The Conference Imperative.

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.

So, When’d You Get In?

Cocktail party 2Labor Day marks not only the unofficial end of summer, but the unofficial kickoff of the fall conference season.  So I’m reposting this Drift from February 2012, hoping it will make our time in the ballrooms and corridors just a little more meaningful.

I’ve lost count of the industry conferences, trade shows and networking events I’ve attended over the last 25 years.  But I’m certain I’ve been to more in the last five years than in the first 20.  There are probably not more than 20 days a year when the industry event machine goes dark.  And collectively we spend hundreds of millions to mingle, drink and panel with one another…But  we can all get more for our money with a little advance planning and strategy.  So here’s my list of simple rules and practices to consider as you pack team members off to their next event.

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1. Marketing, Meet Sales. In far too many cases, trade marketing (the folks who buy the sponsorships and tickets) are not well-aligned with sales (the folks who end up attending).  The result is a lot of confusion about who will “represent” the company at this event or that one.   Personalize it:  As you plan your sponsorship and conference schedule, be specific about who will attend and why.

2. Level Set. If your CRO is attending every single event on the calendar, that’s not a good thing.  They’re not all worth the CRO’s time.  Events, like nightclubs, have their own natural crowds. Some are very high level and strategic; others are more tactical and transactional.  Push the event producer for a sense of who’s really attending and what they’re likely to talk about.  Create an internal hierarchy about which events are relevant at which levels.

3. Have a plan. I’ll put it right out there.  The vast majority of sellers show up at resorts and conference centers with no real plan in place.  Get the attendee list in advance.  Figure out the ten people you have to meet and find their photos on line so you have a visual cue.  Reach out in advance to attending buyers and set appointments.  Most of all, know what it is you want out of this particular conference and measure it.  “Was this event a success for us?” is not a rhetorical question.

4. Spread Out. Yes, trade events can be a good time for sellers from different offices to bond with each other and with management.  But when I see sellers from the same teams never leaving each other’s sides for an entire evening — or an entire event — I smell trouble.  Divide, conquer.  If you’re part of all the same conversations, half of you aren’t necessary.

5. Ask Questions that Mean Something. When meeting someone at a trade event, be prepared with a question that will spark a real conversation. “What’s on the agenda you don’t want to miss?”  or “What’s Your Highlight so far?”  Do NOT ask the following:  “So….when’d you get in?”  That’s a non-question:  you don’t really care about the answer, it will produce meaningless data, and they know you didn’t really care to think up anything better.

6. Don’t Close the Bar. Enough said.

7. If you Present, Personalize. Nobody wants to hear the general presentation.  Pick a couple of customers who will be in the room and tell them how you can help them.  The others wont’ be offended: they’ll be intrigued and curious about what you could do for them.

Take a few of these to heart and you’ll be able to answer “What did you learn?” and “Who did you meet?” instead of “When’d you get in?”

Town Meeting Day.

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.

Ten Years On.

I’m reading the conference agenda and I’m pretty engaged by the topics. “Interactive Brand Building: Where Next?”… “Rethinking the Rules: Managing Buyer-Seller Interaction”… “Common Currency: Developing Metrics and Measurement to Enable Cross Media Evaluation”… “Interactive and the Agency: Making Interactive a Profitable and Successful Medium for Madison Avenue.”  Sure sound like the right high-level topics to me. Not caught in the weeds of the latest microtargeting and data tactics. Just leadership on the issues that will continue to drive the digital channel forward.

Want to go? Well then, rev up the Way-Back machine, Sherman, because this is the agenda from the very first iMedia Summit which took pace ten years ago last week in Park City, Utah. Mark Zuckerberg was starting his senior year of high school, Google was three years old (and three years away from its IPO), and Barack Obama was a lawyer and community activist still smarting from his failed congressional campaign the year before.

Want to view the original iMedia Summit program and roster of attendees? You can see it here. And if you were in attendance at that first event, I’d love to get your thoughts and recollections in the comments section below.

While the iMedia brand is still going quite strong (there are both agency and brand summits, Breakthrough events, vertical market offerings and more), it’s worth taking a moment to acknowledge this anniversary. Even if the original October conference dates hadn’t been pushed back by the events of 9/11,  Rick Parkhill and his team were making a big bet at a very challenging moment. The Internet bubble had burst, the industry was in the doldrums and back to sweeping up crumbs. Some would see this as a terrible time to launch a conference, but Rick’s counter-intuition got it right.  iMedia became a critically important community hub for the industry, a forum for describing a positive future, and — occasionally — much-needed group therapy.

I was fortunate to have Rick reach out to me that fall and offer me the opportunity to program that initial event and ultimately several that followed it. My relationship with iMedia continues to this day, as do the the friendships with so many of the people who shared the cozy atmosphere of those first few events. As proud as I am of being on the team that launched web advertising at Wired in 1994, I think I’m even prouder of the small contribution I made to getting iMedia off the ground. But make no mistake, iMedia has only one father and one doting uncle: Rick Parkhill is the guy who took all the risk and whose energy, vision and sheer will made this happen; and Mike Pubentz then helped make it financially viable by marshaling sponsors and guests during one of the worst possible times.

The conference circuit is now virtually saturated, of course, and it’s not easy for the casual observer to differentiate one from another. But for me the iMedia Summits will always hold a special place. But that place is not in the past; it’s still about the future that we all share in, a future that gets richer in possibility with each passing year.

So hats off and congratulations to Rick, Mike and the whole team that made that first event happen in the dark days of late 2001. May you always be proud of what you built, and may we all continue to find our way back.