Conference Organizers Suck at Name Tags

Posted on Nov 10, 2010 | 48 comments


Every once in a while I start to feel like I’m taking myself  a bit too seriously and I have to slip in a more cheeky post.  But to every jest there is some truth.  So here’s what really winds me up ….

It OUGHT to be really obvious how to create a proper tag for a conference, but my observation is that 98% of conferences suck at name tags.  Maybe more.  It makes networking much more difficult / awkward.  And it’s so damn solvable – no rocket science degree required.

It completely baffles me, actually.  I would think these suggestions would be a BGO (blinding glimpse of the obvious, for those TLA fans) but I guess not.  If you agree with me, please forward this post to people organizing conferences to save us all the future hassle.

1. If you can, avoid “hanging” name tags - I’m not a big fan of name tags that hang from your neck.  One reason is that the length is hard to estimate and therefore the tags usually end up somewhere close to your belly.  It is really impractical to try and glance at somebody’s name / company when it’s by their belly.  It’s even more embarrassing if you’re already supposed to know the person and you’re looking for a prompt to remember their name or when you’re trying to figure out the name of a woman.  Bit awkward, hey?

My preference is to have a name tag that has a magnetic device so that each person can attach it to their shirt, blouse, lapel or wherever they want it.  But I guarantee the people will place it higher than the hanging name tag and thus readable.

2. If you have hanging name tags make them two sided - The magnetic name tags are more expensive so I know some people won’t opt for them.  If you DO go for hanging name tags, for fuck sake print the names on both sides of the tag.  It seems a universal law that these tags flip over and more than 50% of the time seem not to land on the side with the name.  It’s so easy to just print two-sided.  If you’re going to bother having name tags, you want people to read them.  Let’s just call it “BothSidesoftheTag.”

3. Make the name big. Really big. – And another thing (I’m feeling a bit like Larry David right now …) why do people print out name tags and then make the names in a really small font so only 16 year olds can read them?  Names ought to take almost 50% of the space on the name tag.  The whole point is to be able to READ the name tag.  In the same way you don’t want people to present at a conference with 12 point fonts, why do you print out their name tags with similar sizes?  Go big!

4. Make the company name just as big. – And while you’re at it, make the other 50% say their company name.   Those are the two things every single person who is networking at your event wants to know – name & company.  Make all of our lives easier.  My personal suggestion is to make the company name a slightly different color so it’s easier on the eye to distinguish.

5. Don’t waste space with meaningless information - I know you want to put your event name really big on the tag.  I understand that urge.  But we’re already AT your event.  We know it’s your event.  We chose to come.  We love you already.  Your big logo / name / event description on the name tag is taking away from its functional utility.  It is distracting.  It steals space from the main event.  And we’re not going to save it as a keepsake after the event, so why bother?  If you must put it, please consider putting it at the bottom and in really small writing.

6. Don’t have name tags we need to pin to ourselves - Very few people have these kinds of tags any more.  That’s great.  This is the worst kind of tag overall for obvious reasons.  It ruins people’s clothes.  Obvious.

7. Have a thick pen handy - Finally, there will always be somebody that somehow got left off your list or is conference crashing (i.e. the kind you’re OK with being there).  Nothing worse than being the only person at a conference with no name tag.

8. Oh, and … – I was prompted by Al in the comments.  We don’t need all that extra VIP junk where you say if we’re a speaker, moderator or sponsor on our name tags.  It doesn’t really make us feel extra special.  It’s just a distraction.

End of rant.  Get back to work.

  • http://dealkat.com Abir Bhattacharyya

    So Mark are you pitching HBO on Curb Your Enthusiasm 2? Funny Post!

  • Al

    I have no words really on how frustrating this has been as an exhibitor at conferences recently – and several big ones at that – where attendees pay upwards of $1500 for 2 days to attend.

    As an exhibitor, there is always a sudden rush of people to your booth during breaks – and guess how difficult and embarrassing it is when you have 5 people trying to listen to your pitch and you have to literally squint to read names and companies to understand the context of who they are to give them the right and relevant pitch. Make it worse – 2 of those 5 are bound to be turned around with a blank side visible like in your image.

    Now add to that the attendees want their badge scanned but the blank side faces up :) So in addition to the “BIG” name and company name and on both sides, add the barcode as well to that list. That's really all that's needed, all else is fluff.

    Now the interesting part – you asked this information to be forwarded – well we have – but have yet to see anything change anywhere! Name tags seems to be the least of their worries.

    Oh and I'm sure you've been to some that stuff the name tags with ads from the gold sponsors and that's the side that displays so everyone looks like they are from the sponsoring company.

  • http://twitter.com/davestone Dave Stone

    Hack it. Keep a pen in your bag. Knot the lanyard behind neck to shorten.

