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Get better returns on your conference investment

Lee Odden
Get better returns on your conference investment Lee Odden

Recession or not, look no further than the headlines in any business publication and you'll see an increasing number of articles offering advice on how companies can best deal with tighter marketing budgets.

Combine the need to generate more marketing performance with fewer resources, continuous changes in the online marketing industry and an increasing number of companies bringing search marketing functions in-house, and you have a formidable training challenge.

There are many options for companies looking to train their new internet marketing staff members and to keep tenured employees up to date. Both SEMPO Institute and the Direct Marketing Association's search engine marketing certification program provide a wealth of training opportunities.

However, conferences are not inexpensive. Add in travel, hotel, pre- and post-training and conference fees -- not to mention meals and incidentals -- and companies end up paying between $2,500 and $5,000 per employee per conference. Plus, there is the cost of time away from the office during which the employee is not performing billable work. Such costs in a budget-conscious marketing environment make it even more important for companies and individuals to get the most out of their educational investments.

Whether the investment in attending a conference is on the company's dime or the individual's, it's important that conference attendees get the most out of their time at events by setting goals. Managers sending individuals to conferences should be clear about expectations. Company staff should be sure to talk with others within the organization or teams that have attended the same or similar events to gain their insights.

Depending on the reason for attending a conference, goals may vary. Here are some common goals based on the various reasons for attending marketing conferences:

  • Networking: How many qualified prospects, marketing partners, vendors to outsource to and job candidates will you meet? Tally up the prospective opportunities for each day of attendance, and then compose a productive follow-up plan to ensure that potential connections won't fall through the cracks.

  • Knowledge: How many sessions will you attend, and how will they capture the information? The best plan is to take notes, photos and video (where allowed). When meeting new people, discuss the sessions with them and compare notes; it's a great way to network and get other opinions. Before the conference, make a grid or a plan that outlines the specific sessions you will be attending. Often, there is not much time between sessions, and the difference between getting a good seat and standing room only can be a matter of minutes.

  • Content: How will you leverage the conference experience to create new content for articles, your company blog or process documentation? Set goals for how many should be created each day. The content captured and created can supply a company blog with numerous posts, and can show clients, staff and prospective clients that your team is on top of what's happening in the industry. Some companies depend on blog posts for each day of the conference that is attended. Set goals for how many blog posts, articles or other types of content will be created for each day of the conference. It doesn't have to be all text; include photos of people and presentation slides. Take video where allowed.

  • Knowledge transfer: How will you pass on the information you've acquired to the rest of the team? Knowing you will be required to present the information you are gaining with the team back at the office helps keep you focused on takeaways and practical interpretations of the new information.

  • Socialize: Where there's a conference, there's a party. After-hours events are exceptional opportunities for conference attendees to relax, network and share information. Make no mistake, post-session networking can be an art form. Make a point to relax and have fun, but be clear about objectives and make a goal of attending a dinner each night of the event, if possible. Some dinners are a tradition amongst long-time friends, some are sponsored by vendors and some are ad hoc events that occur as a result of like-minded individuals wanting to continue the day's discussion.

As you can see, there are many more opportunities to get value from marketing conference participation beyond simply keeping up to date with an industry. Pre-conference goal-setting and planning, well-defined processes and follow-up and post-event knowledge sharing can multiply the value organizations realize by sending employees to educational events.

Not all organizations are positioned to take full advantage of these insights, but through a simple analysis, it can become clear pretty quickly how much is being left on the table or to competitors that are sending the same number of people and incurring the same costs.

Understand the conference offerings, set goals and make the time to pre-plan conference involvement. If you leverage content creation, networking, recruiting, competitive intelligence and prospecting opportunities, industry conferences can move from being expenses with uncertain effects to being investments with multiple returns.

So what do other conference organizers, programmers, speakers and attendees have to say onthe subject of smarter conference attendance? Read on to gain insights from Brad Berens, Robert Scoble, Danny Sullivan, Chris Sherman, Kevin Ryan, David Berkowitz, Heather Lloyd-Martin and Michael Brito.

