had donated to me. This year, I gave away this empathy game that one of the speakers created that’s amazing.

Kelly Diels:    

Sounds fantastic.

Dawn Serra:

So what I do is I look at everything in the post-summit survey results and use that to then drive what the conversations are going to be for the next couple of months in the Facebook group.

Kelly Diels:

Do you send thank-you notes? What do you send to your speakers?

Dawn Serra:

So the speakers get a thank-you note in the payment message.

Kelly Diels:

That would work for me. If you’re paying me, you don’t have to ever talk to me again, I’m good.

Dawn Serra:

And I think one of the really great things is after the summit, people are still talking about the talks. Most people don’t watch all the talks during the summit. They watch them after they buy them, and so even after the summit the speakers are also continuing to get social media hits and mentions and things like that because people are still wanting to talk about the awesome stuff. I think that’s really fun.

The feedback I’m getting is, “Holy crap this is amazing, but I feel so frickin’ overwhelmed, I’m frozen.” So the Facebook group has been a way for people to start processing those things, talking about their traumas, talking about these deep things.

There’s a daily discussion that I’ve scheduled entirely in Meet Edgar, so that I can initiate a community discussion for people to share their thoughts and experiences with each other every single day whether I’m present or not. That has been beautiful. The calls have been incredible. The one-on-ones are converting at an incredible rate.

Kelly Diels:  

So good. One of my friends, Carmen Spagnola, leads wilderness quests. And she said that most of the companies and groups that do this usually take you into the woods or the desert where you have this transformative experience. And then, afterwards, they drop you off at the airport and that’s it. Experience over. You walk back into your house and your life having had this incredible but shocking experience, feeling like your previous skin has been peeled off, and you don’t have any support or guidance so that you can reenter. She specifically has a re-entry support system in place to hold people through that jarring process. I feel like this, what you’re doing, is like that. Re-entry.

Dawn Serra:

Yes. Because one of the other themes that’s come up is a lot of people feel really lonely and isolated because the people in their lives haven’t been on this journey too.

So the Facebook group is a place to give people a place to feel less alone and more held, and I think that’s really important.

Kelly Diels:

This is so good. What I notice, in the way you thought about it, is you actually started with your personal values and commitments. You started your design with what things were important to you, and the tactics you then chose to use were aligned with your commitment to justice and the world you’re trying to create. That – your commitments — was your starting point.

Which didn’t mean you then sacrificed your livelihood or strategic business goals. You did design a profitable model around it.

Dawn Serra:  

Yes, but I spent about a year and a half feeling like I couldn’t ever do it the way I was imagining it in my head.

And then finally, my coach was like “Just f-ing do it. Let’s make a list right now of some people that you want to have and I’ll make some introductions,” because she’s a sex educator, too.

That was the kick in the pants that I needed.

And when I finally did it, it was very much about asking myself how do I wish I had felt, both as a speaker and as a participant, and how do I cultivate that?

I want this to be an experience that people want to return to year after year after year. I’ve attended so many summits and while I’m in the middle of it, I think, “I am never attending something by this person again.”

Kelly Diels:  

Wow.

Dawn Serra:

So I wanted it to be the opposite. I wanted people to be craving for the next one. And that did happen. I got emails all throughout the year asking when is the next summit? So that also made me feel like I’m on the right track, I’m still figuring it out, I’m growing. But people are already asking me about 2018. I already have three people who have volunteered to speak for 2018.

Kelly Diels:    

That’s fantastic! This is so, so good, Dawn. This is so useful. This model is such a contribution to our community and people who want to build culture-making and culture-bending into their business and marketing efforts.

And I don’t think that other people having this model lessens your ability to succeed in your own summits.

The more people who are doing this well, the better. It doesn’t take anything away from your summit.

Dawn Serra:                       I

I agree, because I think the more of us that do great summits, the more willing each of us will be to participate in them as speakers and as audience members.

I can’t tell you how many speakers turned me down, because they’ve had terrible experiences at summits, and they say, “These do not work for us, we will not participate in this.”

And so I’ve actually missed out on some amazing speakers because they’ve been burned.

If more of us are doing these really beautiful high-quality summits, then more people are going to trust summits when they come up, and more speakers are going to be willing to participate who really do have something to say.

Kelly Diels:

Dawn Serra, you’re a genius, this is so good.

We mapped out the problems with the conventional telesummit model and what you invented successfully countered most of those problems.

We outlined the questionable audience and speaker experience, the manipulation, the shaming, the manufacturing of subordination, the predation, the cultivating of personal profit at the expense of community and shared value — and you did exactly the opposite. You created community. You created care and dignity for the participants. You facilitated paradigm-shifting content. Yo compensated speakers. You built inclusion and inclusive payment practices into the design of the summit rather than as a positioning-as-equitable afterthought.

And all of these things were deliberate and flowed from your personal commitments in the world and in your work. These were the center of the whole experience rather than the thing being sold. Even so, you still managed to achieve your marketing and business objectives. You didn’t sacrifice other people and you didn’t sacrifice yourself. You create something new and valuable for everyone involved. Really, I’m so thrilled. I’m so grateful. I can’t wait to create something extraordinary like this for the community I care about.


How about you, fellow culture-maker?

How does this alternate model for online summits — and the process by which she developed it — land with you?

What landed with me, for example, is the thoughtful way Dawn started with her core commitments and designed a system to meet them, rather than adopting a system that required her to abandon her feminist commitments. she didn’t layer them on top of a pre-existing and contradictory marketing model like a hopeful condiment; she baked them into her model and her practices.

I’m hoping we’ve now got a sketch of how to question an existing model or marketing practice, return to our personal commitments and the outcomes we want to create, and innovate in the gap between what is and what we want to invent.

It’s not about replacing the existing, problematic online summit so common in female empowerment land with Dawn’s version. It’s about using and inventing models that align with our core commitments and reinventing the tactics and practices that don’t.

If Dawn’s model aligns with your commitments and design outcomes, then go ahead and take what you need from it and use it! She can help you with that, too — she has summit coaching services, a DIY course and a radical summit-building mastermind group available. (FYI: These are not affiliate links.)

But if it doesn’t align in some places — or across the board! — then dig into that dissonance and use that as an opportunity to brainstorm and innovate. You can reinvent all these models. You’ve got everything you need to do that.  Just start with your commitments (rather than someone else’s) and build your marketing practices and  systems around them rather the other way around.

I’m super encouraged by what Dawn created, and what we can learn from her example and apply in our platforms. What Dawn has developed is very different than what is commonly taught in online summit building courses in empowerment land. She doesn’t have a minimum list requirement; she doesn’t have a set number of times you must email your list or post on social media; she pays her speakers (!!!); and she facilitates and supports the content creation so that it is stellar and delivers incredible value to the audience.

And she still generates significant list growth – which is the purpose of the conventional summit models – and even makes a profit on the event.

In other words, Dawn Serra is a terrific feminist marketing success story and case study.

Yes, we can do it differently and still thrive and rise.

—-

One-on-one summit coaching with Dawn Serra  – https://www.dawnserra.com/for-professionals/summit-creation/

DIY course – https://gumroad.com/l/OLeJ

Radical Summit Mastermind Group: https://www.dawnserra.com/for-professionals/summit-creation/radical-summit-mastermind-group/

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