    There's loads of conferences that get this right too… admittedly they usually have a design focus somewhere. Prefer the non-rant posts.. get back to work ;-)

  • http://stickyslides.blogspot.com Jan Schultink

    8. Create for a tag line for people with less obvious titles than Google.com, CEO. A professional variant of the TED-style ice breakers such as “I love white Burgundy”, for example: “VC pitch/presentation designer” :-)

  • http://paulgailey.com/ Paul Gailey

    between nº3 and nº4, is there space for a natty QR code that at a minimum links to the conference attendees page with bio or v/hcard?

  • http://arnoldwaldstein.com awaldstein

    This post made me smile Mark.

    Of course you are correct…we've all been there.

    I love that you allowed yourself the time for this rant…and a very good one at that ;)

  • Dave W Baldwin

    What is sad is how much money the folks responsible for this make.

  • http://twitter.com/chrismottes Chris Mottes

    Having just attended 2 in a row, one with pinned tags, the other with hanging, both with very little space for the important info, I was ranting about the same thing to a fellow attendee just yesterday. Another thing, please color code if there are obvious groupings that want to meet each other – VC's one color, entrepreneurs another, service sellers a third. Makes it a lot easier to focus your time…

  • http://BuzzVoice.com/ JohnAtkinson

    Amen Mark – I've been to hundreds of conferences over the years and nearly every one screws up the simple name tag game.

    Hopefully the conferences I go to will follow your instructions.

  • http://twitter.com/srhas @srhas

    So then when you meet a woman, for example, you have to been seen apparently photgraphing her breasts to get more info about her?!

  • alexlmiller

    My #1 peeve: Conference organizers selling advertising space on the badges – the last thing I want to see when trying to spot someone's name is an advertisement for a loosely related (at best) sponsor.

  • http://twitter.com/davidjblevine David Levine

    Mark – you're absolutely spot on. Card badges can work with just a little bit of thought – organisers though often rarely see things through the attendees' eyes! In the longer term, some entrepreneur should come up with a way where you don't broadcast the fact you do not know who you're talking to; we all know the eye-roaming when you takes your eyes off someone's face to check who they are. Acceptable for a first time, embarrassing when you know who it is – and potentially dangerous if the attendee is a lady and has the badge badly placed!

  • http://twitter.com/ebellity Emmanuel Bellity

    And to quote Larry David

    “things like this…interest me. i am not an inventor, but i am an improver. i improve things that are broken. this is broken–the system is broken. i'd like to improve it.”

    I'm actually forwarding this to an organizer

  • jkadis

    Thoughts on adding QR codes with contact info to name tags?

  • http://www.thinkgasm.com Tony @thinktony

    Thanks Mark, I hope you are ready to fund another of the dozen of so entrants over the last 10 years in the interactive tag space, like http://wwrs.w.gizmag.com/go/2543/ , Charmed Technologies or other. Long has the conference owners tried to enable more digital interactivity, but have failed. Colored badges meant to identify roles are great, but none usually knows what the color means. Its time for change here and I believe the market is ready.

    Digital signage, except for outdoor have been mostly train wrecks. Why? Capex and ROI have been unequal and the business models were dubious. I would certainly pay for a bump e-card conference badge, but depends on whether I am a seller or buyer. Replace those badge scanner machines with RFIDs or lets just embed a hand chip and give each other a secret shake, matching the right people

  • http://byJess.net Jess Bachman

    It would be interesting idea if each name tag had a barcode that people could scan with their cellphone cameras that would provide the persons contact info. You could also make a game out of it, where as each scanned barcode was a point, and the top 5 people with the most points won some prize. It would encourage people making connections and be a default icebreaker, as you can't just snap a photo of someones chest without at least saying hello.

    Please note I said 'interesting idea', not a good one.

  • Mal

    I like how conference name tags aren't two-sided TBH. For me the conference is about the talks, so it's good to have the option to turn the lanyard the other way around.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I really am secretly Larry David – my wife knows this – so I think I'd be great for the role ;-)

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    oooh, you're right. I didn't address this issue of the extra badges for presenters, sponsors, etc. the VIP BS stuff. Thanks! I'm going to edit the post now.

  • http://www.iamvictorio.us/ Victor Wong

    Name tags should be worn not in front of you but behind you. That way people don't have to go through the embarrassment of trying to see your name (if they should know who you are) or embarrass both of you by looking at your name and deciding you aren't the person they want to connect with at the conference.

  • http://www.canvera.com Dhiraj Kacker

    OK, where you get pics to illustrate your posts and what keywords (and where) did you search to get this?? :-)

  • Leonora Valvo

    Helps to have a solution that facilitates proper name tag design/production. Many people are using software (and in many cases, dare I say, Word merge docs) that is very limited in how it handles badging.

