I’m a conference convert. By this, I mean that until recently, I wasn’t exactly a big fan. I’d only been to one marketing event (which shall remain nameless) and I hadn’t been left with the greatest impression. I stereotyped all digital marketing conferences as glorified sales pitches in rundown hotels.
However, after joining Distilled, attending BrightonSEO, Distilled’s own SearchLove Boston and a few other smaller meetups, I’m a changed man. These conferences have rightly earned their stellar reputations through excellent speakers and actionable advice.
If you’re weighing up the idea of attending an event, here’s some advice on how to choose which one to go to, along with all the stuff you should be doing before, during and after.
Why go to a conference in the first place?
For some of you out there, conferences are part and parcel of the job. For the rest of you, you need to convince yourself that it’s necessary to attend.
1. It’s where the real cutting-edge knowledge can be found
While online resources can be very important for learning about areas of marketing you’re interested in, the experts speaking at events need to talk about something cutting-edge to stand out from the crowd. The stuff you’ll learn will be talked about online sooner or later, but conferences put you ahead of the competition.
2. You can meet people you’d never otherwise bump into
One of the great positives of the conversations that happen during an event, is the breadth of people in so many different jobs and industries you’ll get the chance to talk to and learn from. Aside from the in-house marketers and agency folks, there will be people from non-marketing backgrounds looking to broaden their knowledge base. You could probably learn a lot from a different perspective.
3. It gets you out of the office ‘rut’
The problem of spending your life in the same office, at the same desk (unless you hot desk, of course) is that your working life falls into a routine. While not all bad, routine can lead you down the path of stagnation, putting you in a rut of creativity and inspiration. Getting out of the office, even if just for a day, can help put you in a different frame of mind, giving you a new outlook on the topics you’re keen to learn about.
How do you decide what conference is right for you?
Hundreds take place every year, from local meetups to global gatherings. Here are a few of the main factors for deciding.
4. Choose the right conference for your skill level
It’s important to make sure you're learning something new, without being overwhelmed by knowledge that’s far too advanced. For example, an event like BrightonSEO is fairly accessible to those of us starting our journey into digital marketing, while SMX Advanced (as the name suggests) is aimed at more experienced marketers. Having said all that, the digital marketing industry is one of the most collaborative, and you’ll always find someone happy to chat through challenging topics or ideas.
5. Decide whether you’re interested in a specific topic
Huge, multi-track conferences are a bit of a double-edged sword. They’re great for learning about all kinds of topics, with the likes of the Festival of Marketing covering pretty much the entire marketing spectrum, while the Email Evolution Conference, on the other hand, has a very specific focus (no prizes for guessing what that is). Decide whether you want to be exposed to as many topics as possible, or become a master of a specific subject.
6. Top-level speakers vs. conference circuit newbies
Another doubled-edged sword is the celebrity status of the speakers. People like Guy Kawasaki and Seth Godin are powerhouse speakers and legends in their own right, and you’ll get some amazingly motivational advice from them. However, taking a chance on a new speaker can be very rewarding, as they often focus on specific, actionable advice, which you can implement straight into your marketing efforts.
7. Calculate your budget
From free to $3700+ is broadly the price ranges for standard tickets at digital marketing conferences across the globe. This useful calendar from Powered by Search shows prices for a lot of the main events. If you’re paying your own way, be sure to factor in travel and accommodation costs. Plus, it’s worth noting some conferences provide food while others leave you to fend for yourself.
What should you do in preparation for a conference?
With your ticket booked, you might think it’s time to kick back and relax, but the following tips will make sure you’re fully prepared come the big day.
8. Get the budget from your boss
If you’re having trouble persuading the 'higher ups' to sign off the budget, focus on how the conference can help you achieve or improve on your KPIs. You’ll have to stump up the results in the future, but if you’ve chosen your conference carefully, this should be very achievable.
This fantastic post by Jeremy Goldman, who spoke at SearchLove Boston, goes into detail about how to convince your boss to give you some cash for attending an event.
9. Whip the rest of your office into a conference frenzy (and get group discounts)
A lot of the main marketing conferences, including SearchLove, offer group discounts for multiple tickets. Persuading the other people in your office can ensure everyone gets a decent amount of money off their ticket. Plus it means you’ve got other people with which to talk over all the interesting points that come out of the day.
10. Follow the speakers on social media/read their previous slide decks
Basically, research, research, research. Their social media accounts can be useful for getting a sense of what kind of speaker/presenter they will be. This is especially important when choosing which track to follow at a multi-track event.
11. Research the basics of the topics you’re interested in
More research. Most topics require some base level of knowledge, so a little research into what is being presented won’t leave you scratching your head, plus it will help you think up a few questions to ask at the end of the session.
