A Frank Review of Inbound 2016: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly #Inbound16
Note*** This is not a short post. I set out to write my most honest take on Inbound 2016, and I feel like I’ve done just that. Not all will agree with the words herein, and that’s OK, and you’re welcome to add your thoughts below.***
A Marketing Event it is Not
Well, the 5th annual Inbound event has come to a close, and as is always the case, I wanted to give a write up on my honest thoughts, observations, and assessment of the event. Last year’s review has been read thousands of times since it’s original release, and my hope is this year’s review will also provide the same value for future attendees and non-attendees alike.
Also, please keep in mind my opinions here are based on two main factors:
- My personal observations/findings upon attending and speaking at every Inbound event since its inception five years ago, and going in to each one with an observer’s (and not just an attendee’s) mindset.
- The opinions of dozens of other attendees that I spoke with during and after this year’s event, in preparation for this post. (Because of our HubSpot Podcast and community, we hosted an event every night of Inbound and had access to many, many unique conversations with attendees during this year’s event.)
Before we jump to the good, bad, and ugly—allow me to restate a critical point I made last year that was only elevated at Inbound 2016:
INBOUND is not a marketing conference.
Really, it’s not, and I’m pretty confident HubSpot would agree.
First of all, HubSpot has specifically emphasized to me in the past that Inbound is an “event”— not a conference. Just look at 100% of their messaging on the site and you’ll see what I’m saying here.
This vernacular distinction completely permeates every facet of Inbound, and leads to a content mix of “improve the world” + politics + business + sales + marketing. In fact, If I was asked to give Inbound a different name, the answer would be simple:
This being said, with the foundation now laid, let’s take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly that was Inbound 2016.
Far and away, the biggest complaint of Inbound 2015 was the chaos that came with getting into popular sessions. For many of these sessions, hundreds of attendees weren’t allowed into the room, which, as you might imagine, doesn’t sit well with thousands of opinionated marketers who happen to love their social media.
Recognizing this issue, HubSpot went to extreme measures to prevent this from happening with this year’s event. They accomplished this by taking three major steps:
- They heavily promoted a pre-Inbound session sign-up for all attendees, thus allowing the company to gauge the demand for the sessions, what room size would be needed, and if overflows and/or encore sessions would be necessary.
- In conjunction with #1, Inbound set up overflow rooms, complete with audio and visual of the speaker, for a large portion of their sessions. Although this isn’t as good as “being in the room”—it sure beats missing the entire presentation.
- Finally, HubSpot set up many encore sessions before the event even started. Because they could gauge demand early, folks like George Thomas were able to know days before Inbound that they would be speaking twice. This act helped thousands of attendees better schedule their sessions, especially when they wanted to see two sessions or speakers scheduled during the same time slot.
Before this year’s event, I was strongly concerned attendees would again struggle with being shut out from sessions, but this, for the most part, was not the case at all, for which HubSpot and the folks at Inbound deserve some serious credit. Frankly, the turnaround was amazing.
More Food. Better Food. Community Food
Another major sore spot from Inbound 2015 was the issue with food trucks. Last year, lines for these mobile units were a mile long, and many ran out of food on more than one occasion. But this year, for the most part, Inbound did a tremendous job creating a GREAT eating experience for attendees. They accomplished this by taking the following steps:
- By a simple swipe of your attendee badge, you could walk right up to a food truck and grab your meal.
- The food trucks were set up in a large park/seating area, making it a great area for social gathering and networking opportunities.
- From what I could count, there were over 15 unique food trucks, and it seemed like they all stayed well stocked throughout the event.
— Jennifer Smiga (@RivalJen) November 9, 2016
Breakout Sessions for Everyone
I don’t think Inbound will ever be accused of “not enough content.” Without question, they are loaded with sessions, and for the most part, whether you’re in sales, marketing, management, or an agency—you can find a topic that floats your boat.
I asked dozens of attendees what their favorite session was and what was fascinating was the fact that the majority gave a different answer to the question—which is a sign of deep, rich content selection.