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Brad Berens, chief content officer and editor at large, iMedia Connection and ad:tech
First, accept that you can't do everything -- believe me, I've tried! I've gone to events where I'm speaking, networking and covering things for a publication. That's a 20-hour day, and it shortens your life in a hurry. It's important to think -- before you get on that plane -- about why you're really going, and what isn't a core mission, and make choices accordingly.

My second tip is to be strategic. Look at the agenda while you're still at the office and choose a small number of things that you simply must do. By "small," I mean four per day, say, two sessions and two meetings.

Everybody will pressure you to RSVP to a million things, but if you do that then you're not really doing anything well, and there's no serendipity. I have a lot of great conversations in the elevator, the halls, the expo, the press room, at the bar... all because I'm not overscheduled. Except, of course, when it's one of my events.

Robert Scoble, managing director, FastCompany.TV
It's tough because I'm the guy who likes to hang out in the hallways. I hate being stuck in a conference session unless I know I'll learn something. To me, the hallways are great because that's where I do my networking and find out what's really going on. 

Stewart Butterfield showed me Flickr in the hallways of the Emerging Tech conference, and he didn't even have a spot on the stage. He said, "Hey, check this out." Typically it's been true that the more interesting stuff happens in the hallways. Unless you're at a really top-rate conference like TED or Pop Tech; then it's an experience. So if you go to one of those, I always sit in the front row.

I went to Davos and sat in on several sessions and always sat in the front row. Mostly so I can capture video and see things and participate in the conversations better, and get seen if I want to ask a question.

Watch Twitter. Twitter is now the back channel for a lot of these conferences, and you'll see people talking, particularly in a multi-room conference. At SXSW, there were several things going on at one time. The Twitter stream sort of told you what other people were experiencing, and if the talk in your room was really boring, you could switch rooms and go to another talk that might have been much more interesting.

With the parties, being able to pace yourself is important. With SXSW, for example, there are so many parties to attend that you'd you'd be up until 4 in the morning every morning if you tried to hit them all; you can really burn yourself out pretty fast that way.

Have a sense of what exhibits are there and see what people are talking about. During the day, I would watch a site like Techmeme (at least if it's a tech conference) to see what other people are talking about at the conference that you might want to see, or who's there that you may want to partner with or build a relationship with.

Learn about new technologies so that even if you don't use it, you're educated and can inform your boss, who's paying for you to go. If it is something you might use, you'd better get business cards from the people who you'd want to partner with so you can make things happen after the event.

One more must: bring business cards that are memorable.


Danny Sullivan, co-founder, Third Door Media, including the Search Marketing Expo conferences
Take the time to actually read the program. Look at the descriptions and who is speaking and understand what the session proposes to be about. If you've still got questions, seek out a conference organizer at the show. While I'm always busy at a show, I still love to take a few seconds to give an attendee some more guidance about what to go to.

In a multi-track conference, don't stress or worry about trying to go to everything. It's like going to a buffet. You can't eat it all. Multiple tracks aren't offered to overwhelm an attendee. They're designed to give more choice to a wide variety of attendees. One great strategy is to make a friend or have several people from your company go to a show. Divide and conquer!

If you really did want to get to a session, remember that slides are often available, along with live blogging. It's not as good as being there, but it can help.

Chris Sherman, co-founder, Third Door Media, including the Search Marketing Expo conferences
When torn between going to one session over another, go to the one that has fewest attendees. With so many people live blogging conferences these days, the odds are good that someone (or many) will be covering the popular session, so you'll effectively get a two-fer even without personally attending both.

Offer feedback! If you really like (or really dislike) something at a conference, let the organizers know. We are total feedback junkies and really value input from attendees. Some of the best ideas for new content or different ways of doing things at SMX have come from attendees. And we're also happy to answer questions or offer suggestions to anyone -- all you need to do is ask!

Kevin M. Ryan, vice president, global content director, Search Engine Strategies and Search Engine Watch
1. Events are a great place to meet with clients, vendors and potential partners.

