Conference Format Fails Portland Social Media Crowd: There has to be a better way!

| March 17, 2010 | 15 Comments

Conference format fails social media: There must be a better way! Last week I attended Searchfest 2010. I have been a regular attendee at this Portland based search marketing conference for several years. Each of the previous years I have been reasonably satisfied but this year was different. This year I was left with a feeling of emptiness, disappointment and overall exhaustion.

So what made this year so dramatically different for me? The speakers were of the same caliber, the conference was well-organized and the 3 track agenda was a similar format to the prior events. I don’t think the conference changed, I think I have changed. The way I digest and process information has changed.

Social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and even Google Buzz have allowed me to actively choose my trusted sources of information and ignore or dismiss anything I feel is a waste of time. This puts me firmly in the drivers seat and in control of the content. These tools also give me a voice within my network, allowing me to actively participate in the conversation and feel as if I’m a valued member of the community. I have now become conditioned to want this same experience off-line, in the real world.

Perhaps this is why Twitter has taken on an important role in my overall conference experience. Relying on and participating in the #Searchfest Twitter stream afforded me real interactions and access to valuable information. At one point I realized that the #Searchfest Twitter stream was far more engaging and interesting than what was actually happening at the front of the room. One speaker made light of the situation by joking that it would be hard to keep the audiences attention as they were all tweeting.

I strongly feel that with the advent of social media there has to be a new way to gather, engage, learn and build community. The traditional format of industry conferences just doesn’t cut it any longer. Below I have outlined several issues I have experienced in hopes of being able to come up with some creative solutions. I welcome all comments, suggestions and living examples of ‘conferences’ that have successfully integrated community participation and engagement. I know many Portland marketing types are headed down to SXSW for the annual interactive  conference. I’ll look forward to hearing reports on how they did it right, in hopes of being able to import a bit of that spirit to future Portland events.

1) Twitter stream is far more engaging than conference speaker or panel

This isn’t surprising as Twitter offers up a multitude of voices, perspectives and persona’s instead of just a select few. There’s bound to be someone commenting or reporting on the session that manages to make it more entertaining or presents the information in a new way.

Reading the Twitter stream during a presentation feels a bit like passing notes in class. You can giggle under your breath when someone makes a snarky yet accurate tweet. It feels like a dirty little secret and only those scanning the stream are in the know. This does offer a certain level of excitement but it doesn’t do much for improving or informing the main event. I’ve noticed that as Twitter has become more mainstream, more and more audience members ARE ‘in the know’ and completely out number those who are not. It’s not such a secret club any longer and perhaps it’s time to allow Tweeters a more active role.

I have been to conferences where they will have a monitor displaying the Twitter stream and have heard horror stories of the stream being projected behind a speaker while they present, YIKES! As scary as that might sound, it makes sense to make this real-time reporting and commenting public so it can be openly discussed.

2) Conference attendees have ZERO input on who is speaking and what they are presenting

One bright moment occurred during Searchfest when Aaron Kahlow, a presenter on the final social media panel, started his presentation by surveying the audience. He asked ALL attendees to participate by voting on which presentation they would prefer. I was excited to actually have a voice in choosing the content I was about to digest. In the same way I get excited about choosing items off a menu, my ears perked up and he had my full attention.

Unfortunately the choice he offered was a bit of a red herring, as he had only prepared one presentation but was offering to skim through it so everyone could ask their own questions and get a beer. Despite this fact, the teaser of being able to make a choice was like an oasis in the dessert.  I feel there must be a way to expand upon this and allow attendees to not only vote on content but why not the whole enchilada. The Who, Where, What and When.

3) The audience knows more than the speaker

This is becoming more and more common as there ceases to be black and white answers to most questions and everyone and anyone has access to information. One Tweeter, @Texagonian,  made the insightful comment that many of the speakers were contradicting themselves. One would say DO this and the other would say DON’T do this, leading to attendee frustration and confusion.

This points to the fact that there really is no one answer or perspective. It’s becoming evident that discussing issues openly  instead of presenting a panel of so-called experts is much more effective at knowledge sharing and problem-solving. Conferences that can capitalize on the combined knowledge of the ‘audience’ would present more value to attendees or participants.

So there it is, my treatise on the sad state of the traditional conference. I’m sure there are more issues and concerns floating around out there so feel free to comment with your own. I also know that there are some innovative events happening that address the issues I have outlined above. I’d love to be pointed in the right direction so as to experience them myself.

