Hopefully your business is like mine, knee-deep in planning for 2012. One of the areas you’ll probably be deciding upon is which social media conferences and events to attend next year. While you are putting together your list, keep these points in mind:
1 – Send only those people that are in a position to act on anything they learn. You want to send your Social Media Manager or Marketing Manager instead of the new hire in the office that ‘gets’ social media. Unfortunately, most companies send someone at the entry-level with the advice to ‘learn all you can, and report back to us’. What happens is this person gets to the event, and spends the entire time taking copious notes, which are then deposited on the desk of their boss upon arrival back at the office.
The problem is, this person was too busy taking notes to actually learn much at the event. And they wanted to take a lot of notes so their boss would see that they got their ‘money’s worth’ from the trip. It makes much more sense to send a manager there that actually manages your social media marketing efforts, and who can implement any ideas they learn about during the trip.
2 – Ask questions, not just of the speakers, but talk to your peers. This is where you’ll need to do some research to try to figure out exactly who will be attending each event. Also, you want to attend events where the speakers don’t just hop back on a plane as soon as they get done. You want to make time to talk to both the speakers, and fellow attendees. This way, you get the best of both worlds, you get to talk to the experts, as well as your peers that are facing the same issues with their social media strategies as you are, or will be.
3 – Don’t go to national events unless you have to. Granted, if you live in certain areas (like the state of Alabama), you will probably need to attend a national event because there aren’t a lot of local options. But if you live in a bigger city like NYC, LA or Atlanta, you can probably find plenty of local events, plus a couple of bigger national conferences will probably come to your city during the year. A good compromise would be to focus on one national event, then stay home for the rest of the year.
4 – Put a priority on events that cater to your space or industry. As the Social Media conference space matures, events are being offered that focus on certain types of businesses or industries. For example, Marketing Profs caters to B2Bs, and there are many events that are aimed at small businesses or enterprise social media usage. You might have to pay a bit more for these events, but it’s usually worth it since the content will be more relevant to you, and the networking with speakers and attendees will be better since they will be coming from a similar background as your own.
5 – Which is better, South By Southwest, or Blog World? Oy. It seems anytime I am asked about which social media conferences to attend, this question always comes up. The thing to realize about both events is that they are aimed more at individual bloggers rather than companies looking to improve their social media efforts. SXSW especially so. If you are a small business, I think you can get value from attending Blog World, not as much from South By Southwest, which is basically a circus. If you are a publisher/blogger that monetizes their blog, then it makes sense to attend either, especially Blog World. But if you are a large company, you can probably make better use of your money at other events. Even so, if you live in one of the cities/areas where Blog World will be, it makes sense to attend.
6 – Remember that you get out of these events what you put into them. It takes time to prep and try to connect with attendees before arriving, but it can make a big difference. Talk with attendees, learn about the speakers and their styles so you can get a better idea of which sessions you should attend. And ask questions. If you don’t feel comfortable asking a question during a session, catch the speaker out in the hall and ask them there. But remember that you’ve paid good money to attend, you deserve to ask questions.
So please keep these tips in mind as you are planning which events to attend. And if the travel budget isn’t there, consider attending online webinars, or many of the larger events now offer paid and free streaming, so check into that as well!
Sean McGinnis says
Great post mack. May I add one additional suggestion?
One of the main priorities we had whenever we sent people to conferences was a mandatory report out of their findings and recommendations. Not just what was actionable, but the key trends and observations that they took away from the conference. If we were going to spend the money to send an employee out into the wild, we wanted to be damn sure they knew it wasn’t just a vacation and networking session. We also wanted to ensure all (or at least multiple) parts of the organization benefited from that spend.
Create a roadshow of “what I learned from X conference” and present it to as many groups as you can within your organization. It will give purpose to the conference attendance and will also likely be a great development opportunity for your employee.
It will also make you look really smart and help justify the spend the next time you want to send someone out to a conference.
Mack Collier says
Sean I am on the fence on this one. I get that you want to find a way to bring back what the person learned and share it with the entire team. But, I think if the person that attends is focused on taking notes versus actually LISTENING, then they might not learn as much.
For example, last May at the Marketing Profs B2B Forum, I was doing a ‘Hot Seat’ on blogging where a different attendee has 20 mins with me to talk about whatever blogging issue their business has. She told me her company’s blogging strategy and what they were trying to figure out. I started advising her on what her company should do, and she started taking furious notes. Looking up every few seconds to add ‘Right! Ok….’ She was taking down every word I said, but she wasn’t listening to anything I was saying. So I waited till she got caught up, and repeated it to her, but told her to not write it down again, just listen so she could understand.
This is a big reason why I said it pays to send the manager versus the entry-level person. The manager understands that the money she had to pay to go to the event came from her budget, so she’s going to make sure she gets her money’s worth.
Maybe a compromise would be asking your employee to give say the Top 3 takeaways. I want to make sure that the team back at the company benefits as well, BUT I want the employee that DOES go to the event to actually listen and understand, to not just take notes.
What do the rest of you think? If you’ve sent employees to events like this, how do you handle them reporting back to the company when they return?
Sean McGinnis says
I can see your concerns and they make a lot of sense.
My experience was in a slightly different industry. I sent about 10 SEO consultants to various conferences across the country between 2006 and 2009. During that time I attended only one conference. I felt sending my top employees was more important because they were doing the front line work and also because they really valued the experience of attending these industry events. These were the senior people on my large team (we were about 40 people by 2009) and the feedback I got when sending them was they really appreciated the opportunity.