  1. If you have a relationship with who you're meeting with, begin scheduling meetings about a month prior to the event. Less time than that, and your choices will be limited. More time than that, and they are going to forget you.

  2. If you are trying to meet with a new client, member of the press or someone who is otherwise unknown to you, keep it short and concise. Be polite and don't fall in love with your own press in trying to build yourself up. Less is more, less is more, less is more.

2. When you arrive at the event, seek out the guidebook or, in our case, SES Magazine.

Also, you can play with the goody bag toys anytime; this is your time to plan your week and get the most out of the experience. Most conference companies post the agenda ahead of time, so you can plan your day pretty far in advance. I can't tell you the number of people who say, "Why don't you have a session on X topic?" when nine times out of 10, we already do have a session on that topic. Whether you choose to plan ahead or plan the first day, knowing the event's topics and agenda is a must.

David Berkowitz, director of emerging media and client strategy, 360i; programming chair, MediaPost's Search Insider Summit
Make time for the activities and dinners. The [SIS] Summit has far more schmooze time than time in sessions, and that's for a reason. As excited as I am about the program and the speakers, the lasting relationships come during the downtime, as do the most meaningful conversations.

Heather Lloyd-Martin, chair, DMA's Search Engine Marketing Council
Attend all the "search marketing site labs" or "search marketing clinics" you can find. During a site lab, a panel of experts reviews websites on the fly and discusses how to improve them for search positioning and conversions.

Here's why they are so cool:

1. If your site is reviewed, you get free consulting from the best minds in the industry. Search marketing experts charge anywhere from $250-$500+ an hour. Even if a three- or four-person panel spends just 15 minutes reviewing your site, you are seeing remarkable value for your money. I've seen panels suggest one site tweak that ended up making the company thousands of dollars.

2. If you are too shy to have your site reviewed, simply sitting in the sessions is a great learning experience. Chances are, you'll pick up quite a few actionable tips and ideas for your own site.

Go to the networking parties. Sure, you may feel like you have 1,000 things to do after being away from work for a day. But it's amazing how much business actually takes place during these things. If nothing else, walk around with a glass of water (or your beverage of choice) and try to talk to as many people as you can. By the end of the conference, you'll have formed some fledgling business relationships that you can develop later. I've seen people hired during networking parties, I've seen partnerships formed -- I've even seen a group of folks brainstorm a new business idea. The parties are definitely worth it!


Michael Brito, social media program manager, Intel
Not all marketing conferences are created equal, and from a content perspective, some are much better than others. Last month I attended SMX Social in Long Beach, Calif., and the content seemed to be more aligned with SEO than social media. Nonetheless, there were plenty of really good takeaways from the conference, but the true value for me was networking and meeting others who work in the same space as I do. Here are some other things to consider to prepare for conferences:

  • Do your homework. Seek out the speakers/panel/participants and begin networking through blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc., prior to the event.

  • Network as much as possible at the event, and dedicate some time to introduce yourself to others. Bring plenty of business cards.

  • Bring a laptop, not only to take notes but also to Twitter any insights or revelations that may come upon you. Share everything, and don't hold back. Who knows? You can be the first to share.

  • If you blog, attending conferences is a great way to brainstorm new post ideas, so take good notes.

  • Bring resumes; you never know, you may meet your next employer.

It seems the theme we can extract from all this sage advice is to plan ahead. Do a little homework beforehand, and have a plan for how you'll capture, internalize and transfer the knowledge you gain. Have fun, but don't overdo it. Realize the networking opportunities extend beyond prospects to include competitive intelligence, marketing partners, vendors and new employees.

Lee Odden is CEO of TopRank Online Marketing.


to leave comments.

Commenter: Keir Moorman

2008, August 21

This is a good article loaded with great information.
I would suggest having plenty of business cards on hand. You probably want be the only one doing this so I would suggest using some creativity when selecting business card design. You can add a nice business card holder as well. If your one of the lucky people to own a iphone or ipod I would suggest converting your online video to one of the formats supported by the iphone or ipod. Now you can play your marketing message to anyone you want. You might even land a new client or two.