About Lisa Peyton


Lisa is a leader in the field of digital marketing. Based in Portland, OR, she serves as executive editor at TMMPDX.COM and teaches digital strategy at Portland State University. Her services include social media coaching, content strategy and digital marketing consulting.

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Category: 'Old School' Marketing, Oregon Marketing Events, Portland Marketing Events, Social Media, Social Media Marketing, TMMPDX

  • http://karmicshuffle.blogspot.com/ x40sw0n

    I feel that you are on to something. But as detailed in my post on my thoughts surrounding the issue, (http://karmicshuffle.blogspot.com/2010/03/viral-marketing-conference-formats-etc.html) I have to wonder as a marketing person, if your first piece of advice to a client shouldn’t be ‘make sure your product/service IS best-best-in-class or at least best bang-for-the buck before you spend one red cent on marketing.

  • http://www.mediafortemarketing.com Lisa Williams

    Thanks so much for attending SearchFest and we appreciate your feedback. I would remind you, however, that at almost all the social media sessions panelists agreed that social media is too new for anyone to call themselves “experts”.

    With that in mind, presentations focused around case studies and ROI, which is the sound that businesses need to hear above the noise of social marketing. We also do survey our membership and educational attendees on topics we present.

    I don’t recall anyone saying there was “one answer”. I’d be interested to hear what was said by a particular speaker so we can make sure the messaging of ROI for our collective clients comes through. Thanks again for your input. Cheers, Lisa Williams

  • Lisa Peyton

    Hi Eric,

    Thanks for the comment and follow-up blog post. I agree that my observations on how social media has changed the way I digest information also impacts my buying behavior. Social media has added a level of customer involvement and transparency that has never existed before. And yes, this means it has become more important for companies to market a ‘best-in-class’ product or service.

    In the same way companies need to evaluate the behaviors and needs of customers, conference organizers need to start reflecting the changing needs of attendees.

    Thanks much,
    Lisa

  • Lisa Peyton

    Thanks for the response Lisa!

    I agree that social media professionals are shying away from calling themselves ‘experts’ but the traditional format of having a few people on a stage in the front of the room with impressive titles reinforces this underlying belief.

    I appreciate the fact that you guys survey attendees on the topics presented but what I address in my article goes well beyond a simple survey. It also goes beyond Searchfest. I mentioned your conference as it was the most recent one I had attended but my observations apply to most conferences I have attended, if not all.

    I feel there needs to me a MAJOR shift in the way information is presented. It needs to be more about sharing, engagement and community. I think conference organizers are attempting to incorporate social media by creating hashtags and displaying tweets but that’s just the tip of the iceberg in my opinion.

    Once again, I’ll mention that I’ve heard rumors of some truly cool stuff happening that is less hierarchical and more community oriented. Can anyone point to some examples?

    Thanks,
    Lisa

  • http://evolutionizeit.blogspot.com Christina Jordan

    Hi Lisa,

    Your perspective is very interesting, and it’s one of the reasons I got involved with hosting an “unconference” in Portland back in Feb, in collaboration with Mark Grimes from Nedspace Portland, who you may know. At that event, which was targeted at Social Entrepreneurs, there was no pre-established agenda, no talking heads… the conference participants created it on the spot, and it was really great. You can see what we did over here: http://www.ned.com/group/seeb/ws/index/

    Tomorrow 2-4 your time (18 March) I’ll be co-hosting a #4change twitter chat around the theme “How Social Media Can Enhance Events.” More info is on the #4change blog at http://4change.memeshift.com/. I would LOVE it if you could attend – I think your recent experience is very relevant to the issues we’ll be discussing.

    Finally, there’s a group at http://radical-inclusion.com/ who is putting together a “Virtual Unconference” for early June…. working toward developing that better way that your post calls for. Thought you’d find it interesting.

    All the best,

    Christina

  • http://www.robertrolfe.com Robert Rolfe

    Lisa,

    I attended SearchFest this year and I also spent a good deal of time watching the twitter stream for comments on the sessions. It’s an excellent way to get information from all three tracks while attending the ones you feel will be the most valuable to you. Like you, I also left SearchFest with a little bit of a lacking feeling in what I took away from the conference.