    There are millions of events and thousands of organizations putting them one. Just like your business, some are uber cutting edge and some are fairly unsophisticated.

    Next time you see a bad name badge, recommend etouches!

  • http://twitter.com/StaceyKann Stacey Kannenberg

    Bravo!! I was bemoaning this exact topic Sunday night when I picked up my name at yet another conference frustrated that they had overlooked all of the things you brilliantly stated! This should be the first page of every Event 101 manual!

  • tibbetts

    I think more metadata on a badge is helpful. MIT Sloan events often have colored dots you can stick on your badge to help people know where you are coming from, something like:
    Red – Investor
    Blue – Entrepreneur
    Yellow – Service Provider (lawyers, etc)
    Green – Job Seeker

    In other contexts, Usually these are just provided as stickers so you can opt in to displaying this information.

  • Eric Vreeland

    Haha great post Mark. Having worked on the name tag assembly line a couple times in my day I definitely agree with the simpler the better approach. Why waste time on making fancy badges instead of working on putting on an awesome conference.

  • Stephanie Hackney

    Aaaamen!

    As a former corporate event manager, I could not agree more with the points made. I would, however, still make pins available for those who want to use them (I still sometimes prefer a pin depending on what I'm wearing). Organizers can offer badges with clips, pins and magnets – people can then choose what they want. Then everyone's happy! And no, this will NOT break the bank.

    While we're on the subject, why not have the ability to print out additional badges on-site (after all, on-site registrants pay the same, or more, and should not be treated as second-class citizens, running around displaying a Kindergarten-handwriting emblazoned tag)? It's just not that hard folks.

    And, why not offer both tea and coffee? Yes, believe it or not, not EVERYONE drinks coffee (this rant was prompted by a recent event I attended where only coffee, in a cardboard carrier, was provided) – sad.

    Lastly, my biggest rant: plan, plan, plan your space requirements!!! Making attendees who have paid a lot of money to attend an event stand outside a conference room hoping someone inside faints and is carried out so they get their seat is simply ridiculous! (You know who you are, mister and miss conference organizer.) It's really easy to ask people what they want to attend and to make sure the most popular sessions have enough space allotted. Yes, they MIGHT change their mind once on site, but this process of asking for preferences is certainly preferable to having attendees – or worse, the press – stand outside a room missing valuable content for which they paid.

    Thunk…off my soapbox now.

  • Stephanie Hackney

    I don't believe the two are exclusive. It takes very little effort to create great nametags. Putting on an event is a huge undertaking, but my feeling is that you should do it right – high quality – or don't do it at all. And, that applies to EVERY aspect of the event.

  • Sri

    Definitely a nice post, we spend so much to make a conference hit…
    Digital Media, Print media, Social Media, Time and all forms of energy :)… As always we try to figureout the ROI on all of these, but forget a basic ideology which we all stand by “Appearance/presentation”. Posts like this is definitely as good start for marketers like myself to hang out too.
    Thank you for the post Mark & See you at columbia :)

  • http://twitter.com/egebhardt Elizabeth Gebhardt

    Magnet badges work great – have used them before. You can get printing of names (or at last minute use a sharpie) on essentially refrigerator magnet rectangles or circles. Then provide a small magnet that you put under your shirt. The two magnets obviously stick together – Works great .. very secure .. no holes in your clothes .. place it where people can read your name.

    I also like the bar code suggestion in comments. Maybe there is a role for 'Sticky Bits” in the badge business?

  • Jeffrey McManus

    Let's keep the magnetic devices away from the computers, please

  • http://www.tacticalinfosys.com Alex Kilpatrick

    Another important tip is to make the company name big (although not as big as the person's name). A lot of times I am scanning badges, looking for someone from a particular company. That's almost impossible with the font size most conferences use for the company name.

  • Roy Slavin

    Mark, you have raised important points here. Trouble is very few event organizers pay any attention to this. A simple solution to the length is a 10c cord lock, and use a lanyard with 2 hooks, then the holder does not swivel. Colors are important to the event organizers, not attendees. & Yes (font) size does matter. We have some innovative solutions. photobadge.com

  • MITDGreenb

    Not a fan of the magnetic types: stuff it in your pocket and your hotel room key no longer works! I hear you about having to look at people's… um… stomach on the hanging ones.

    The worst are the sticky ones. No way they stay on, you cheap bastards. Plus, I always feel like I should take the pen and write “Kick Me” on one…

    But here's an idea. Cameras have ever better resolution. Suppose your phone cam was reading the badges instead of you. As Al posted, you're scanning for name and company, but if you're near-sighted like I am, the font is never big enough. What if you scanned your phone around and it read the badges for you, flagging people (e.g., augmented reality) you are looking for? Or you could go more Minority Report and have the scanners around the room creating a real-time listing that phones could tap.

