Part 3 in a series. Parts 1 (SEM Conferences: Reflections at the Crossroads) and 2 (Dying Hard or Hardly Dying? The Economic Viability of Live Digital Conferences) here.
Now you’ve heard about why the conference world might be changing, and also why the conferences remain important.
Now for the fun. What have I learned at all these shows?
Being a frequent speaker is certainly a bonus, because it puts your butt in a chair next to some speakers charged with the task of providing hot new information, perspective, etc. It’s almost impossible not to absorb a lot of specific detail.
Peers push us. In the PPC arena, for example, no single expert can maintain a lock on all best practices or advanced techniques. But getting a quarterly survey course – in the form of presentations by a global talent pool of peers – is a great way to shore up blind spots and weak spots in one’s knowledge.
So it’s a given that you should learn quite a bit at the events. But what else? If I advise you to “plan out your schedule in advance so you can be sure to prioritize your learning,” or “attend the networking events and hand out at least ten business cards,” I’ll not only have bored you to tears, but you may assume I’m on the payroll of Vistaprint.
Here are 21 hopefully unusual insights from the past 12 years of conference-going. This list isn’t directed specifically to attendees or speakers, but rather, a mix of anyone and everyone involved or potentially involved.
- Speaking doesn’t generate immediate business for speakers, but it’s an invaluable indirect means of supporting one’s business identity. People ask me if I “get anything out of” speaking at so many conferences. If they’ve been disappointed in the “results” of speaking themselves, more often than not they’re implying “it’s a costly waste of time, so I wouldn’t do it again.” It’s not for everyone, of course, but YES, it’s worth it if you can spare the huge effort it takes. I’ve concluded that there are few better ways to get the word out. But the process is often indirect and the sales cycle is extremely long. I’ve had companies call us up and say they saw us six years ago, and are now looking for a vendor! So when someone is starting out as a solo consultant, and they ask me what’s the one best thing they could do to generate new business, I tell them “start speaking at conferences six years ago.” Or the next best thing: start now.
- Speaking at the major events is the quintessential “foot in the door” scenario. It’s hard to break in, but it gets easier when you have a track record. So here’s my foolproof three-pronged plan to get that foot in the door:(i) Submit irresistible pitches for something ‘entirely new’ as opposed to incremental takes on existing tracks. You could find yourself dominating that niche for years. I’d love to provide specific examples, but this applies to half the people I’ve met at the conferences. Greg Jarboe “invented” the whole “fusion of SEO and PR” genre; Christine Churchill spoke regularly just on keyword research; the editor of this very publication specialized in optimizing sites for Google AdSense yield. Even if your sub-niche doesn’t prove to have legs (“I’m sick of being the Pinterest expert”), it’s all good.
(ii) Start with the lesser-known events, local events, etc. Work your way up. It also helps to practice public speaking, even if it’s just giving presentations internally at your company.
(iii) Find yourself a sponsor. Some existing speaker or influencer in the events game who will vouch for you, put in a good word. It would also help if you
(iv) developed a following through publishing and in social media, or
(v) work for a big, famous brand, and convince bosses to let you help them fan out the evangelism beyond the top brass’s efforts (like, say, Thomas Knoll who did this for Zappos). Then again, if you have (iv) and (v) going for you, you probably don’t need my advice.
- You can’t kid a kidder. More to the point, in a room full of marketers, even ‘sort of loud’ may sound quiet. As an unassuming Canadian with a tiny streak of showmanship in my blood, once engulfed in the SEM conference maelstrom, I came to the realization that the showman side was going to need to come out. Outside of seven remaining Americans in Wisconsin and Missouri who feel that soft-spokenness is a virtue, you’ll generally find that downplaying your accomplishments does you no good in a conference environment. When meeting strangers, be sure to keep their attention somehow. A few folksy retirees and professors of “get rich slow” may be able to get away with that whole passive-aggressive “humble millionaire” act. Doesn’t work in a marketing conference environment. Talk up your accomplishments. Sing opera in the lobby of the Chicago Hilton. Wear the Elton John glasses.
