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What makes a conference worth attending? Lessons from a serial conference attendee

February 24, 2014


Despite an abundant amount of information online, coupled with Twitter and other news delivery feeds, conferences are still an important and necessary source of education.

Conferences help to:

  • Open your mind to fresh ideas and different perspectives
  • Facilitate best practice sharing, not just limited to your company
  • Keep you up to date with the latest news and goings-on
  • Allow personal interaction with your peers, thought-leaders and industry-known figures (“Matt Cutts – OMG!”)

When you start to get a few conferences under your belt, you soon start to realize that some are out of this world amazing, whereas others make you think, “Wow, that’s two days of my life that I’ll never get back again”.

So other than a tropical beach location and catchy session-filler music, here’s a list of essentials that I look for to help separate the good from the bad.

1. I don’t just want the latest and greatest. Are there also lessons that will stand the test of time?

It’s always good to hear the most up-to-date news and changes going on in an industry, particularly in fast-moving areas like search and social marketing. But with so many changes happening so often, things can become out of date relatively quickly.

I’ve always found the most conference value from topics that stand the test of time. A good example of this was the 5 Stages of SEO Maturity model from SES Conference & Expo. Even though I saw this session several years ago, I still find myself applying this model today.

2. One size does not fit all. Has the content been tailored to different experience levels and has this been communicated clearly by the event organizers?

There’s nothing more disappointing than being geared up for a conference expecting one thing, only for it to end up being something completely different — particularly when it comes to topic levels being either too basic, or so complicated that it leaves you confused.

Conferences that match their content to experience levels of the audience, and clearly communicate this up front, really help to set the right expectations for attendees so that they aren’t wasting time and training budget. Sometimes it isn’t immediately clear by reading through the session descriptions whether a session is going to be skimming the surface of the topic or getting into the real, technical grit.

What I like about SearchFest is that their session tracks clearly indicate beginner, intermediate, or advanced. I also love SMX Advanced because I know it’s going to be skipping the basics and jumping right into meaty discussions. They also split out their tracks by key topic areas, including Paid Search, SEO, Local, Social and Mobile.

3. I’m here to learn. Are the actual topics really relevant to what I care about and do they carry substance?

When I go to a conference to learn, I’m not that interested in company sales pitches or session fillers. What is important is whether the topics being covered are relevant, timely, and provide enough substance in the time allocated.

There’s nothing more boring for an audience than having to listen to a presenter:
a.) Do a blatant sales pitch for themselves or their company
b.) Spend the entire session telling the audience how great they are

I think you’d agree that as paying attendees we are there to learn things, not there for the hard sell. The best way for people to sell themselves or their company at a conference is to teach us something we can use to make us heroes and blow away our targets. If they can do that, then we will remember them.

4. I want to listen to a speaker who can captivate an audience. Is there a strong keynote and speaker line-up?

Audiences can often tell within a few moments whether a speaker knows their stuff or not. Throwing out general statements like, “LinkedIn helps your SEO” just doesn’t cut it. I often find that a good speaker doesn’t just speak about theory and strategy but can also demonstrate that they have been in the weeds, gotten their hands dirty, even made mistakes along the way. It makes for a more credible talk.

There are definitely people and speakers that draw crowds – and rightfully so – but variety is also good. If, like me, you saw that same speaker the last time, and the time before that, and the time before the time before that… you can quickly start to lose interest.

In addition, coming from a client company, I don’t just want to hear from agencies all the time. I also want to hear things from the client perspective. A healthy mix of agency and client representation makes for better appeal since client attendees relate to the challenges faced by other clients, not agencies… and especially not agencies who whine about their clients.

5. I don’t just want to hear theory, I want real world examples. Most importantly, are these examples going to be applicable to my company?

Hearing about the number of viral hits for a Super Bowl ad is definitely cool but the reality is that most people aren’t lucky enough to have that kind of budget to work with. Additionally, some companies require measures that go beyond just “hits” and impressions.

If the example or case study is relatively unique to the speaker’s company and not applicable to a wider audience, then the talk becomes an interesting listen, but not really something that can be used.

These are just a few questions to consider when evaluating the usefulness of a conference. Feel free to share some of the lessons you have learned about your conference experiences.

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