The State of Digital Marketing Events – 3 Things I’d Like to See

MozCon 2016 photo
One of the (many) great things about our industry is that there are a ton of great digital marketing events taking place all over the world. You only have to take a quick look at the list we maintain here on State of Digital to see that much for yourself. And in recent months, I’ve seen a few brand new dedicated SEO conferences pop up here in the UK, which is indicative that the popularity and demand for such events is growing – even in 2017.

While I think it’s safe to say that our industry is doing really well on the events front, I do feel that there’s a couple of things (in my view) we could be doing to make them even better. Such as…

1) More speaker variety (especially ‘new blood’)

I don’t know if this has started to happen to anyone else recently, but when it comes to speaker line-ups, my view of them has changed…

There’s still an element of being drawn to an event that has established, recognisable figures from the industy on its speaker roster. For example, I took one look at MozCon 2017’s line-up a few days ago and was immediately impressed by the talent on show.

However… (he types, reluctantly..)

I’m beginning to see some of the same names and same faces speaking about the same topics at some events… Despite the fact that I know some of these speakers personally, having met them at the likes of brightonSEO, I’ll look at the line-up of a newly discovered event and think “s/he is speaking at this as well?!” Please understand that I wish no ill will towards these SEOs (hell, some of them have become friends of mine over the years), nor is this the rant of the envious wannabe speaker. And I completely understand and appreciate that event organisers want to put on the industry’s best and brightest, including those with a solid track record of wowing an audience. But ironically, having a line-up not too dissimilar to every other event out there could be more of a turn-off than an incentive to go, ultimately backfiring on the organiser.

brightonSEO April 2017 speakers example - screenshot
Some of the speakers at brightonSEO April 2017

I really admire what Kelvin Newman (@kelvinnewman) of BrightonSEO and Mark Scully (@ScullyMark) of Learn Inbound do with their events, and take inspiration from them when I organise Cardiff SEO Meet events, a quarterly SEO meetup that I run. While you’ll still recognise many of the speakers on their events’ respective line-ups, you’ll often see fresh and/or lesser-known faces as well, who might even be speaking about non-SEO/inbound marketing topics (or closely-related topics to SEO, such as User Experience and Conversion Rate Optimisation). With my meetup, while I’ve booked some recognisable names (e.g. @Andrew_Isidoro of Gocompare.com fame, who’s spoken at brightonSEO in the past), I try to book ‘local heroes’: Cardiff and South Wales-based specialists who may not necessarily be widely known to the industry (or even be established speakers)…

It can be a gamble, but one that I feel almost always pays off, offering something a little unique to the run-of-the-mill you might see otherwise.

In fact, Kelvin took a gamble booking Dave Trott (@davetrott) for brightonSEO April 2012. When Kelvin introduced the advertising guru on-stage, he told the audience that Dave had literally just told him that he didn’t know what SEO was or what it stood for. Whoops… Not a reassuring first impression. And yet he gave one of the most popular talks in brightonSEO’s history (source). He didn’t even talk about SEO at an SEO event, but everything he did talk about was very much relatable to SEO. And that’s why it worked so well.

We need more speakers and talks like that.

2) More gender/ethnicity diversity of speakers

Learn Inbound speaker gender diversity graph - tweet screenshotAt the risk of sounding like a bit of a fanboy, Kelvin and Mark do a fantastic job of this with brightonSEO and Learn Inbound, respectively. Mark especially has blogged and tweeted a lot about trying to get the gender balance right at events – I recommend following him if you’re also passionate about the topic.

Again, most digital marketing events on my radar tend to be doing this pretty well, however we’re far from perfect as an industry. I won’t name and shame them, but when a recent social media conference announced their initial line-up of speakers, 7 of them were men and 0 of them were women. When they went on to announce the full line-up, 21 of them were men and only 3 of them were women – that’s an 87/13 split. What infuriated me about this is that the majority of social media experts I know and trust are women – they very easily could’ve hit 50/50, or even 87/13 the other way if they’d made even a little bit of effort.

Years ago I remember reading about a Ruby on Rails conference that got a lot a negativity because their speaker line-up and attendee list was entirely white and male. In an unofficial ‘post-mortem’ post, the organiser made a few points that – to an extent – I can sympathise with: “Yes, gender equality and racial equality are important. But the team’s motives were to get the best speakers. Turns out, a lot of the prominent Rubyists are white guys. […] Adding a token minority speaker is offensive to that speaker.”

I get the point that he made, and it might even be forgiveable (although perhaps still not really acceptable) in an industry that is almost entirely made up one of ethnicity and/or gender. Otherwise, and especially in an industry that’s a bit more balanced – such as digital marketing (which is 70/30 M/F, according to a 2015 survey by Moz; I’d wager it’s even more balanced now) – then there’s little excuse. I take Mark’s viewpoint on it: “[At Learn Inbound] we never start speaker selection conversations with who is the “best man at ‘x'” or “best woman at ‘y'” since the quality of the talk remains the priority concern, but we will turn down certain speakers for an event if there isn’t gender balance on our panel” (source).