- Powerpoint sucks, and truth be told, a lot of our industry’s experts sort of suck at speaking. All the clever people say it these days and it’s getting to be a cliché, but I’m afraid it’s true: Powerpoint has a ruinous effect on audience attention and motivation. Bullet points are drab. Direct eye contact and connection are harder when we’re sticking closely to a podium and notes. This isn’t about finding better presentation software. I’m saying most of us have lost the ability to give even a brief lecture without the crutch of notes. Actually, nearly all business conference speakers never had this ability at all. To oversimplify: university professors are great at talking (at length, after extensive preparation), and execute nothing. Most of us are the reverse of that. We’re trying to be just good enough at talking to interest someone in working with us (see #1 above). We should get better at connecting. But given the incentive structure of conferences, people are only going to be able to improve their long-form oration skills if their business really falls off and they find themselves with plenty of time to hone that particular skill. It’s virtually impossible to be both a star presenter and a successful business operator. Steve Jobs achieved this; Larry Page, not so much. Even the great Tony Hsieh lifted himself up to be just as good as he needed to be to present… but we all know that his real strength lies in running his company. See if you can’t learn what you need to learn in spite of the fact that a given speaker doesn’t pump you up like Tony Robbins.
- Despite conference rules to limit promotional material to one or two slides, a minority of vendor presenters blow right through that rule and will give you a relentless, droning, unfair (to other speakers, many attendees, etc.) sales pitch. Next time this happens, know that some speakers put in a lot of effort to abide by those rules. Reward the transgressors with negative reviews. Walk out, if you like.
- New formats lead to innovation. Many conferences do frequently listen to attendee input as to the best ways of improving the experience. Interactivity and personalization have been big pushes. Birds-of-a-feather tables and Expert Roundtables have been popular, for example. Tweeted questions and projection-stream hashtag streams, on the other hand, seem to me to have been fads that largely haven’t paid off. You used to hear more about ‘unconferences.’ I’m afraid I don’t know what they are, so I can’t help you there.
- Go to enough events, and you’ll have a new family. Some of the smartest people in digital marketing hate their physical neighbors. I laughed out loud when I saw someone blog at length on that subject! But it happens. When your community is one of shared interests, you feel a closer and closer connection to people from all over the place. I’m guilty of being too excited when I get off a plane, looking forward to heading out to dinner with my “conference family,” and yet when trying to transact normal business back home, sporting a contemptuous thought bubble that reads something like this: “Local yokel schmokel dokel!” Occupational hazard.
- Go to too many events, and you’ll burn out. Above a certain threshold is bad for most people and bad especially for family life. Even seemingly strong people suddenly lose interest in it. (See Brad Feld’s account of stopping business travel because it led to depression). If it so happens you don’t want to be on the road much, you’re human, or possibly wise.
- The network attached to the conference “family” is an asset in getting things done. It’s not all about comfort, steak and merlot, and chit-chat. The “family” are influencers and attached to other influencers. It’s been a tremendous asset.
- People will tell you secrets over orange juice. OK, not over orange juice usually. But strangers have no problem talking shop and divulging secrets to each other at these events. Again, it’s probably the craving for connection, but also a nice perk of face-to-face. The bond of trust created by an in-person meeting may lead to a willingness to break the “you go first, no, you go first,” cycle of confiding in one another.
- Attendees typically have narrow interests in furthering their careers. And although I think that’s weird, in fact, it’s smart. At least 40% of paying customers seem almost bizarrely goal-directed and uninterested in the larger issues or in developing ninja-level expertise in various disciplines within digital marketing. To give just one example, at a full-day seminar in Chicago many years ago, one student could not get off the topic of trademarked keywords. By the end of her tirade, she was lambasting me for apparently siding with her competitor and for not giving her good advice on how to properly opt in or out of some class-action lawsuit! While most forms of tunnel vision aren’t as severe, it’s common, and normal. Conference junkies and content providers are actually the abnormal ones, so drunk are we on the “wine of philosophy” that the ancient Greeks warned about. The rewards of knowledge, at a certain point, are purely sublime and not at all pragmatic.
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