How to write a great call for abstracts

6 minute read

Researchers receive hundreds of call for abstracts. To make sure yours hits its mark, make it catchy, informative and scannable.

Issuing your call for abstracts (aka call for papers) is probably the first interaction you’ll have with your potential authors and delegates. And first impressions matter. It’ll innocently land into the jam-packed inbox of a busy researcher who’ll decide (probably in a split-second or so) if it’s worth opening or not.   

Just like any other email marketer, you need people to open your email, engage with it, and follow your call to submit their work. So like a good email marketer, you should lay out your goals to:

  • Increase your open rate. Your open rate just means the number of people who open your email. If people aren’t opening it, they’re not going to be submitting, so if you fall at this hurdle, you’re pretty much goosed.
  • Increase your click-through rate. Your click-through rate is the number of people who click one or more links in your email. The point of sending your call for abstracts is so that people take action, right?
  • Convert contacts into authors. Any successful conference needs a programme of content, and how do you get it? By convincing researchers to submit their papers.  

So how do you, as a conference organiser, make sure your call for papers is convincing people to take action? Here are some handy guidelines to follow that will help you meet your goals.

Increase your open rate by…Giving your email a strong subject line

The first thing people will see in their inbox is your subject line. And your subject line can make or break your call for papers metrics.

Generic subject lines like “Call for abstracts” can get lost in the crowd, and may even get caught in spam folders. Instead, your subject line should summarise the email and should contain your action. Make sure it is clear, relevant and to the point. Think strong, compelling subject lines when you’re promoting your conference’s call for papers.

Concision is also important. If your subject line is too long, it will get cut off, and your message won’t be as effective. You should also include the name of your conference (go for the short name) in the subject line so the recipient knows which conference you are.

An e.g. of a subject line that’s specific and to-the-point

Screenshot of Brian's inbox showing a call for abstracts with an effective subject line
Last Call: Submit to DSEC2019 this week

Increase your call for abstracts open rate by…Managing your list of recipients

The last thing you will want to be to a potential delegate is repetitive spam. Imagine a salesperson calling you up repeatedly nagging you to buy. You wouldn’t be too impressed! The same goes for emails. Sending to a vast amount of people that don’t actually want to hear from you may damage the reputation of your conference and can lead to the recipients marking your emails as spam, so all your future emails may not reach them.

Build your list wisely so you don’t disrupt the metrics you have in place for your call for abstracts. You can start with the list of authors and delegates who participated in your conference in the past. This will ensure that the list you’re sending to only contains people who want to hear from you. And check that it’s compliant with data protection laws like the GDPR, which applies to anyone who controls the personal data of others. If you send your call for abstracts to researchers who haven’t given their consent to receive emails from you, your event will be in breach of GDPR, which could leave you at risk of being fined.

A tool like MailChimp is a good, cost-effective option (free for less than 2,000 subscribers) to help you manage your list of subscribers. Duplicates will be automatically dealt with. And it will help to make sure your emails aren’t marked as spam (you really don’t want that). You can have different lists and send personalised emails. Plus, you’ll be able to easily track open rates and click-through rates and other stats to improve your emails.

In every call for papers email you send out, include an unsubscribe link so people can remove themselves from the list if they wish.

Increase your click-through rate by…Making it easy to read and find info

In 2018, Microsoft published a study showing that our collective average attention span is now only eight seconds. It was 12 seconds back in 2000. Your call for abstracts is competing for people’s dwindling attention, so it needs to do its work fast. Which means a design that’s eminently scannable.

Make it easy to read and find info by carefully formatting your text into headings, subheadings and paragraphs. Make sure the email contains all the relevant information, and add some colours and spacing. Remember, white space is your friend.  The content needs to be easy to read, not be too long and have a clear indication of what the next action is.

Some abstract management software gives conference organisers the ability to send their call for abstracts to their entire contact list. But make sure whatever software you’re using allows you to add formatting like headings, bold italics etc, like you can with Ex Ordo.

Sending a message on Ex Ordo

Gif of sending a call for abstracts on Ex Ordo

Increase your click-through rate by…Ensuring your calls to action stand out

In order for people to act when they receive your call for abstracts, it’s pretty important that your calls to action (links or buttons to read more about your conference or submit) stand out. Adding some white space around them can help this. You could also put them in a different colour and place them near the beginning of the email.