I’ve run four Cardiff SEO Meet events so far and we’ve had pretty much 50/50 male/female speakers, as well as ethnic minorities, LGBTQ and a wheelchair user. I didn’t go out-of-my-way to recruit these types of speakers, and I most certainly didn’t approach it as a box-ticking exercise, either. I simply identified that they were excellent speakers on their subjects: the Amazon SEO expert I know is an ethnic minority; a woman who runs multiple startups – and has done well for herself utilising SEO and content marketing – is a wheelchair user; and so on. You get the idea.

It doesn’t have to be a box-ticking exercise. Don’t treat it as a box-ticking exercise. Get to know the people in your industry and you’ll soon find that you’ll be recruiting these types of speakers without even trying or worrying about it. It’ll come naturally.

We do have to make an effort though – that’s the important thing.

3) More events (especially smaller local meetups)

I don’t necessarily mean more events by the people who are already running events and that their events become more regular. I mean more events run by more people and in more locations.

Search bar on Meetup - screenshot

And not only that… Big conferences are great, but often the biggest gaps that need filling are the smaller meetups in smaller towns and cities. This was the feedback I got when I set up Cardiff SEO Meet, and I’m still told that some nearby cities (even bigger ones with more established digital agencies based in them) are lacking a local meetup in their area. That sounds crazy to me.

So I encourage would-be event organisers to set up a meetup in your town/city. We shouldn’t just be putting on big conferences all the time and expecting people to travel hundreds of miles to get there, when we could put on smaller events in areas where they’re missing (and therefore needed).

We need more meetups on a smaller, more local scale. And besides, there are so many benefits to running events – not to mention the SEO/link building side of things (as evidenced by #2 & #3 here and under the first sub-section here).

Bonus point – Be sure to look after your speakers!

To end off, I’d like to talk about an experience I faced as a speaker, not as an event organiser. I’ll leave you with an anecdote of something that happened to me when I spoke at a meetup…

The Art of Doorstopping photoA few years ago, I spoke at a local design meetup about SEO. My talk gave guidance on SEO tactics that are applicable to graphic/web designers in particular. I was given the option to choose a book that’d benefit the audience, which would be given away as a prize on the night as part of a raffle draw – so I chose the Art of SEO. I thought I’d be given the opportunity to tell the audience why I chose the book, explaining that it’s more of a textbook and therefore a source of reference, not a read-it-all-in-one-sitting type thing. Unfortunately, I didn’t realise that the meetup sponsor – responsible for the prize – would read it in one sitting and give feedback on it before the draw. For that reason he slated the book, describing it as boring and using other similarly wonderful words. When the raffle was drawn, he even handed it to the winner saying “here’s your doorstop.” This was all in front of the audience that I’d just given the talk to. The winner also went on to slate it, saying that it was useless to her as she worked at a law firm (despite the fact that she also ran a blog on the side as a hobby, meaning that it could’ve been of use to her after all). And worst of all, the person responsible for the meetup’s social media slagged it off via the meetup’s Twitter account – so even some of the people involved with running the meetup were having a laugh at my expense.

I was hurt. I was humiliated in front of nearly a hundred people. What hurt more was the fact that I did the talk for free, and people forget that you’re not only giving 20 mins of your time actually giving the talk – there’s hours and hours of preparation beforehand, from building the slide deck to practicing it over and over. My oldest son was less than a year old at the time… I don’t want to sound melodramatic saying that I was abandoning him in order to do it, but to be completely honest, I would’ve rather stayed at home and spent a bit more time with him. Beats being humiliated in front of an audience, right?

So, what am I getting at with this weirdly-placed rant? It’s simple: look after your speakers. Be proud of them. Be grateful that they’re devoting their time to contribute to your event. Because let’s face it: your attendees may be your ‘customers,’ and your sponsors may be your ‘advertisers’ or even ‘investors,’ but your speakers are your ‘performers’ – they’re your rockstars. 😉

GOD it’s good to get that off my chest. Been carrying that one for a while.


I hope this post hasn’t come across as preachy or self-righteous, especially when I talk about the way that I run Cardiff SEO Meet. That’s not my intention. I’m passionate about running events and in seeing the events in our industry becoming better and more accessible. The events in our industry are already great – and while perfection may be an impossibility, we can sure damn try.

[Image credits – MozCon 2016 & Learn Inbound Jan 2017 photos obtained with permission from the respective organisers]

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About Steve Morgan

CIM-qualified Online Marketing & SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) Consultant with over 8 years of online marketing experience: 4 years' agency experience; around 6 months' experience working in-house for a national household name in the insurance industry; now freelancing full-time.