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01

How we organized 404fest: an insider’s story.

In Russia, if you type 404 in your browser, the top suggestion will not be ‘404 Error’, it’ll be 404fest. Many people who don’t even know what a 404 error is will have at least heard about 404fest, one of the most prominent conferences for IT professionals held in Samara. Mercury Development was at the origins of the first 404fest in 2007, which attracted a modest audience of about 200 guests. The festival was a great success and was then held every year… until it was not. It stopped after 2014, for a number of reasons beyond our control.

Fast forward to 2018. It’s been four years since the last 404fest, and we are longing for the drive and craziness that came with the event. Also, we miss our friend Rabbit of No Luck, the festival mascot (see here). So in May, right after the success of the Long Design Weekend, we decide that we finally have what it takes to bring the legendary festival back to life. And so we did. 404fest 2018 became the largest in its history, and 78% of its participants are already waiting to buy tickets for the next one.

How did we do it? What makes an IT festival great in 2018? If you would like to know, keep reading.

02

BEFORE THE FESTIVAL

The team

How many programmers does it take to prepare a large-scale IT conference for 1,300 people?

Well, strictly speaking, just one. As well as 10 designers, a PR manager, a content manager, a transportation manager and a purchase manager. And this is only from Mercury!

Of course, the team behind the previous 404fest was there to help. Now that it had been four years since the last festival, most of its organizers had moved to other cities and countries. Luckily, working in distributed teams is something we do regularly. We had weekly calls and added all tasks to Trello: in total, over 500 cards and check lists, some of which never left the “Later” column. Well, we do hope to get to them later.

A special thanks goes to Dima Fetiskin: though he was not directly involved in the organization, he helped us a lot with technical stuff; and, of course, to Denis Kortunov, who agreed to this madness surprisingly easily.

Design concept and website

Four months is a very short time for organizing a festival. So, the first thing we did was create a minimalist one-page website that consisted of an inspirational line saying “404 Fest is coming!” and one button: “Get ticket”. Only when we saw that tickets started selling (thanks to the most die-hard supporters), did we start discussing the concept of the event.

As can be expected from true designers, we were sitting in a bar when the germ of an idea was born. We decided that RetroWave would be a perfect combination of going back to the origins, on the one hand, and of the versatility of the digital world and an attempt to take a peek into the future, on the other (back then, in the bar, it seemed like a genius idea).

The next step was far from easy. We could not use anything left over from the previous festivals, and there was a lot of designing to be done: social networks and mobile app, new stickers and badges, booths and rollups, notepads, pens and promo materials, and of course, the festival website that, by then, had much more content and several sections.

For the true hackers among us, we hid an Easter egg promo code in the code of the website. There was a line of code that referenced Rabbit Cipher (we were surprised to learn that such an algorithm existed). In the end, that promo code became very popular.

There is one more thing that must be mentioned: the tons of videos we prepared for the festival. Jokes used in our video invitations were hand-picked in a special chat; unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), just a few of them made it into the videos. We continued making videos until the opening of the festival, and, when we saw the reaction of the audience to the opening movie, we knew that it was totally worth the effort.

Speakers

Conference content was managed by a team of moderators. We needed to find an expert for each section: someone well-versed on the subject, who knows good speakers and can objectively evaluate presentations. After that, all we had to do was coordinate efforts and resolve organizational issues.

Almost from the very beginning, we added an “I want to speak at the festival” button to the festival website, in the hope that some sought-after speaker would click it one day. By the end of August, we had more than 150 applicants, which was several times more than the number of available time slots. We were hungry for good speakers, so we even added one more section: Product management. But it did not help much: we still had to reject more than 100 excellent presenters. If you are one of them, please don’t hold a grudge: just NO LUCK this time.

Mobile application

404fest 2013 was the starting ground for our own product: an event application builder. Since then, our application has grown in many ways. In the app version 2018, we added several new sections, including a short guide to Samara hot spots and a general chat where communication continued for at least a week after the festival.

The application appeared on the App Store much later than we expected, because of Apple’s policy that requires event apps to be submitted by the event organizer, not by the developer. So Apple rejected our app twice: they could not believe that Mercury Development is indeed the organizer of the event. We had to make a personal call to the appeal committee in San Jose, nothing else worked.

404 fest official app was installed 1,125 times: this is 90% of attendees. Speakers were asked 450 questions in the app, and 7,228 messages were sent in general chat.

There was one more thing that, in the long run, saved us a lot of time: integration of the website with the mobile app. All necessary information, like the finalized schedule, presentation descriptions, speaker and sponsor information, was taken from the app and added to the website with the help of a specially created widget. This made things a lot easier for our guests: they knew they could be sure that the schedule would always be up-to-date, regardless of where they check it.

