SXSW

The Conference Imperative.

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As I write this post, a few hundred of our industry’s best are at Dmexco, which folds right into New York’s Advertising Week which – before you know it – turns into CES and SXSW and Cannes and …. You get the picture. But it’s not just the big tent-pole gatherings; there are scores of smaller meet and greets peppered throughout the year from the likes of Digiday, ad:tech, iMedia, Digital Storytelling and even Upstream Group’s own Seller Forum. In a recent MediaVillage post, the value equation/boondoggle-factor of such events was briefly questioned.

Yet even as “can you believe how many events there are these days?” remains one of the most popular cocktail topics (at these very same events) the market value of human gathering is beyond question. Simple economics tells us so. If sponsors and attendees weren’t willingly ponying up the cash, many events would simply wither and die off. Yet here they are – again – blooming like dandelions. I’ve got a theory about why.

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The popularity of human focused events has grown in direct inverse proportion to the decline in day-to-day human contact between people who buy and sell stuff. In other words, the more that “connecting technology” – email, voicemail, texting, hangouts, shared documents – keeps us physically apart, the more we crave the handshake, the few minutes of eye contact, the nod of the head. Bitch all you want about whether a given event was “worth it” or not, human contact is at a premium and we will continue to pay that premium.

Now…to get your money’s worth out of any given event…

1. Have a plan. You’d be surprised how many people and companies don’t. Who do you aim to meet? How will you structure your time? Can you secure a formal or informal meeting spot? If you just show up, you’re just part of the crowd.
2. The first shall be first. As you attend parties or panels, get there first. Hosts and panelists remember the early arrivals. Then leave a little early to get a jump on the next one. No one will miss you at that point.
3. Spread out. People from the same company often stick together at conferences like 7th graders at the first middle school dance. If there are two of you in every conversation, one of you is irrelevant.
4. Write shit down. Give out a hundred business cards and collect two hundred. After each exchange, scribble a note on the back of a card. If someone doesn’t have a card, ask to take picture of their name badge with your phone, then text a copy of the photo to yourself with a short note. No matter how important the conversation or the customer, the connections are ephemeral unless you make sure they’re not.
5. Marketing, meet Sales! So often marketing and sales live in silos. Marketing buys a sponsorship and a bunch of passes to an event and then doesn’t get confirmation from sales about who’s attending until a few days before. Wasted dollars, wasted opportunity.

Human-to-Human matters more than ever. Make it count.

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Town Meeting Day.

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Town Meeting DayToday, March 4th, is very special.  As my friend Cecilia Lang of the Washington Post reminded me, it’s the only day of the year that’s actually a command – March Forth! – which I now like to interpret as us all marching forth out of this lousy winter into a much better spring.  It’s also Seller Forum Day.  I’m writing this as I await the arrival of 50 Chief Revenue Officers to a beautiful spot at the top of the Hearst Building where we’ll share ideas and issues for the next several hours.  Which leads me to the third reason today is special:  In our home state of Vermont, it’s Town Meeting Day!

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All up and down the Green Mountain State, across 237 towns, nine cities and four “gores” (don’t ask) citizens are gathering in gymnasiums and town halls to participate in perhaps the last acts of pure democracy left in our republic.  While centered on passing or rejecting town and school budgets, Town Meetings also include often spontaneous referenda on everything from paving a local road to pot legalization to taking a stand on an international justice issue.  It’s messy, spontaneous, argumentative, enlightening and inspiring all at the same time.

Just like our online marketing, advertising and media world.

A brilliant tech executive explained to me back in the mid-90s that the internet had grown into a ubiquitous, uniform global network precisely because no one controlled it. Sure, there was a room full of nerds who would distribute domain names, but nobody gave you permission to be on the web or start a magazine or launch a store.  When it came to online advertising, we kind of stumbled and lurched our way forward, every so often stopping to lay in some minimum standards around ad size, technical capabilities and legal.

Along the way, we interactive people have our own town meetings.  At CES, the IAB, SXSW, ad: tech, iMedia, the Seller Forum and many others, we participate in sometimes confusing debate and messy democracy.  Together we’re marking the recent past of our business and iterating its near future.  To the casual observer, it may seem like we have a lot of conferences; that the chief product of the digital marketing economy is talk.  But I clearly have a different take.

We all live in an unfinished, asymmetrical world, moving too fast and divided and segregated by the very technology that’s supposed to bring us together. Heads down in our email or hunched over our phones, we create bubbles where our vision of the world around us gets more and more self-referential and our issues ever more intractable.  If you ask me, there are probably not enough conferences and events.  It’s only by getting face-to-face and elbow-to-elbow with our digital neighbors that we maintain our participation in the future of the business, as sloppy and wasteful as that might seem.

So find yourself a comfortable spot in the bleachers, bring a lunch, and settle in.  It’s Town Meeting Day.

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