HubSpot vs. Non-HubSpot Workers
HubSpot is well known for their upbeat and talented employee pool crawling the floors of Inbound and offering assistance to attendees looking for help.
But as is often the case with growth, HubSpot employees can no longer manage the conference like they did in the past, which means they’ve had to hire/outsource event crew to help assist the masses.
As you might imagine, many of these workers simply don’t have the same enthusiasm, smile, and knowledge of the event as was always present during the first few years of Inbound. In fact, here is a direct quote from an attendee that was emailed to me after the event:
“Conference employees need to be trained on HubSpot level customer service if they want to wear HubSpot shirts. Otherwise, it is bad for their (HubSpot’s) brand. Many people I encountered had complaints and I also found them to be generally rude.”
Although I know quality control is extremely difficult when it comes to outsourcing, this is certainly something HubSpot should keep their eye on.
Level of Speaker Skills/Abilities
Often times, with strengths come weaknesses. Above, I mentioned HubSpot has done a tremendous job of delivering a huge array of session types to please attendees. But along with this, the quality of the speakers seems to have fallen over the past few years.
The reason why I say this goes solely back to feedback I gathered from attendees over the 4 day event. Although they loved the session topics, many were rather disappointed in the delivery of the presenter. This being said, the process of curating 200+ quality speakers is never an easy task, nor can every speaker be a home-run with every attendee.
Notwithstanding, one issue here I do see is the fact that HubSpot does not reimburse their non-keynote speakers for speaking at Inbound. Yes, they give them free admittance into the event, but they do not pay for such things as hotel, flight, incidentals, etc.
Because I’m deeply imbedded in the professional speaking community, I can tell you that I’ve had multiple speakers tell me they would not speak at Inbound for this very reason—as the financial cost is just too high when all is said and done.
Personally, I’m more than willing to speak at Inbound because so many friends, clients, and community attend the event. But in my case, I’m deeply rooted with HubSpot, and can therefore see why so many other professionals would not make such an investment simply for stage “exposure.”
The AV Team
I don’t want to dwell on this one, but I was shocked to see in at least four breakout sessions I attended there were major audio/visual issues. I heard this complaint from quite a few other attendees as well. Nothing ruins a great presentation like bad AV setup, and so it’s my hope that HubSpot is able to find a better AV company to work with in the future.
Alas…where do I start with this one?
Maybe I should go back to where we started:
Inbound is NOT a sales and marketing conference.
It is for this reason the keynotes for this year (a capstone of any event) had very little to do with marketing…or sales…or business.
Let me state for the record that I love all types of conversation.
I love politics.
I love charity causes.
I love hearing from successful people talk about how they got where they are.
When I’m at Inbound, I want to swim in marketing, sales, and business. I want to be flooded with ideas for my business. I want to be fed.
And I’m not alone.
The #1 complaint I heard from attendees—for over 90% of the people I asked—was centered around the choice in keynotes.
Just look at the list of names:
- Gary Vaynerchuk
- Ta-Nehisi Coates
- Anna Kendrick
- Serena Williams
- Michael Strahan
- Brian Halligan/Dharmesh Shah
- Alec Baldwin
- Reshma Saujani
Yes, it’s a talented group of people. In fact, each can absolutely deliver major value to the right audience. But of this group, only Vaynerchuk and Halligan/Shah were focused on marketing and digital.
Saujani indirectly discussed the digital space as she is the founder of the wonderful non-profit—Girls Who Code.
But the rest discussed topics that, for the most part, were not digital/sales/marketing/etc.
Now don’t get me wrong here. These are very, very talented people. Each is having their own profound impact on the world. But for every non-marketing speaker chosen there is one less spot for someone that all of the audience, assuming their skills and credentials are solid, would want to see because of the direct relation to what they do on a daily basis.
I understand what I’m saying here is not the opinion shared by HubSpot, nor by all attendees. Some are completely fine with non-digital sales/marketing keynotes. And heck, I think one or two non-industry folks would be fine—as long as they are trying to relate their words to the audience, just as any other great speaker/performer is paid to do.
