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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{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

Jay Baer April 13, 2013 at

Great post, Marcus. 100% agree, especially (from a speaker standpoint) about room size and energy. Massive, massive difference. The number of times I’ve done a truly great talk in a non-full room is zero. Energy creates energy.

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Marcus Sheridan April 15, 2013 at

Jay, appreciate you chiming in here bud. Remind me to talk to you about this the next time we chat in person. I’d be curious to know how involved you are with helping event organizers to plan the room in such a way to get best results.

And again, you were great out there at SMMW, on the stage and off, as always.

Marcus

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Vincent Orleck April 13, 2013 at

Really great point regarding Mike choosing Benet to get the conference under way. The exercises he had us perform where we all interacted with our nearest seat neighbors using brief yet introspective questions (that also required concise answers) was a brilliant tone-setter.

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Mary E. Ulrich April 14, 2013 at

How about a blog post just on what Benet did to encourage “social.”
Thanks for the conference summary, I always wonder what happened.

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Marcus Sheridan April 15, 2013 at

I’ll see what I can do Mary! ;-)

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Marcus Sheridan April 15, 2013 at

That’s exactly it Vincent– setting the tone. Most forget to do this, or at least don’t do it well. I think Stelzner really nailed it here.

Thanks for stopping by bud,

Marcus

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Chris Smith April 13, 2013 at

Great observations Marcus. I hadn’t thought about room size and packed crowds afftecting the vibe in the room and the presentation itself. Thinking back on past conferences, they really do. I agree with you about Stelzner’s brilliant idea of kicking off the conference with Larry Benet. I had a great conversation with Larry on the way over to the party at the museum. His networking tips greased the wheels for impromptu introductions and conversations throught the event. While great for conference ice-breaking, they’re especially good for building relationships in your personal and work life. I’ve used techniques like his to bond with co-workers and help support an open & fun company culture.

Last year I attended FINCON (personal finance bloggers). The creator of the event, Phillip Taylor (aka PT Money), organized a public service event for the community in which the conference was held. It was an amazing bonding event for those conference attendees who participated. Pretty cool idea.

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Marcus Sheridan April 15, 2013 at

Chris, so thrilled you stopped by to add your thoughts here man. Love the example from FINCON and it sounds like you truly took Benet’s words to heart.

Keep doing awesome things bud and thanks for the support,

Marcus

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Chris Adams April 13, 2013 at

Excellent points, Marcus. I agree, the conference elements you noted definitely fostered close connections. From opening night networking bingo to the karaoke cruise, there were plenty of opportunities to connect. The resulting intimacy made even the presenters highly approachable, yourself included.

It was a pleasure meeting you in person and thanks for your informative, entertaining, and dynamic presentation. I came away with lots of great strategies and more importantly a shift in my philosophy.

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Marcus Sheridan April 15, 2013 at

Chris, thrilled with you kind words man and I loved your thoughts here as well.

Good luck rocking out your “shift” and let me know how it goes!!

Best,

Marcus

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Demian Ross April 13, 2013 at

I too really enjoyed the Social aspect. But they was a little bit of what I would consider to be “fanboy” attitude. I won’t mention the bad, but the good ones were Lewis Howes, Mari Smith and Chris Brogan.
My mother produced the Tonight Show (both Johnny and Jay) and going up to people that are well known can sometimes bite you in the face. I enjoyed talking to people that really were not a “big deal” and those relationships seemed more real to me.
Every time I saw you you seemed to be swamped with people or speaking to another speaker so I didn’t really want to interrupt your networking. Overall it was a great event and I look forward to 2014.

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Marcus Sheridan April 15, 2013 at

Dude, the next time we’re at a conference don’t allow me to do that, we should have talked!!

I’m sure we’ll get the chance though again ;-)

Keep rockin buddy,

Marcus

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Michael Stelzner April 13, 2013 at

Hey Marcus,

Thanks for your great write up. We tried very hard to foster a positive social experience. It took a ton of work, but was all worth it.

I am glad you had a great time and would like to thank all who attended.

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Marcus Sheridan April 15, 2013 at

You only do things first class my friend. Frankly, I wasn’t at all surprised w anything I saw.