    By the way — check out ParallelCities. (I have no affiliation with them other than having met the founder a few times.) The idea is to do a sort of “check in” at an event and then be able to find people of interest. I am looking forward to trying it later this month at a large Boston event. It should make finding people in the room a lot easier.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    LOL

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Ah, yes, good point!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    thank you, sir! Was cathartic

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    spread the word!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    for sure. I don't see too many people do this – luckily. But do I really need another effing band with logos on it?

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    love that quote! thank you

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    well, if anybody can solve this visual problem I'm sure it's you! Great Yahoo! piece BTW – you should have published in next week, though!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    istockphoto

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I think AR is a few years away for an application like this but I hear ya. I have looked at several companies trying to solve the solution you discuss in the final paragraph. We'll get there. Culturally we're not yet ready.

  • http://twitter.com/mattamyers Matthew A Myers

    I imagine the purpose of “5. Don’t waste space with meaningless information” and putting the event logo in a large font is for media / photo opportunities and exposure.

  • Kam40_us

    As a conference organizer, I was interested at first in your post because I thought “ah! A helpful suggestion to make badges better, maybe something new I could try?” But no, just a rant, stating the painfully obvious — that nametags flip over (oh dear!) and people want to know other people's names and companies at a conference. Duh. And then I'm treated to “for fuck's sake”. Now, that was helpful! And necessary! The one suggestion you did make – magnetic badge holders – is a good one, except that they are expensive and does anyone return them at the end of the conference, even if you make an announcement during the event to do so? So more stuff for the landfill. And an added cost to the attendee. If you can write a blog with some helpful suggestions, I'll read it gladly.

  • http://cloudcomputing.blogspot.com/ Chirag Mehta

    I agree with all your suggestions. The people who design badges must not think about how people actually use them. A few clever/cool design approaches that I would share with you:

    1) We had a group of 100 people visiting our office as part of BayCHI conference. We printed the logo of the company that they worked for on their badges. This made it relatively easy for others to differentiate between name and company on a badge. It also sent the message to the participants that “we care”. We got compliments from them and many of them have still kept their badges as souvenirs.

    2) IxDA 08 conference had a badge with two holes in it. That made it impossible to flip the badge, even if it was hanging from a cheap lanyard. (http://whitneyhess.com/blog/2009/02/18/essentials-to-designing-a-conference/).

    3) IxDA 09 conference badge had “analog tweet” on the badge, where people could write analog tweets. The badge was also integrated with Microsoft Surface table so that people could connect with each other and find out cool things. Check out the video at http://www.webbit.com/2009/03/still-surfacing-more-of-manifests-ms-surface-table-application-from-interaction-09/

  • http://blog.webconsuls.com Judy Helfand

    Hi Mark,

    I came by here today because @justinlevy RT this post. The title caught my eye. Ironically, last month I was at BWE10 in Las Vegas and had hoped to meet @justinlevy, but in a crowd of 4000+ and only knowing what he looks like based on an avatar of him on his wedding day…well, suffice it to say I never found him. I was able to find some other “on-line” friends, but it was not easy, particularly when half of the time you are looking at people's backs.

    I agree with everything you said and I will offer that the BWE10 name tags were 100% larger than those from BWE09, but still all of your issues hold.

    Here is my suggestion: BIBS! Have you ever been in a competition – skiing, biking, road race…they give you BIBS so that people can find you and recognize you in a crowd. Whenever my young children participated in alpine or nordic ski races they had a bib and you could find them on the mountain or see them approaching on the trail.

    I don't know how many conference attendees would wear a BIB…but maybe I have created a niche! Let me know what you think.

    Judy

  • Belushi

    …this is real interesting stuff, but I think the real questions we should be asking are (1) Was Ned Beatty stimatized or typecast following the rape scene in Dileverance, and (2) Does Snoop Dog add “street cred” to Katy Perry, much in the same way that Dr. Dre did for Eminem early his career?

    BTW, congrats on the University of Chicago (Bloomberg) ranking – you no longer have to feel insecure that you can't drop the H – bomb or the S – bomb like many of your peers :)

  • http://mark.atwood.name/ Mark Atwood

    “We don’t need all that extra VIP junk where you say if we’re a speaker, moderator or sponsor on our name tags. It doesn’t really make us feel extra special. It’s just a distraction.” That is not there for you, nor is it for the other attendees. That is there for the event staff and the event security, so they can tell at a glance whether you are allowed through a given door at at given time.