PR campaign and sales

We started the PR campaign for the festival by posting a short video teaser: no dates, times, or even a program, just the viciously smiling Rabbit of No Luck. Still, from the number of likes and reposts, we could see that a lot of people out there were waiting for the festival to happen.

When the ticket sale started, we offered a special price to the first 100 buyers, and those tickets were sold out in less than two days, even though the program was still not known, and not a single speaker was listed on the festival website. But the festival’s reputation did its job.

The next surge in ticket sales happened after we emailed people who had attended previous festivals. The first of those emails was opened by 60% of recipients, which is a very good conversion rate for mailings, given that we had not updated our mailing list for several years. On the whole, mass emails turned out to be almost the most effective promotion channel.

As for ads in social networks, they were slightly less effective. Russian social network VKontakte offers the ability to precisely target ads, and we used banners only to remind website visitors about ourselves. As for Facebook, their paid ads were not very effective, even though they attracted most of organic traffic.

By the end of August, we had sold more than 400 tickets, and sales stalled. This made us worry if raising prices was really such a good idea. Nevertheless, we announced that the ticket price would soon go up, and the sales started creeping up.

By the end of September, we sold 70% of tickets. Interestingly, the number of registrations peaked in the last week before the event. Then we realized that it would be very problematic to squeeze any more people into the available space, so we promptly declared SOLD OUT and stopped ticket sales.

The next day saw the highest number of tickets sold in one day. First, all the companies who had reserved tickets in advance now decided to pay for them. Second, we received several emails saying “I have already bought tickets to Samara and even reserved a hotel. Please let me buy a ticket? Please? [the cat from Shrek eyes] What could we do?

Kidnapping of the Rabbit

The truth about 90% of all our PR activities is that we came up with them on the spur of the moment. That’s also how we made up a funny story about Rabbit of No Luck being kidnapped from the Dominion Tower and then miraculously turning up in Mercury office. Frankly, we did not expect much from that story; we were just hoping that the Facebook commotion around the Rabbit would draw people’s attention to the festival. As expected, very soon we got busted and people lost interest in the fake conflict ….until a real conflict erupted.

A six-foot-tall Rabbit of No Luck accompanied by several balaclava-clad designers made a pit stop at a MacDonald’s and somehow sent the guy working the takeout window into a fit of rage. A scene ensued, someone filmed it and put the video on Facebook. This caused a heated discussion about the general appropriateness of showing up in public places together with a life-size Rabbit puppet. After that, we were contacted by a number of people asking about the upcoming festival. The most stubborn skeptics still refused to believe that the incident was not staged to draw attention to our project.

03

AT THE FESTIVAL

Secret room

When asked what about 404fest they will remember the most, festival attendees named the Secret Room 404 almost as often as key speakers. Well, we always knew this idea would be a hit :-)

In room 404, we filled 658 cups with a delicious pep-up drink, a specialty of Mercury Development. But the funny thing was that not everyone came to the room for the drink, some just popped in for the snug atmosphere. And, by the way, on Sunday we took even greater care of our guests: instead of the Mercury Quest drink, we filled the cups with various dairy beverages.

Carrot Rush

Here’s an interesting fact: the Carrot Rush browser game that we launched before the festival and Carrot Rush VR at the festival itself are two different games, with their own engines and graphics. The festival record in Carrot Rush VR was the impressive 78 carrots! How that guy did it? We don’t have the slightest idea. Dear mysterious stranger, if you are now reading these lines, please share your tactics with us. The guys in the office have almost broken their necks trying to beat your record.

The game was so popular that almost everyone played it. Even the Samara Region Governor Dmitry Azarov gave it a shot, but won a little fewer points than votes at the last election. No luck!

And by the way, the good old table soccer at our company’s booth was even more popular than Carrot Rush! Old school games are still a hit, whatever our kicker bot says.

Apple Watch prize draw

To win the prize from Mercury Development - Apple Watch Series 4 - you had to prove that you are not a robot. Nevertheless, 13% of participants clicked the “I’m a robot” button. Skynet is coming!

Dear Denis the prize winner: please forgive us for the pink wristband! It was the only Series 4 we could get hold of – they were completely sold out! And we looked everywhere.

Why would we need all that?

This seems to be the question we most often hear from our director :-)

Well, we’ll be frank with you: we do all these things to promote ourselves, to show how great we are, to prove that we can open up new knowledge horizons and organize a world-level event for IT professionals. But what we do best is design and develop apps, including great apps for your events, and we certainly want to get you interested in what we do. And who knows? Maybe our app will be a hit at your next event, and this 404fest won’t be our last one.

Sincerely yours,
Mercury Development team