Thanks again,

Marcus

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Tom Reber April 13, 2013 at

Marcus-

I’m digging this article. I love a full, tight room vibe…it beats the opposite…
One of my first talks years ago was in a small room with about 4 people…that was ‘memorable!’

Also, unique locations are great. I did a gig in Cabo in January and we had breakout sessions outside by the beach and pool…various locations around the resort. That created a great social vibe as well!

Keep up the great work!

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Sheryl Kurland April 14, 2013 at

Tom, your words are encouraging to me tonight as I am putting the polishing touches on a speech presentation I’m going to be giving in 2 weeks at the 2013 Orlando Women’s Conference. I’m a break-out session (“Relationships & The Little Black Dress”) that’s simultaneous with two others that have heavy-hitter panels. In fact, I’m the only session throughout the entire day in which a speaker goes solo. I was worried that I will probably have a low turn-out, but you sharing your “quality” experience with only 4 people in the room makes me realize that this will be a wonderful opportunity, period. Thx!

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Marcus Sheridan April 15, 2013 at

Oh Sheryl, your energy and attitude are so contagious it’s impossible the audience won’t LOVE it. And I’m not just saying that, I’m serious :-)

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Marcus Sheridan April 15, 2013 at

Great example there Tom of “outside the box.” Love it.

Are you going to any marketing conferences this year btw? I’d love to finally meet face to face.

Marcus

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Ian Cleary April 14, 2013 at

Hey Marcus,

It was a great to catch up with you at Social Media Marketing World!

I loved this conference. I agree with you, dedicating a session to how to network was a master stroke. Learning is not just at the speaker sessions, it’s interacting with people at the conference and building relationships that will last way beyond the conference. As well as a session on how to network there were 2 additional hours set aside for networking!

You know it’s a good conference when you don’t want it to end!

So social media examiner conference was certainly one of the most social events.

On the same week I went to Mark Schaefer’s social slam conference and that was certainly a very social conference. There was an amazing atmosphere at the conference and it was so much fun. I bonded with so many great people and built relationships that will last way beyond the conference. Fantastic!

Great post Marcus and hopefully see you soon again. It’s always great to hang out!

Ian

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Marcus Sheridan April 15, 2013 at

Ian, are you home bud?? You were making your US tour there, which I thought was awesome man. Even more impressive, is that you take your craft so seriously that you fly for hours just to attend these types of event. Major props my friend. Your an example to me, really.

Cheers,

Marcus

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sahin erbay April 14, 2013 at

Great and Wonderful Post. You Got me to thinking about different things to look for, and to look out for! Thanks again!

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Deb Evans (@DebCE) April 14, 2013 at

Great input. I totally agree. Best conferences I have attended are full of content and energy.

I have added networking events like TweetUps and inviting locals that may not be attending the conference and one of my favorites a Charity Miles walk. Attendees download the app http://www.charitymiles.org and together we set out to walk the host city. Several things happen. We get to know each other, learn a little about the city and support a charity of our choice.

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Marcus Sheridan April 15, 2013 at

Love the example Deb. One thing is for sure– this is applicable in all walks of life.

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Mike Kawula April 14, 2013 at

SME is my first site I visit each morning when drinking my coffee. Always such valuable content each day with no fluff. Michael’s Weekly Podcast is perfection and I have no doubt the Conference was also.

Starting another business I see so many great conferences and it always tough to choose what to attend, though seems like this is one I should have.

Definitely believe that though the host can create a great atmosphere for a conference, its up to the individual to get the most out of it networking and attending the actual events. Went to one once that Jay was speaking at and saw so many people at the bar/pool when walking out of his talk (incredible) that skipped it.

Though not a conference, one of my favorite networking events to attend are Grubwithus events. Like a Meetup, but over dinner and very interactive.

Great Review!

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Marcus Sheridan April 15, 2013 at

Great points Mike, and yes, ultimately, the attendees have to step up. Like you,I’m blown away with conferences that include great education but only a small percentage of folks actually attend. This is always really, really depressing, and it prolific in the swimming pool industry.

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Bob McCarthy April 14, 2013 at

Hi Marcus

I’ve never been to one of those conferences, but they sound great.