In fact, as I recruited new employees, i used conference attendance as a job perk, which I know had an effect. I know my replacement has taken the opposite view and only attends conferences himself, and team morale has suffered as a result.
During the report out, I was far less interested in hard core specifics and more interested in their analysis of the event. What were the trends? What should we be aware of as a business? Did they uncover any product opportunities we should consider? What should we be doing that we were not, and what should we possibly not doing any longer that we had been doing. It was a real opportunity to influence policy and change the behavior of my team as well as the business (because SEO was such a big part of our business at that time).
Rick Calvert says
Great post Mack. I do have one question. Why do you suggest people stay local vs. going to national events?
I ask as an event organizer, but also as someone who has attended and exhibited at hundreds of events all over the world. Pick any industry on the planet. Nothing will educate you on that industry more than attending that national / international event imo.
To be more specific I am talking about tradeshows, not conferences. There is a significant difference.
Mack Collier says
Hey Rick! I don’t mean to say that you should never go to national events, because I think you should for the reasons you outlined. Plus, national events usually offer you the chance to see speakers and attendees that you may never get a chance to see locally.
But, I think there is a ton of value in staying local, simply from a networking perspective. Plus, as a small business, attending and participating in local events can really help build awareness in your local community.
I think a mix is necessary. But if you live in some areas, there may be little to no local events, then I think you should get an extra national event or two to your plans.
I’m glad you brought this up! It’s definitely something I need to explore in order to take my abilities to the next level. It’ll be interesting to see how they handle providing accommodations (sign language interpreters, etc)…I’ll definitely start local (in Chicago). Plus, I enjoy networking madly. My goal is to have “attend a conference” in my blog on my “100 steps to success”.
What was your very first conference like? (as an attendee/participator). Maybe that’s a good story with tips some of you could share with us as we prepare…
Mack Collier says
Anne now that you mention it, I remember watching the stream of an event a year or so ago, and they had someone set up signing the sessions.
My first experience attending a social media event is a bit unusual in that my first event was South By Southwest in 2008. It was a circus as it always is. What I’ve learned as both an attendee and presenter is that it REALLY helps you to start connecting with attendees as soon as you can. Most events will have a hashtag set up beforehand where you can start networking with attendees immediately. Also, as an introvert, it helps to set up some meetings with friends ahead of time 😉
Anne Reuss says
Note: That’s my boss’s website! Whoops. My 100 steps to success posts can be found here http://www.networldingblog.com/best-of/. My new website is under construction!
Charity Hisle (@CharityHisle) says
Fantastic post Mack! I’m not a big fan of the “report” following a conference. I was asked to do that at SXSW one year and it made it very difficult to stay engaged during the presentations. Notes on great ideas or thoughts are one thing, but knowing you have to write a report adds pressure and makes it difficult to actually learn something.
Mack Collier says
Charity what do you think about using a voice recorder during sessions as an alternative to taking notes? I recently bought an Olympus model for about $40 and it works like a charm. That way, you could pay more attention during the sessions. It would require listening to the session again, or you could share the MP3s directly with your team so they could hear the sessions for themselves.
Charity Hisle (@CharityHisle) says
Great idea! Of course, I’d have to get a good seat. Attendees can be very loud in the audience at larger events. :o) Long time no see Mack, sending you a hug!
Marty Coleman, The Napkin Dad says
My question is simple enough. Where’s the list of all the social media events for 2012?
Mack Collier says
Marty that’s a good question. I don’t know that there IS a master list, I think Mashable has one on their site, anyone know of any others?
Noah Echols says
Couldn’t agree more with this post. In my experience, it has been the local conference that have been most beneficial for me. I’ve made stronger connections, and not to mention that it is much more practical/cheaper. I also like the idea of the social media conference industry narrowing to focus on niche subsets of social media practitioners. I’ve not really seen that much here in Atlanta, but I hope to see it 2012.
Judy Helfand says
This is a really helpful list. I can see what Sean is suggesting about asking for a report from your staff member that attends. But I will tell you that nothing is more distracting than to find yourself seated next to a person who feels compelled/ordered/obsessed to TYPE copious notes on their laptop, while you are trying to enjoy and learn from the presenter.
My feeling is learning how to listen, to learn, to absorb and understand the material is really a necessary tool when you are running an organization or working as a team member.
I think Blog World offers a good alternative, so that you don’t have to take notes. Buy the virtual ticket…then you have access to every presentation and you can review the session you saw live.
Glenn Dobson says
The problem I have is that so many of these events are PR/Marketing driven and what I do is Social Support. I don’t need to hear yet another expert talk about Social Media and bring up “Comcast Cares” etc, I want to hear from people actually providing customer service and support via Social and how they are making it work with their regular support channels.
These tips sufficient for better Social media conference. So we must obey these requirements.
Jeff Hurt says
As a conference organizer, I’m not sure that Regional is better than National. I often find more innovation and cutting edge ideas from a national/international audience than I do from the regional folks. As for networking, I don’t see that a regional or national/international provides more or less. To me, location is not a boundary to networking today.
i want to go to conferences where I can be challenged and stretched by ideas. I often find that regional conferences are echo chambers of ideas because everyone is sharing, borrowing and adapting, especially those in close proximity. I find totally new ideas from people across the states or from around the globe.
here’s another tidbit I like to suggest to people. When we go to conferences with coworkers, we often take the “Divide and conquer” route to get as much info as possible. I like to shift that thinking. Become peas in a pod…go to a couple sessions together. Then discuss each other’s point of view and how to implement back in the office. Their is more likely a benefit for the organization when there is two or more of you tacking an issue together than just one of you. That’s the best organizational learning around…IMO.