Why Most Marketing Conferences Fail to Reach their “Social” Potential

by Marcus Sheridan

With my DC friends, Derek and Melanie Coburn.

With my DC friends, Derek and Melanie Coburn.

It’s the weekend and because I’ve been contemplating Social Media Marketing World (#SMMW13) these past few days my thoughts are drawn to this word we hear so very much about—Social—and the fact that although so many conferences (in and out of the marketing realm) may have session titles that include the word “social” in them, they don’t always demonstrate the principle of social in the way they’re organized.

As I’ve reflected on what made Michael Stelzner’s SMMW such a successful event, I keep going back to the intimacy of the experience. Maybe more than any conference I’ve ever been around (Content Marketing World is right there as well), it seemed like conversations and interactions abounded as attendees and speakers alike bustled about.

Personally, I brought two very good friends from Washington DC, Derek and Melanie Coburn of Cadre, in the hopes they would be able to meet some of their favorite marketing minds, and , without exception, everyone I introduced them to made them feel incredibly welcome and important—something that reminded me as to why so many of these folks have attained the success they’ve been able to achieve up to this point. (They take their own medicine.)

Trying to put my finger on how this happened the way it did, there are 3 things Stelzner did to make this conference so incredibly “social” and intimate.

1. Eliminate “Death by Convention Center”

Quick question: What’s the difference between a jammed room of 100 people with another dozen standing against the walls versus a half empty room of 200 people with another 200 empty chairs?

Answer: Everything

As a speaker, I prefer “quality” over supposed “quantity” any day of the week. So would any other seasoned presenter. Packed rooms have more intimacy, a stronger vibe, and more of a “we’re in this together feel.” Why so many conference organizers allow their sessions to occur in half-empty rooms is flat out foolish and frankly irresponsible in my opinion. Now granted, sometimes this cannot be prevented, but the idea is always to create a sense of overflow.

Believe it or not, it's *always* better to pack it in...

Believe it or not, it’s *always* better to pack it in…

This is exactly why the setting for SMMW was perfect. It was at a very nice San Diego hotel (Marriot Marquis) and was not in some mammoth convention center. Had the event moved down the street just a few hundred yards to the actual convention center, I guarantee you the vibe for the event wouldn’t come close to what it was this year.

Takeaway: Keep attendees tight—in the halls, in the conference rooms, and in the events.

2. Larry Benet

You may have never heard of Larry Benet before, but the guy understands networking and relationships. He also does a tremendous job helping others maximize their networking and social opportunities in non-digital settings. This alone doesn’t mean much until you know that Benet was the opening keynote of SMMW. In other words, instead of Michael Stelzner telling everyone, “Hey, make the most of this tremendous networking opportunity” as you’d see in many other conferences, he invested an entire keynote to lay a social foundation for the conference, something I honestly thought was genius and clearly had an effect on me and others as we went about the rest of our time at the event.

Takeaway: Don’t just talk about networking, teach it.

3. Create Outside-the-Box Opportunities

Although there were quite a few networking “breaks” during the event as with most other conferences, Stelzner and the gang organized two exceptional activities—an opening night welcome party at a museum and another karaoke bash on a cruise boat that took us under the Coronado Bridge and was certainly a unique experience. Although activities such as these may appear to cut into the “bottom line” of conference organizers, they have a profound effect on attendees and are often where the “social magic” happens.

Takeaway: Put attendees in unique settings beyond “the classroom” so as to provide social opportunities.

Coronado Bridge SMMW

It’s often by “getting away” that the social magic happens, just as it did for many as we cruised under the Coronado Bridge.

When all was said and done, I left San Diego this past week with a smile and appreciation for this industry. There truly are some incredible people herein. In fact, what I didn’t see whatsoever in the industry leaders I met and chatted with at SMMW was any sense of entitlement or superiority. Sally Hogshead was surrounded by fans wherever she went, but she always seemed to make the time. Chris Brogan did what he always does and made each person he came in contact with feel like the only person in the room. Others like Mari Smith, Joe Pulizzi, Jay Baer, and Mark Schaefer were equally giving of their time and attention. I could literally mention name after name here, but you get my point.

So props to Michael Stelzner and his team for putting on such a memorable event that truly was a tremendous representation of its name. Props as well to all the attendees that showed “social” in all their actions. And props to any conference going forward that looks to do the same.

Your Turn:

A couple of questions I’d love to know your thoughts on. What are the most “social” events you’ve attended? What made them so special? What are the features of conferences you like most and which ones do you like least?

As always, your thoughts matter.

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