So You Want to Run an SEO Conference? Lessons from ProSEO
Hi Everyone! My name is Sam Crocker, I am a Lead SEO at Distilled in London and I’m extremely excited to be writing my first post for State of Search (hopefully the first of many). Today I’ve been asked to share some of the lessons we’ve learned from hosting this year’s ProSEO seminar.
It has been an exhausting few weeks for the team but I think there should definitely be some good lessons for anyone who has ever thought “this seems like an easy way to make some money”.
A very special thank you to our organiser Lynsey Little for sharing some of the things she learned and for everyone who filled out the feedback forms that helped me write this post.
Lesson 1: Plan in Advance
It sounds like an incredibly obvious lesson but the finer details will come back to bite you if you have not planned ahead and tried to think of everything that can go wrong. Perhaps more importantly, you’ll never be able to get the right speakers and a large number of attendees if you leave it too late. We started planning for this year’s event as soon as last year’s finished, but Lynsey has been on the job full-time since the beginning of April and I imagine if you had offered her another two weeks she would have gladly taken them!
Lesson 2: Always have a back-up plan
The event had a number of hurdles and stumbling blocks along the way. You can never plan for family emergencies, flooding of venues, illness or anything else. We had a near catastrophe at this year’s event when we lost wifi shortly before a presentation for which the speakers had not prepared any slides. If the wireless goes down right before you’re planning to take some live site-reviews you need to have something lined-up.
It never hurts to have a few people in the back of your mind in case any of the speakers can’t make it and you need to be ready to adapt and keep your professionalism when the inevitable problem occurs.
Lesson 3: The Event Manager
No part of your event is going to be more important. If it’s a smaller conference, this may be you, if it’s a bigger one it may be someone you hire. Just remember, this person controls everything and ultimately will determine the succesful outcome. If they don’t know what you’re doing you are in for a serious nightmare.
This person should be thoughtful, friendly, stern, willing to make the tough decisions, extremely organised, and prepared to take a lot of grief and stress.
Lesson 4: Getting the Big Names
It’s not always about getting the biggest names- some of the biggest names in the industry and the most regular speakers don’t always deliver the best performance. Getting big names will help you attract a strong audience and might let you pay more but attracting these names is difficult.
It is extremely helpful to have at least one big name on board for the project and ready to evangelise but it’s not the only way to sell out your event. Having the right speakers is essential. The important thing is to make a plan and stick to it. You can still host a great event without the big names and without the big egos (and perhaps most importantly, without the big speaker price tags) but you need to be certain that you have the speakers that can deliver the goods to your attendees.
If you can pick people who are smart and who are willing to come out for drinks and mingle everyone is going to have more fun. No one likes a prima donna and you want speakers who are going to be willing to speak to the delegates (I would like to add that I was thoroughly impressed with everyone who spoke at PRO but I’ve just seen this go wrong at other events).
Lesson 5: Get Reliable Speakers!
Yes, you always want to have a back-up plan but there’s nothing worse (for an organiser) than trying to fill a slot at the eleventh hour.
Plus, reliable speakers will get you their slide decks well in advance and this will give you a chance to make sure there’s no massive overlap between two speakers’ presentations.
Lesson 6: You’re the Boss
If you’re going to put your name on the line and you’re the one who’s going to be judged by the speaker’s performances it needs to be clear from the very beginning what your expectations are. If you set a deadline and the speaker hasn’t delivered their deck you have every right to tell them off (obviously you’re taking a risk here).
If you’ve gone after some big names- make sure they’re not going to phone it in and reuse the same slide-deck they’ve been using for the past 5 years.
I can’t recall hearing individual presentations being talked about negatively more than a week after a conference. I have, however heard plenty of people badmouthing conferences (based on speaker performance) for long after the event. If you put your name on the big picture be prepared to take the grief- and let your speakers know this from the start.
Lesson 7: People want to know the secret sauce
Everyone I’ve ever spoken to about running a conference in SEO has told me that the best reviewed presentations are the ones that share a big “secret” or spoke about linkbuilding (not dodgy in and of itself).
It piques everyone’s interest and it’s a whole lot of fun. I know it’s the only time I ever really get to research these things (if I’m presenting) and I guarantee you the sorts of things you can learn about from these people once you get a couple of drinks in them are mind boggling. And the best part is… these are probably things that don’t even work anymore, so they’re likely doing even dodgier stuff!
The sad truth is that most speakers don’t avoid these topics because they’re scared of them or because they want to keep the ideas to themselves, they don’t share them because most of these ideas are things they would never dream of trying on a client site and (most of them) wouldn’t want you to try these ideas out on your clients’ sites either!
Lesson 8: Hold a Q&A after each session
Answering Q&A (and the build-up before it) is always the scariest part for the speaker, but it’s often the most valuable part for the delegates. Everyone in the audience has their own projects and their own background… and the Q&A is an opportunity for them to get their money worth.
From every Q&A session I’ve ever attended I’ve always thought of something that never would have occurred to me if the question hadn’t been asked.
And, Q&A at the end of the day isn’t sufficient, our attention spans are short and we want to ask each and everyone their thoughts!
Lesson 9: Quick-Fire Presentations > Panels?
This one remains to be seen and should be explored further. However, within the format of this seminar we’ve received a lot of good feedback from the shorter time slots and think there are some definite advantages to this format.
First of all, our attention spans are short and it’s nice to have a bit of a mental break between speakers. And secondly, panels are dangerous: they can often be redundant and if the speakers haven’t worked together to prepare for the event there can be a lot of repetition.
I wouldn’t say to do away with the panel, but this certainly seemed to work well for Pro (definitely let us know if you feel differently!).
Lesson 10: Be Personable
It definitely helps to have someone personable running the show- but this is absolutely essential for the delegates. One of the best reasons for paying to go to a conference is the chance to meet other people, trade ideas and learn about new opportunities. If you are heading back to the hotel for the night right after the presentations you’re missing out on half the fun and a huge chunk of the value!
We search folk may be geeky (alright, I’ll speak for myself) but we like to have fun too! As I alluded to earlier, you tend to learn the most interesting stuff once you get a few drinks into some of your fellow search marketers.
Bonus Tip for Delegates: Live blog and get involved in social!
We did some live blogging for Distilled during a4u this year (and we did a bit during Pro as well) and I’m happy to share that the days at a4u were the highest traffic days of the year for us. And that includes the day we announced we were opening a U.S. office. Not too shabby!
Final Tip for everyone: You’re never going to please everyone, but that doesn’t change the fact that you should listen to feedback. If one session didn’t go down well, it’s important to take note of. If people are all complaining about the same thing it’s important to take this advice on board and improve the next time around.
However, you can’t fix it all (sorry to the person who sent us feedback complaining of a fellow delegates erm, upset stomache?) so be sure to manage that which you can control.
We welcome any thoughts from delegates and organisers of industry events in the comments or on Twitter. We’ve learned a lot from this event but there’s plenty more to be learned. We’re looking to run some more events in the near future (*hint* think linkbuilding *hint*) so we’d love to hear your thoughts and ways in which we can improve and keep your eyes peeled!