12. Do all the logistical stuff, for crying out loud!
I know this one seems obvious, but you’d be surprised how much stuff you might need to remember to take with you when heading to a conference, particularly if you’re going abroad. For example, the US often requires an ESTA form. Write yourself a checklist and give yourself an hour or two before heading out the front door to make 100% sure you’ve got everything.
How do you make the most of a conference (on the day)?
You’ve arrived. To a certain extent, it’s good not to get too bogged down in things you should or shouldn’t be doing, and simply immerse yourself in the experience. However, the four points below are, I think, vital to ensuring you get the most from your day.
13. Get there early (especially if you’re new to the conference scene)
Getting to the event on time is a given (don’t be the person shuffling noisily into the auditorium ten minutes into the session), but actually getting there ahead of time has its advantages. For a start, it’s much easier to talk to people when the room isn't busy, because you’re less likely to be interrupting an interesting conversation. At SearchLove Boston 2015, the first dozen or so attendees to arrive had plenty of time to chat to one another and the Distilled team (plus had free reign over the breakfast buffet).
14. Take notes
Because most conferences and meetups provide slide decks and videos immediately after, or even before the presentations, the temptation to put the pen and pad away can be overwhelming. However, the beauty of the presentation is the thoughts it triggers and the questions you make a mental note to answer at a later date. If you don’t write these down, they might be gone by the next day.
15. Don’t be afraid to ask questions
I’m a hypocrite, I admit it. I find it very difficult to ask questions to a speaker. It’s something I need to work on, but there’s nothing more painful than when the emcee says ‘any questions?’ and the audience is treated to deathly silence. This often isn’t because people don’t have questions, but because people are reluctant (and nervous) to get the ball rolling. Step up to the mic and get specific advice from an expert on the topic. Plus, if you’ve enjoyed the talk, it’s polite to contribute to the Q&A.
16. Be open to new topics
The temptation at a conference is to stick with what you know. For example, I attended the excellent BrightonSEO back in April, and my schedule was full of pretty much content and social marketing talks. However, after one talk filled up before I could get into the auditorium, I decided to watch a talk on cannibalisation in SEO. Until this point, I had little knowledge or interest in the topic, but the entire 20 minutes was fascinating. A lot of the credit has to go to the presenter Jon Earnshaw, but it shows the value of mixing things up.
17. Follow etiquette and be respectful
Hopefully, you won’t really need reminding about this stuff, but being disrespectful is a huge no no. Not only does it reflect badly on you and your employers, but it’s also a generally sucky thing to do. Moz have gone as far as creating a set of guidelines for MozCon attendees. While not strict rules, things like arriving at a talk on time and turning your phone off are useful points to remember.
18. Talk to people (but don’t worry about networking)
Networking! It’s become a bit of a cursed word at conferences. It has that horrible sales pitch vibe to it, but if we admit it, it’s exactly what we are doing. The important thing is not to get bogged down in collecting business cards and speaking to X number of people. Be interested and listen, and you’ll learn a lot from some very knowledgable people.
What do you need to do once the conference is over?
Hopefully, if you’re reading this post-conference, the advice above helped you somewhat, but just because it’s over, doesn’t mean you should forget about it. The whole point of attending is to put the advice into action in your day-to-day work. Here are a final few pieces of advice on what to do after your big day out.
19. Fill out feedback forms or emails
This is one I can’t stress enough, because the feedback (whether positive or negative) means that event organisers can continue to improve year-on-year. A bit of insight here: during SearchLove London 2014, only 23% of attendees provided us with structured feedback. That means we don’t know for sure what 77% of you who attended actually thought. The amount of people returning for 2015 is a positive signal, but just think of what we could do with more than three times as much data.
20. Watch the videos while they’re still fresh in your mind
Like my point on making notes, it can be tempting to forget about the videos and slide decks for a while because you’ve just watched the presentation, but leave it too long and you won’t be reinforcing what you learned during the presentation and will instead be learning it from scratch again.
21. Say thanks to the speakers and organisers
It seems simple, and it is, but saying thanks to the speakers and event organisers can go a long way. Unless they’re one of the huge heavyweights with millions of Twitter followers, chances are speaking is not their main job or main source of income, so fitting speaking around the 9 to 5 takes a lot of time and effort. The same goes for organisers, who will have spent months pulling the event together, and are probably ready to tear their hair out multiple times during an event.
22. Contribute to forums and write reviews
Finally, it’s important to help others decide which event is right for them, and you can do this by contributing to certain forums, like Inbound, or even going as far as to write a blog on your experience. Any way in which you can add to the conversation makes it a little bit easier for a marketing conference newbie to feel confident in their decision to attend their chosen event.
There you have it, your comprehensive marketing conference rundown from start to finish. While I’ve done my best to include all the important talking points, the beauty of getting a group of sharp marketing minds together in one room is that unexpected points of view and ideas tend to crop up. So on that note, if you have any unusual conference tips you’d like to share, pop them in the comments.