I'm trying to get into the heads of business owners. Specifically, those who come to marketing conferences to learn how to get more business, tomorrow, at a lower cost of acquisition. But I'm thinking about the needs of all growing businesses, in the end. Those who do not attend events may not attend because it doesn't seem to sync with their immediate priorities. That's important information in itself.
So I just went through a major conference agenda with a scoring system in hand. The criterion is simple. I ask if each session satisfies this condition: "Talks about how my company can get more leads or sales."
The way that's worded, it will certainly assign a lower score to sessions that could be characterized as "Important, but not Urgent," and may overrate some sessions that focus on "quick tips" that make people money fast (supposedly) while neglecting to situate those tactics in the context of priority-setting and overall grounding.
Still, as brutal as this scoring system is, I think it's a good way to identify session material that may only be there because of a sense that the topic might be hot. Or material that found its way up there because insiders debate it a lot to show off.
The scoring system goes from 0 to 4.
0= not at all. 1= very indirectly. 2= somewhat. 3= pretty well indeed. 4= yes, entirely. this session totally talks about how my company can get more leads or sales.
At a high level, the first thing you notice is that sessions that discuss industry politics, tugs of war in and across organizations, vendor priorities, etc. are going to score low. Sessions about the state of the law in some aspect of marketing are going to score low on this scale as well. Surprisingly, "advanced" and "technical" tracks also often score low. "Advanced" shouldn't just be used as a cover for someone getting up on stage and showing off. (We're all guilty at times.)
There is no doubt that many business owners need and want their people to be attending a diversity of sessions. But I certainly hope that this isn't to the exclusion of the low hanging fruit stuff that really makes people money.
In the end, both sides are important. If you don't understand search algorithms and fundamentals, you are completely out to lunch. But for conference organizers, if you start stacking the program with sessions that seem of merely academic interest, you risk turning it into a whole different type of event. Some attendees, unfortunately, will take that as a cue that the show's really about a few days off work, instead of about optimizing business when they get back.
Are you kidding? I don't think I want to get into trouble today. It's just too nice out. Here's a few thoughts though - consider them to be based a composite sketch of search marketing conferences.
Sessions that rank 0-2 on my scoring system, but people need to go despite that:
Anything about information architecture or search engine friendly site design
Universal & blended search
A limited selection of SEO topics that address technical issues like 301's and major no-no's that could haunt your organic presence for months or years to come
Sessions that rank 0-2 that frankly may bore you, and often bore me, at least if I'm trying to figure out how my clients are going to increase their bottom line tomorrow:
Anything about agency politics, organizational process, etc. Oh, it matters. But then again, if it doesn't apply to you, it really, really doesn't matter.
Squabbling about attribution and getting "credit" for sales
Meeting the vendors, especially from second and third tier traffic sources
Um, I'll just come out and say it. PageRank Sculpting.
Arcane legal debates
Debates about what color someone's hat is
At the other extreme, sessions about conversions, actionable insights from analytics data, specific tactics (especially when labeled "amazing"), and pretty much anything with "ecommerce" in the title ranks closer to the "4" end of the scale. Take that for what it's worth. No matter what the session is called, chances are they aren't handing out money in the aisles (with the exception of Tim Ash). When they are, you should take it.
Oh, to be a fly on the wall for the attendee comments about the panelists at a large search conference with many speakers and moderators...? I think you can probably guess that comments aren't always glowing. Paying audiences can be scathing in their feedback these days. Sarah Lacy's botched interview of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerman is only one example of the "tell 'em what you think" trend.
As a frequent speaker, I know how tough it is. I definitely don't always score top marks but I make up for it in volume :). Some folks - the ones who get the best marks - are actually something like professional speakers. They make their living from wowing audiences. The rest of us do it part-time.
I've read some reviews of "how to speak" recently that seem to place a really high bar on speakers who clearly mean well. I think some of those approaches are unrealistic.
But from reviewing past conference attendee comments, I'm struck by how easy it should be to avoid the biggest mistakes. If you give attendees a particularly bad experience, you're just shooting yourself in the foot.
So here's a list of five common don'ts drawn directly from attendee comments. To put it another way, you will guarantee yourself poor feedback if you:
1. Trot out the sales pitch. Everyone wants to know you've done something valuable for the world, but above all, they are there to learn something useful for their own business. All you need to do is to balance out your cursory amount of salesiness by adding insight and value to the session - get the weighting right and folks will love what you have to say.
Get it wrong, and they'll not only hate your guts, they may even walk out of the session. Not only don't people pay $1,000 to be pitched on your company's services, oftentimes the sales pitch is laughably general and aimed at a different kind of buyer or even a mass audience. I won't name names, but companies across the board constantly risk making this mistake. Resist the temptation to fold in three extra "about us slides" when you were allowed one.
As I said, every company - Google included - falls for this temptation. Amazingly, Google often gets an easy ride when it does this. But then, they're Google. You're not. :)
2. Disrespect others. People in the audience are pretty sensitive to when a speaker is monopolizing someone else's time, or engaging in a petty war of words with another speaker rather than (for example) giving the audience enough time for direct engagement in Q&A. The "celebrity catfight" theory sounds good on paper, but again, this is a business conference, not Jerry Springer. Conference programmers can save the fun catfight events for optional after-hours slots. Then you can take it as far as sumo wrestling.
3. Don't show up. Attendees are merciless in their comments about speakers who cancel. Listen, it's a given that a certain percentage of speakers will be ill, or have had a death in the family. There are many reasons to cancel an appearance. It's just that attendees seem not to see it that way. So let's compromise on this one. Don't bail without telling anyone. Also, definitely don't call the conference organizers and mention that you'd love to be there, but your Big Important Company has a "key meeting" that you just can't miss. Especially don't do this if you had a standalone 45-minute session, forcing the conference organizer himself to fill the slot with his own backup material. This happened at a marketing conference I attended in New York last year. The thing is, other speakers also had meetings, and some took 2-3 days off to travel to the event. What happens is that conference organizer quietly tells about 46 people what happened over cocktails, and people hear about it.
4. Openly admit that you aren't prepared. Imagine yourself sitting in the audience and hearing that.
5. Save your best material for the bar. I have informally cross-referenced negative comments about speakers coming in flat, or not living up to their billing, with the number of hours slept and number of drinks consumed the night before. No one is expecting anyone not to attend the parties, but it is all relative. A good rule of thumb is that anything more than four hours sleep, and less than nine drinks consumed, gives you a better chance of actually resembling yourself the next day. Exceptions to the rule may include Superman, Dave Naylor, and Frank Watson.
The audience has spoken! Good luck at your next gig, and remember, Abraham Lincoln probably got low ratings his first couple of times out too. And the silent majority may be internally thanking you more than they let on.
Or is it storming the tunnel? Having coffee with some pals at BCE Place, I noticed this video ad for Search Engine Strategies Toronto 2007. These are showing on screens throughout the PATH, the interconnected series of underground concourses that connect pretty much the entire downtown. Sorry for the shaky-cam. Blame Starbucks Tall Bold.
The next day, to convey the proper statesmanlike image as Chair of this conference, I decided to hold a baby. However, possibly because the coffee had worn off, I not only slept like a baby - I slept while holding a baby! My neighbor looks worried.