Compare the two emails below. The first one feels like a wall of text that doesn’t make it easy for the receiver to scan for important information (Where will the conference be held? When is the closing date for submissions?). The second puts a coloured link to submit right near the top of the email, and it puts the most important info first.

Compare this plaintext email

Poorly structured call for abstracts where the info is displayed as a wall of text

With this one sent via Ex Ordo

Call for abstracts with good structure and clear calls to action

Increase your click-through rate by…Not relying on images to tell the story

Don’t rely on images to communicate your message. Some organisations have firewalls that block images from appearing on emails. So make sure your email works just as well without images as with.

When looking at the design elements of the email, certain college systems have set up a firewall that can block images that appear in emails. If you love to pepper your call for abstracts with images, there may be a lot of white spaces in the email by the time the recipient opens it. And if you’ve included any important info in the images, it’ll be lost to the reader.

Convert contacts into authors by…Giving them reasons to in the email

Your delegates are busy people who make choices all the time in a world of 24-hour media messages. So your call for papers needs to sell them on the importance of your event.

Fear and greed play starring roles in the volatility of financial markets. But they’re also powerful motivators for your potential delegates, so tap into them when writing your call for abstracts. If there’s new legislation coming or changes in the field that your conference is going to address, make it clear how your event will help delegates respond or succeed.  

Keynote speakers have a lot of pulling power for conferences too. They often set the tone of the conference and boost the conferences’ credibility. So don’t be shy about name dropping them in the email. Delegates are often attracted to particular conferences by the profile of the keynote speaker or even by an exciting breakout session.

And the location of your conference may mean the difference between someone being able to attend or not, so make sure it’s clear right from the off.

Convert contacts into authors by…Making it easy to submit

Your call for abstracts shouldn’t end when someone clicks the link to submit. Think about your CFP as extending right up until authors complete their submission. Your online conference software and the abstract management system should be user-friendly and make it easy for authors to follow your submission guidelines and upload their research in a minimal amount of time. If it’s clunky or cumbersome, they may become discouraged from completing their submission – which is bad news for the quality of work presented at your event.

Some tips for increasing the reach of your call for papers

Promote your CFP using other avenues

Nobody wants to go to a conference where the same people have been talking about the same things for decades. So it’s vital you’re using the relevant channels to get your message across, especially when it comes to reaching the early-career practitioners and students in your sector.

If you’re more likely to find younger researchers on Twitter but you’re only announcing via email, you could be ignoring a whole cohort of potential delegates.

PaperCrowd, the free research conference directory. Sites like PaperCrowd help conference organisers can find new researchers for every event.  Conference organisers can use PaperCrowd to add and promote their conference to known and new researchers. They can also research other events in their field and make sure their conference is not clashing. And then researchers use PaperCrowd to search and follow conferences they are passionate about. PaperCrowd has conferences from all disciplines.

Social media. Like it or not, social media is everywhere. If you’re an organiser, it’s key to promoting your event and connecting with attendees. And people often think of social media event marketing as a time-consuming task that doesn’t deliver any real value. But when it comes to the marketing channels that drive hype, engagement and attendance, social media is right near the top.

Other conferences in your field. If a conference with similar topics to yours exists (and you’re not competing for delegates) ask if they’ll share some call for abstracts fliers in their delegate packs and if you can give a short address at their event.

Closing thoughts

Good stories are aligned with people’s worldviews and their feelings of belonging to a group. Form your event’s narrative so it appeals to the audience you hope to attract and clearly articulates the purpose of attending your conference. What value can you bring to your attendees, whether they’re early-career or established researchers? Once you’ve nailed this, and put some thought into the subject line and layout, your call for papers should have people getting fired up to submit.

Brian Campbell

Brian is a proud marketeer and is responsible for helping people find Ex Ordo. He works part-time as a lecturer for NUI, Galway and loves quizzing his students on the latest business trends and insights. Brian enjoys hanging out with his baby nephews, playing and watching sports, and dancing his socks off at Ex Ordo Fridays. He also likes to keep a keen eye on the scholarly research space and has co-organised an academic conference to boot.