Honest SEO Conference Advice

Honest SEO Conference Advice

7th December 2011

After another busy year packed with SEO conferences I thought it would be a good time to lay out some tips to organisers, speakers and attendees alike from my personal experiences with conferences over the last two years.

The aim here is to be as constructive as possible, but to do so it’s important also to provide as much honest advice as is possible as well.I hope that this will be constructive and useful in some fashion for anyone that has anything to do with conference organisation, speaking or attendance… and hopefully won’t preclude me from ever speaking at a conference again!

We’ll start with tips to conference organisers – how to get the most out of your speakers, how to provide the best experience and spread the word, etc. After that I’ll provide some productive feedback to speakers in general (from an attendee and fellow speaker standpoint). Finally, I’ll provide some tips to attendees (again from both standpoints).

The below are my personal experiences and as always there’s plenty I could learn and some of these “do nots” will be a product of mistakes I’ve made as well so please treat this as a constructive exercise rather than any sort of attack.

Advice to conference organisers

Do not host a panel where each delegate would receive fewer than 10 minutes per person on average.

i.e. if you have 6 panelists, the panel should be 60 minutes (I would argue that a panel RARELY needs as many as 6 people as well unless it’s a “give it up”)

At the end of the day, by the time you’ve got through the introductions and the closing comments it’s going to be pretty difficult for anyone to contribute real value to the audience if they only have 3 minutes of speaking in which to do so. Equally, if this is the case, it’s not exactly going to be the most beneficial experience for the audience either.

Panels are totally fine and can in fact be wonderful but allow the speakers and the audience enough time to get to the meat of the issue.

Pay your speakers (or at least cover their travel)
Right, so this would be the section in which usually the reader would be thinking to themselves “look at this money hungry Prima Donna”… but bear with me for a second.

In all likelihood, if you are not paying your speaker(s) and it’s not their first rodeo… the talk will probably suffer in some way. Either they will feel like they need to sell their company/tool/personal brand to make up for the time out of work, or they will regurgetate old content – or both. I’m not saying you need to pay a fortune but many speakers will have to justify their attendance to a conference in some way and if the company has to give the speaker a day off AND pay for their travel it can become a bit difficult.

At an absolute minimum…. make them feel special
I’ve never been paid in cash for a conference (and would probably feel a bit awkward if I were ever offered), but I have been made feel special. A lot of times it’s the little conferences (BrightonSEO and Congreso SEO in Valencia for example) that do the most to make their speakers feel special, get them truly integrated in the group and make it easy to justify the benefits of speaking.

The funny thing about the above is that neither conference is extremely profitable and the attendees aren’t shelling out over £1,000 to be there. It stands to reason that if these folks can run a small, enjoyable and affordable conference – and still look after their speakers, every large conference could do the same – and for me it really can be the little things that make a speaker happy about a conference and want to return. Just be creative and put a bit of thought into being a good host to attendees and speakers alike.

P.S. Speakers do tend to talk to one another. It can be a bit awkward if you are paying some folks big money and insisting to others that in order to offer the single best experience to the attendees there is no budget for travel, accommodation, etc. I’m definitely not having a go here but it’s good to be consistent with policies like this.

Ask to see the presentations of each and every speaker before they present… and be prepared to actually provide some feedback
This sort of all ties back to the above and to trying to provide the best content to your audience and create excitement about your event.

There’s no doubt that managing a big conference is a lot of work but the most important part will ultimately be the content. If the speakers can’t be bothered to put the time in to get it done early – or the organiser can’t be bothered to read it before the presentation – there will no doubt be some disappointment.

I know the Distilled folks used to do a really good job of this when I worked there (I don’t get to see behind the scenes anymore) but I think it made a big difference to the quality of their events.

Don’t always bring the same people back year after year unless they update their material and show versatility
As an attendee I’ve got to say that there’s nothing more frustrating than watching people give the same presentation with the same content over and over again.

This is by no means an attack on the old guard as there are plenty of brilliant speakers who deserve to return year after year because they speak with great knowledge on a number of topics and bring a new presentation with them everywhere they go. On the other hand, there are also people whom I’ve seen give the same presentation (pretty close anyhow) nearly 5 times in the past year or two.

As anyone who works in an agency will tell you – it’s a lot easier to keep your existing clients (audience) happy and retain them, than to have to re-pitch a new audience or client every year. In my view the best way to keep existing attendees is ensure that you’re either bringing new and talented speakers and/or giving importance to quality control on familiar faces.

Don’t give away speaking slots to sponsors.
“Is he serious?”

Yes I am… to a point. I understand that conferences could not exist without sponsors – even more so in terms of the smaller/more affordable conferences, but guaranteeing a speaking slot for 30 minutes or more to someone just because they sponsor seems excessive.

If you want to give away exhibition space or signage, that’s totally fine. If the speaker is going to share something insightful rather than speak just about their brand and why their product is great, this is also fine. I’ve seen some great “sponsor” speakers but none of them have presented primarily about their product and they would have been invited to speak even if they weren’t sponsoring.

