When my first book came out in 2013, I started getting a lot more speaking inquiries. Many of these requests came from industry-specific events. Such as automotive, tourism, financial, etc. Up till this point, I had pretty much only spoken at social media and digital marketing events. So I assumed these industry-specific events would be similar, the only difference being that the attendees would all come from the same industry.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. The environment at these industry-specific events was completely different. Everyone was there to work, and by work, I mean everyone was there to solve their business problems. There was zero fluff, and very little discussion about the tools. Instead, the focus was on strategy, not tactics.
Basically, everyone attended these events to learn one thing: How is this going to help me get shit done?
I loved it. I absolutely loved seeing all the attendees on the same page and focusing on the bottom line instead of tweeting out a cool sound-byte. In fact, that’s a big reason why I have attended fewer ‘social media conferences’ over the last few years. Although these events are a lot of fun, while I see everyone rushing to take selfies with a speaker (and sometimes it was me), in the back of my mind I was thinking ‘How are 57 selfies taken going to justify the cost of this trip for you?’
It’s Not About the Cewebrities, It’s About the Learning
Over the years I’ve also been involved in helping to select the speakers for multiple events. Whenever I had a say in who the speakers would be, I always suggested speakers that were also good teachers. Speakers who knew how to communicate a point to an audience, and how to put it in terms they would understand. I was told long ago that were two types of speakers in the world: Those that speak to put the spotlight on themselves, and those that speak to put the spotlight on their amazing ideas. I want the latter to speak at my event.
The problem with too many social media or content marketing events is that they have basically become a social function. Speakers are invited based on how many Twitter followers they have, then asked ‘What would you like to speak on?’ That approach tells you that the focus isn’t crafting a top-notch agenda, it’s getting a ‘cewebrity’ speaker there cause that’s who attendees want to take a selfie with.
And let me be clear: Popular speakers sell tickets. This is absolutely correct and events are smart to seek popular speakers ASSUMING they can also give attendees actionable ideas that they can take back to their company or agency and use to improve the bottom line. The best speakers can do this and strive to do this.
Keynotes Set the Tone, and Bring It Home
Keynotes are special. They are supposed to wake up attendees and set the tone for the event. As Ann Handley told me years ago, the choice in keynotes says a lot about the event and what it wants to accomplish. It’s a special slot and it should reserved for special speakers.
Unlike a lot of events, I don’t agree with having a keynote every day. I think there should be an opening keynote, and a closing keynote. The opening keynote should excite the attendees and open their mind to different possibilities. And the closing keynote should take the natural excitement that’s been building with attendees and bring it all home.
Two Days, Maximum
Two full days is plenty for any event. There seems to be an almost ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ mentality going with many social media and digital events to stretch out as being longer and longer. If your event is 4-5 days, then the content and the experience becomes very watered down. And often, these events will have multiple tracks going all day, every day. When you have 6 sessions covering the same topic, you probably have 5 sessions too many.
Think about it, when is the last time you thought ‘Wow, I could have spent another day or two there!’ about an event? If you can remember doing that, you probably remember attending that same event the following year. Because when you attend an event that offers that much value, it becomes very easy to justify the expense of going. On the other hand, if you paid $2,000.00 to attend a 4-day event that you felt was 2 days too long, you probably didn’t go back the next year.
Event planners: Force yourself to limit your event to 1 or 2 days. This will also force you to get better content because you will be greatly restricted in what you can fit in. This is how you go from contacting speakers and saying “hey, speak on whatever you like!’ to ‘I need someone to lead a session on this topic…can you do it?’
Fewer Sessions, More Workshops
There’s a dirty little secret about ‘thought leaders’. Anyone can explain how something worked for them, but only those that truly understand the concept can explain how it will work FOR YOU. This is why many books are full of case studies, but often lack abstract examples that explain the same concept. It’s vital to have both, because the brain needs both concrete AND abstract examples in order to fully understand a concept, and more importantly, how to implement it at their business.
For example, instead of a 50-min session on business podcasting, I want Kerry Gorgone to lead a 3-hour workshop on podcasting where she shows you exactly how to research guests, flesh out the questions, then record an episode live for you, then show you how to do post-production and editing.
Instead of a session on crisis management, I want Ike Pigott to lead a workshop on crisis management where he does a mock triage on how to handle incoming complaints from customers and has attendees come up with appropriate responses.
So I want fewer or no sessions at my event, and more workshops. Workshops should have three elements:
1 – Concrete examples (case studies)
2 – Hypothetical examples (abstract)
3 – Group/Individual exercises where the attendees flesh out the concept in their business framework.
So for a 3-hour workshop, you’re looking at 60-90 minutes of interaction with the attendees. We learn by doing, so less talk and more activities.
Look For New Speakers
If you look at the rosters for most social media conferences, you’ll see the same 10-15 speakers at almost every single one. Honestly, this is just sheer laziness by event planners as there are plenty of solid speakers that could easily replace some of these speakers so that events aren’t recycling the same speakers year after year. When your attendees see the same speakers at every event, it makes it harder for yours to stand out.
Here’s a few freebies, contact these speakers today:
Jessica Northey – Leveraging Social Media to generate PR for your business or clients.
Geno Church – Anything Word of Mouth. Probably my favorite speaker that you never see at social media/digital events.
Kelly Hungerford – Creating customer-advisory boards or brand ambassador programs
Joe Martin – Using insights from social media to create better content for your brand
Kami Huyse – Anything about PR, measurement or proving the ROI of SM/Digital
I will happily recommend any of these guys as they are gems, feel free to email me about them or if you need any other recommendations.
Here’s how I would set the agenda for a 2-day event:
9:00-10:30 – Introduction and Opening Keynote
10:30-11:00 – Break
11:00-12:00 – Sessions (2-3 tracks maximum) (Session topics should ideally be an overview of a workshop topic covered in the afternoon, preferrably by same speaker)
12:00-1:30 – Lunch
1:30-3:00 – Workshops (first half), 2 tracks maximum
3:00-3:30 – Afternoon break
3:30-5:00 – Workshops (second half)
8:30-10:00 – Workshops (first half), 2 tracks maximum
10:00-10:15 – Morning break
10:15-12:00 – Workshops (second half)
12:00-1:00 – Lunch
1:00-2:30 – Workshops (first half)
2:30-3:00 – Afternoon Break
3:00-4:00 – Workshops (second half)
4:10 – 5:00 – Closing Keynote, Goodbye
Social Media Conferences Need to Stop Being Social Events and Focus on Teaching
Too many speakers agree to speak at events just to ‘hang out’ with other speakers and attendees. Too many attendees decide to go to events for the same reason. When you go to an industry-specific event, you see people wearing business attire and bringing briefcases. The attendees approach the event as being another workday, and they come in with the mindset that they are there to get work done. The social part comes at the evening mixer.
Social media and content marketing events need to adopt the mindset that they are offering training to attendees. Nuts and bolts, strategy and processes. They need to stop bringing in the speakers based on Twitter followers and start bringing them in based on their ability to connect the dots for attendees in a way that makes a meaningful impact on their businesses.
And guess what? You can charge more for an event that gives more value to attendees. You should also fairly compensate speakers, but that’s another argument for another day.
And in closing, let me be clear that this post isn’t directed or about any one particular event. And it has nothing to do with my attending Adobe’s Summit user conference last week.