As someone who is very, very in tune with the HubSpot community, I heard multiple accounts of attendees wishing the keynotes were more sales and marketing related, and although HubSpot may feel their current approach is a better experience for the audience, I simply cannot concur based on my findings.
Must we get Political??
Yes, Inbound was the day after the election. But unlike many that have given them a hard time for that, I get it. Reserving the Boston Convention Center is by no means an easy task. HubSpot is at the mercy of the Convention Center’s calendar, and I truly believe that scheduling the event during the election was not an oversight, but rather a necessary inconvenience.
This being said, HubSpot intentionally injected politics into Inbound, and it has left me baffled as to why any company would look to divide their audience as they did on the morning of day two at Inbound with the keynote of Ta-Nehisi Coates.
As anyone who has ever read or listened to anything from Coates would attest, it was no surprise that, with the shocking results of the election, Coates ditched his “slated” talk and instead focused on the awful (paraphrasing his words) state of American politics, the historical abuse of African Americans from white society, etc.
To say the talk was polarizing would be an understatement.
Many attendees walked out.
Many complained on twitter.
Many were thrilled with his words.
Many praised him on twitter.
It was a house divided.
But look at it like this:
In just over a week here in the US, friends and families will gather everywhere to celebrate Thanksgiving.
And for most of these families, as they sit around the dinner table, a huge portion will follow the golden rule of communal/familial events:
Do not discuss religion and politics (assuming there are different views in the home) at the table.
The reason for this tradition of not discussing religion and politics at the dinner table is a simple one: It divides families. It creates negative feelings. And it sucks the positive energy out of a room.
Yet, this is exactly what we saw at Inbound.
But if I may be completely frank here, I don’t feel so bad for the American attendees that were sitting in the keynote hall. Heck, for the last year, they’ve been seeing hate thrown around their Facebook streams like candy in a parade.
No, the people I felt for on this day were the ones that represented the 90 other countries in attendance.
Folks that traveled 15, 20, or even 25 hours just to make it to this event.
Folks that, for many of them, had dipped into their savings or even gone into debt—all so they could be inspired to improve their digital sales and marketing efforts in some way.
Yet, they had to listen to a diatribe on what’s wrong with America.
Every single foreign person I discussed this with at Inbound (I probably spoke to 30 or more) told me they did not come to America to hear about our politics.
And I agree with them. In fact, I believe they are the heart and soul of Inbound, and the idea that they would travel so far and spend so much money to not get 100% value bothers me.
Like many early HubSpotters, I bleed orange. It was HubSpot that inspired me to know what to do to save my swimming pool company. It was HubSpot who taught me Inbound. It was HubSpot who, through these acts, allowed me to go on to become a professional speaker and travel the world in an effort to “pay it forward” with my own teachings on Inbound and Content Marketing.
This is why I’m so passionate about this subject. This is why I care.
Talk to any attendee of the first couple of Inbound events. Each will very likely use a specific word to describe their experience—“magical.”
We all felt like we were on a crusade to make marketing better, and Halligan and Shah, as well as that orange sprocket, were the ones leading the way.
But division isn’t magical. Nor is hate.
I don’t fault Ta-Nihisi Coates at all for his words at Inbound. He did what he does. He did what I would expect him to do.
But Inbound wasn’t the place, and that’s on HubSpot.
This is also why I must tip my hat to Gary Vaynerchuk and Alec Baldwin.
Gary delivered an incredible message of hope, tactics, and inspiration.
Baldwin, despite being baited by his interviewer to get political, elected to instead look to the future with a bipartisan tone and an amazingly fresh perspective on life in general.
— SalesHub (@sales_hub) November 11, 2016
It is my personal hope that the day will come when HubSpot will realize that focusing on business, sales and marketing (getting back to their roots)—rather than diluting those waters to appeal to the masses—will actually make them more, not less, attractive to potential attendees around the globe.
But whether they do any of this or not, I will still be there. After all, they did change my life. They did change my future. And for that, I shall always be grateful.
Your turn: Have an opinion? Feel free to share it below, I’d love to hear your thoughts…
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