    That problem however can’t be blamed on the speakers, the conference or the people putting the conference on. The problem really comes down to the content. There is no new content when it comes to SEO and Marketing. How many times can you be told “Use Twitter! Use Facebook! Write good content and double check your title tags”? This is especially true if you spend time reading blogs, articles or anything else SEO or Marketing related online. Anything you hear at the conference you would have already read online first.

    You mention that the format of the conference should change? Really you can’t change anything. There is nothing to change it too. You certainly can’t ask the panel members to show up and prompt the audience on what to talk about as then they will be completely unprepared. I don’t know about you but I wouldn’t feel right asking someone to show up and speak for 10-20 minutes on a topic with zero preparation. If you have been to any conferences you also know that a Q&A session doesn’t work either. There will always be someone who has a 43 part question and then 3 follow up questions that controls the microphone for the entire session. That’s great for the one guy.. but nobody else in the room really cares.

    Why is that you think that SXSW is going to do it right or better? If it’s SEO or Marketing talk you’re going to have the exact same speakers saying the exact same things they did at SearchFest. Any new ground breaking thing they have will either be kept to themselves or posted on their blogs first. Why? Because they are marketing and SEO people and want to get the most out of the information they have! Why reveal something at a conference when I can post it on my site first and get a few hundred links and then go talk about it.

    What really gets me though is that you want “..reports on how they did it right, in hopes of being able to import a bit of that spirit to future Portland events”. Really? Like we here in Portland are some kind of layman and you are here to show us the path.. come on now.

    SemPDX has managed to put together an excellent conference year after year with no problems. It has the top speakers in the industry at a fraction the cost of any other conference I have seen. SXSW and SMX Advanced are both around $1200 to attend and that doesn’t include travel expenses. I have managed to see Rand Fishkin, Rebecca Kelley, Stefan Weitz, Danny Sullivan, Ian Lurie, Neil Patel, Jordan Kasteler, Aaron Kahlow, Jennifer Laycock, Vanessa Fox, and many of the other top names in SEO and marketing speak LOCALLY for just a few hundred dollars all thanks to SemPDX and SearchFest. What more could you possibly ask for? I think they should be thanked for doing such a good job! Seeing the SearchFest attendance grow year and year seems to show me that the Portland SEO and marketing community agrees!

  • http://www.tmmpdx.com Lisa Peyton

    Hi Robert,

    Thanks so much for your insightful comments. It’s always great to get alternate perspectives.

    I completely disagree with you in regards to changing the conference format. You can ALWAYS change something! As I stated, the current traditional format doesn’t work for ME. It may work for some and I’m all for having different options because not everyone digests information in the same way. I would argue that if the content isn’t changing, as you have indicated, that then it’s even more important to try and present the information in a new way. I, however, feel that the content SHOULD be changing as we’re part of one of the fastest moving industries in the world.

    Unconference is a great example of looking at conferences in a new way. Their goal is to “create a space for peer-to-peer learning, collaboration and creativity.” They allow the participants to put conference sessions on the agenda, no hierarchy or talking heads. The community then creates the agenda together the day of the conference, this would almost surely eliminate the dreaded sales pitch but it would also eliminate the mighty sponsor. By not having a set agenda, you effectively remove all sponsor opportunities such as panel moderators, lunch time pitches, etc.

    As for SXSW, I’ve been reading mixed reviews. I had high hopes, being something of an optimist, that they would have come up with new and creative ways to integrate social media into the conference format. Again I would solicit feedback from those who attended, not so ‘I CAN SHOW PORTLAND THE PATH’, but so that there’s an opportunity to learn, grow and open ourselves and our industry to new ideas.

  • http://www.robertrolfe.com Robert Rolfe

    While I am not completely educated on the topic of “Unconferences”, I did go browse some sites for a few minutes so I could figure out what you are talking about. I don’t see them doing anything overly innovative with Unconferences. It seems they are simply allows attendees to create their own mini sessions for the day. This could result in that mini session being similar to the standard conference of a speaker talking to a group and then the group discussing.. or a just having a round table/town hall type of session format.

    That just doesn’t seem that innovative to me at all. Seems that sessions would just be shorter and in the same format they are in now.. or you simply have a open discussion about X topic. Now I didn’t see any open discussion formats on the SearchFest agenda for this year, I might have missed it, but if that’s what you want to see next year.. why not suggest it to them via their contact us page?