You seem to be a frequent speaker at these events – which I’m guessing is a major source of business for you these days..

Obviously today, you are highly sought after, but could you share with us how you got started as a speaker? Did you do the local Chamber circuit? And what was your breakthrough to national conferences?

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Marcus Sheridan April 15, 2013 at

Bob, I appreciate you asking this question, and it’s one I think should be answered, yes…just give me a couple weeks and it will be posted.

Thanks for all the support bud,

Marcus

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Jon Loomer April 15, 2013 at

It was an amazing event! As you say, so many of the industry leaders were open and willing to give. For me this list especially included Mark Schaefer, Mike Stelzner and The Sales Lion himself.

Keep leading by example, my man.

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Marcus Sheridan April 15, 2013 at

Thrilled you had a great experience man. Even more thrilled we got to chat a little. But next year, I expect to see you on stage, got it?? :-)

Marcus

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Jon Loomer April 15, 2013 at

I’m going to get up on stage and do some breakdancing…

High priority. Get speaking experience. Goal is SMMW. But several steps before we get there!

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Mohd Aktar April 15, 2013 at

Great post dude, I’ve visited few conferences. And I make sure I visit the places in which I am interested. It is waste of time to attend a conference where in you feel bored and spend your time there unnecessarily. So almost I’ve attended all meaningful and interesting conferences.

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Davina K. Brewer April 15, 2013 at

Done a lot of event/meeting planning in my day Marcus, the space makes a difference. Is it designed for all-day use w/ tiered rows of desks, comfortable chairs or is it just a chopped up, repurposed ballroom? Totally agree w/ on the space of the room – makes all the difference, which is why I never let my rooms overwhelm the small crowd, or cram in a bigger one. My rule of thumb when doing classroom set up: cut the facility’s projection by at least 10% to allow for elbow room, equipment, etc.

As Daria Steigman just commented on my blog, people tend to stay in their comfort zones, hang w/ folks they know, but should make a point to mix it up and get to know others. Bigger the event, the harder to manager the ‘social’ flow, but I think event coordinators would do better by playing match-maker. It’s more work, but maybe ‘assigned’ meal seating help? Divide attendees into 4 groups, designate tables for each group (no wasting time looking for, holding space either) so you mix attendees from different companies, etc. Even make it ‘fun’ – some gaming w/ groups in different teams. Team w/ most asked/answered questions, best suggestions, blah blah gets extra door prize at the end. Like I said, been there done that.

Like you said, when you get out of the normal room, that’s where the magic happens. Take a look at the city, find an interesting space to use to your advantage, make it worth everyone’s time. They’ll be more impressed w/ event, more ‘social’ about it after. FWIW.

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Marcus Sheridan April 15, 2013 at

GREAT additions, as always Davina. I think the theme of your remarks and certainly this post comes down to this— “Social” is NOT a passive thing. And unless organizers understand this, we’ll all just go about our businesses as usual, which doesn’t ever include leaving our comfort zones.

Hope you’re well D’!

Marcus

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Derek April 16, 2013 at

Awesome recap, Marcus (and thanks for the shout out)! Thank you as well for introducing us to so many awesome people! In addition to your points, I also thought the Bizzabo App was fantastic. I reviewed the attendee list a few days later and was reminded of some great (but short) conversations I had with some really cool people, and Bizzabo allowed for me to reconnect with them. As more of a offline networking guy myself, I was pleased to see that the conference flow provided for these opportunities to connect, and also liked how a lot of the content was more about business/relationships and not the hottest new apps or tools. Thanks for being an advocate and keep rocking!

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Marcus Sheridan April 17, 2013 at

Nice point about the Bizzabo app man, that is a stellar tool, and just adds to the experience.

Appreciate the heck out of you bud,

Marcus

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Mitch April 17, 2013 at

Interesting post Marcus as usual. The points you have given are really essential and helpful to reach social.

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Michael stock- Options binaires April 17, 2013 at

Hey Marcus,

I really enjoyed it we tried very hard to foster a positive social experience. here was an amazing atmosphere at the conference . San diego is an amazing city by the way
Thanks for your great write up.

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Myhox April 19, 2013 at

How can a blog post significantly effects the content marketing and Social Media Optimization?

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