    Also if you are looking for more peer to peer activity in your events, perhaps you should try one of the many SEO or marketing networking events that happen in Portland. Seems like there is always one going on, some even thrown by SemPDX. Maybe one of those events would be a better format for what you’re looking for rather than a conference which is designed basically for teaching to the masses.

    As for the sales pitches, I could be wrong but I don’t remember seeing any of those at the SearchFest event. Granted there was mention of the sponsors when the event started but I didn’t see anyone on the stages trying to sell anything all day. Certainly not during the lunch time. Also all of the SearchFest panel moderators are members of the SemPDX board. Some of these moderators did do sponsoring of the event via their businesses, but all of them acted as SemPDX board members when doing their moderator duties and not as representatives of their perspective businesses.

  • http://www.baseonegroup.co.uk/beyond/author/noel-ponthieux/ Noël

    Hey Lisa,

    I wonder if some of what you propose is applicable to any conference, not just social media gatherings. More/better input and engagement routes (your 1 and 2) are what so many conferences have always lacked, leaving people shifting and yawning in their seats.

    Too many conferences become simply a series of lectures with booths to visit in between. Nothing wrong with a good lecture – I do enjoy settling down for a good listen, depending on the topic – but ‘conference’ definition puts the emphasis on interaction.

    Hm…maybe regular twitter interludes could be built into each presentation? It could be a requirement for presenters. Bit like a commercial break: ‘Let’s check the twitter stream before we continue…’

    It can be hard to trade delivering a well-crafted, timed-to-the-minute presentation for more of a facilitating scenario, though. Different skills required…but perhaps there’s less pressure to be perfect.

  • http://www.TMMPDX.com Lisa Peyton

    Hi Noel!

    Thanks so much for the great feedback and suggestions.

    I would like to see ‘Twitter interludes’ built into presentations, could be very interesting.
    At the very least it would give the undercurrent of social media buzz more of a prominent voice.

    And yes, I feel my observations do extend to all conferences, not just those focused on social media and marketing.

    Cheers and thanks for dropping by,
    Lisa

  • http://www.twitter.com/mambomedia Laurel Hamilton

    Hi Lisa,

    My thoughts about each of your points:

    1. When I think of Twitter feeds being projected behind a speaker, I don’t think “YIKES” at all. In fact, if I were the speaker, I would prefer to have access to what the audience is thinking during the talk (rather than looking out into a sea of tweeting laptops).

    Ideally, the Twitter feed could be projected so the audience and speaker could both see it. Someone could be assigned to alert the speaker to the most germane comments or questions that he/she might want to address.

    Not all speakers would be comfortable with this format, but I think it would be effective for speakers who enjoy ad lib discussions.

    2. It would be fun to have a Twitter stream that starts a month BEFORE the conference, so attendees could submit their speaker and topic preferences in time for the speakers to write their talks.

    3. It’s helpful when talks are labeled in the agenda by level (Beginning, Intermediate, Advanced). This allows everyone to make more informed decisions about which class to attend each hour.

    It was great to meet you!
    Laurel

  • http://twitter.com/MCrites MCrites

    Projecting a Twitter stream behind a speaker is, frankly, a terrible idea. That’s like letting the inmates run the bleeding asylum, and has led to some real presentation disasters.. http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archives/2009/11/24/spectacle_at_we.html

    I honestly don’t think conference formats need to be “rethought” – not in the New Coke sense anyway. The problem, as you posit, is the constant access to the latest information on any given subject, and it takes a real thought-provoking presentation rise above the sea of information available to anyone. Also, any competitive webmaster has to throttle the information made available to other competitive webmasters, as giving away insider SEM information has a very real potential of creating more competition for your agency or company.

    Conferences can never be all things to all people – I enjoy them for the opportunity to discuss SEM with other SEM folks, as there is a real dearth of them in my company.

    Maybe it’s time to put TMM’s name in the presentation hat and provoke some thoughts.

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Lisa Peyton 'Old School' MarketingOregon Marketing EventsPortland Marketing EventsSocial MediaSocial Media MarketingTMMPDX ,,

Conference format fails social media: There must be a better way! Last week I attended Searchfest 2010. I have been a regular attendee at this Portland based search marketing conference for several years. Each of the previous years I have been reasonably satisfied but this year was different. This year I was left with a feeling of emptiness, disappointment and overall exhaustion.

So what made this year so dramatically different for me? The speakers were of the same caliber, the conference was well-organized and the 3 track agenda was a similar format to the prior events. I don’t think the conference changed, I think I have changed. The way I digest and process information has changed.

Social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and even Google Buzz have allowed me to actively choose my trusted sources of information and ignore or dismiss anything I feel is a waste of time. This puts me firmly in the drivers seat and in control of the content. These tools also give me a voice within my network, allowing me to actively participate in the conversation and feel as if I’m a valued member of the community. I have now become conditioned to want this same experience off-line, in the real world.

Perhaps this is why Twitter has taken on an important role in my overall conference experience. Relying on and participating in the #Searchfest Twitter stream afforded me real interactions and access to valuable information. At one point I realized that the #Searchfest Twitter stream was far more engaging and interesting than what was actually happening at the front of the room. One speaker made light of the situation by joking that it would be hard to keep the audiences attention as they were all tweeting.

I strongly feel that with the advent of social media there has to be a new way to gather, engage, learn and build community. The traditional format of industry conferences just doesn’t cut it any longer. Below I have outlined several issues I have experienced in hopes of being able to come up with some creative solutions. I welcome all comments, suggestions and living examples of ‘conferences’ that have successfully integrated community participation and engagement. I know many Portland marketing types are headed down to SXSW for the annual interactive  conference. I’ll look forward to hearing reports on how they did it right, in hopes of being able to import a bit of that spirit to future Portland events.

1) Twitter stream is far more engaging than conference speaker or panel

This isn’t surprising as Twitter offers up a multitude of voices, perspectives and persona’s instead of just a select few. There’s bound to be someone commenting or reporting on the session that manages to make it more entertaining or presents the information in a new way.

Reading the Twitter stream during a presentation feels a bit like passing notes in class. You can giggle under your breath when someone makes a snarky yet accurate tweet. It feels like a dirty little secret and only those scanning the stream are in the know. This does offer a certain level of excitement but it doesn’t do much for improving or informing the main event. I’ve noticed that as Twitter has become more mainstream, more and more audience members ARE ‘in the know’ and completely out number those who are not. It’s not such a secret club any longer and perhaps it’s time to allow Tweeters a more active role.

I have been to conferences where they will have a monitor displaying the Twitter stream and have heard horror stories of the stream being projected behind a speaker while they present, YIKES! As scary as that might sound, it makes sense to make this real-time reporting and commenting public so it can be openly discussed.

2) Conference attendees have ZERO input on who is speaking and what they are presenting

One bright moment occurred during Searchfest when Aaron Kahlow, a presenter on the final social media panel, started his presentation by surveying the audience. He asked ALL attendees to participate by voting on which presentation they would prefer. I was excited to actually have a voice in choosing the content I was about to digest. In the same way I get excited about choosing items off a menu, my ears perked up and he had my full attention.

Unfortunately the choice he offered was a bit of a red herring, as he had only prepared one presentation but was offering to skim through it so everyone could ask their own questions and get a beer. Despite this fact, the teaser of being able to make a choice was like an oasis in the dessert.  I feel there must be a way to expand upon this and allow attendees to not only vote on content but why not the whole enchilada. The Who, Where, What and When.

3) The audience knows more than the speaker

This is becoming more and more common as there ceases to be black and white answers to most questions and everyone and anyone has access to information. One Tweeter, @Texagonian,  made the insightful comment that many of the speakers were contradicting themselves. One would say DO this and the other would say DON’T do this, leading to attendee frustration and confusion.

This points to the fact that there really is no one answer or perspective. It’s becoming evident that discussing issues openly  instead of presenting a panel of so-called experts is much more effective at knowledge sharing and problem-solving. Conferences that can capitalize on the combined knowledge of the ‘audience’ would present more value to attendees or participants.

So there it is, my treatise on the sad state of the traditional conference. I’m sure there are more issues and concerns floating around out there so feel free to comment with your own. I also know that there are some innovative events happening that address the issues I have outlined above. I’d love to be pointed in the right direction so as to experience them myself.

About Lisa Peyton


Lisa is a leader in the field of digital marketing. Based in Portland, OR, she serves as executive editor at TMMPDX.COM and teaches digital strategy at Portland State University. Her services include social media coaching, content strategy and digital marketing consulting.