But ultimately, if you are going to have a sponsor stand up and give a pitch for 30 minutes don’t bother. Don’t try and blend the sponsors in as experts if that’s not what they do.

The best approach I’ve seen to date is the approach that Kelvin Newman took with BrightonSEO where there were no apologies – but rather quick 5 minute pitches that were made clear as “commercial interruptions.” If the audience knows what to expect and you make it clear that the sponsors are the reason the event can happen people will object a lot less to the promotion.

Don’t skimp.
A conference is a big opportunity for people and often involves travel, time out of the office, and hopefully a lot of great opportunities to interact with other people from the industry. If someone is paying to be at an event it’s important to make it more than just another conference with an inspiring speech or two.

Key areas not to skimp on:

  • Wifi – if you’re running an online marketing conference these people are going to want to get online and have reliable internet access – simple as.
  • Food – provide food that is nice enough that people will stick around for lunch and chat to one another. And provide enough that people won’t have to fight over it and leave halfway through the afternoon session out of starvation.
  • Parties – this is the most important part for a lot of folks. The networking and opportunity to relax and speak to folks in a non-forced environment (no I don’t mean speed networking) is a key aspect of any conference. A few drinks at the venue immediately after is not a party – try to keep the party running well into the evening.
    • Finding a sponsor for the party should be the easiest part – there are plenty of local networking groups like LondonSEO that will help host if you’re really in a bind.
    • A4U always seem to have good parties so perhaps look to them for some insights

Don’t segregate too much between speakers and attendees.
It can be really awkward as an attendee when there are all sorts of speaker only dinners and events – and in my view charging to go have dinner with speakers only makes this line even more distinguished. Try to make it easy for speakers and attendees to chat, grab a bite to eat together, and grab a drink.

Another way to ensure this happens is to encourage speakers to stay at the host hotel (if there is one) – make it easy for the locals to get involved as well as the out-of-towners!

Don’t alienate groups of people.
This goes for conference organisers, attendees and sponsors alike: don’t make groups of people feel unwelcome. Having scantily clad wait staff, paying models to run your booth, and making disparaging remarks about people will not win you friends and is a great way to ensure people don’t return to your event.

A number of my female friends in the industry have commented on this problem a number of times – so think a bit before ordering your conference entertainment. If you’re that adamant that sex sells, think about both sexes.

Use the feedback from the conference (!)
Last and most importantly, it seems obvious but I’m surprised by the number of times I’ve seen mistakes repeated from one conference to the next. If a speaker doesn’t do well don’t invite them back. If the wifi didn’t work one year try to work harder on it next year, etc.

More to the point- please share the feedback with the speakers. If they want to continue to up their game it’s important to know what they’ve done well and what didn’t go down very well with the audience.

Advice to speakers

Right the next one is tricky and my feedback will primarily be from events that I’ve visited as an attendee. I’m still very new at the speaking thing and have a load to learn myself, but below are a few points that I think it would be good for everyone in the industry who has or is thinking about speaking to consider.

If you don’t want to be at the conference, don’t go!
It’s obviously always nice to be invited to speak at a conference but don’t go if it’s going to be a chore. First of all, it’s going to be pretty clear if you don’t want to be there, but you’re also potentially taking up a slot that would be better suited to someone who is excited about the opportunity. From an attendee’s perspective I’m sure they’d rather see an inexperienced speaker who is going to teach something new and put in the time to prepare than someone who can’t say no even if they’ve not got something new to offer.

Try and remember why you’re speaking and set some goals that you can monitor – are you doing this to improve your profile, to gain new business, to meet new people, etc?

There should be a reason and this should keep you from doing the entire circuit and  it should also keep you from repeating the same talk.

Talk about what you know – own what your business offers and be yourself!
I always find it bizarre when someone who specialises in information architecture or linkbuilding speaks about CRO or Social Media or something a bit more distant from what they actually do in their day job. I’ve seen a lot of misinformation spread about SEO by people outside of our niche who think they understand it but don’t do it on a regular basis. I’d hate for anyone in the SEO industry to have a similar impact on other specialities in their own right.

The best presentations are on something that you do all the time and that you feel confident you could answer any Q&A on without any issues. The worst are when the speaker is talking about something that they clearly don’t have a mastery of. Try to branch out but it’s important not to bite off more than you can chew.

One of my favourite speakers to watch when he’s just being himself is Dave Naylor. Dave certainly marches to the beat of his own drummer, but there’s no denying that he sees a lot of data and has his finger on the pulse as far as what’s actually going on. One of the best presentations I saw this year was basically an open Q&A at A4U in London where Dave fielded any and all questions. The fact that Dave has been around for a while means he’s not afraid to be who he is and to answer questions honestly (even if Google are in the room) – where a lot of other people would not feel comfortable. This won’t be the approach that works for everyone, but for me this is the sort of presentation that suits someone like Dave best because he’s speaking from experience.

Represent yourself and your business well
At the end of the day I think it’s important that speakers remember that their behaviour at a conference is the only exposure that a lot of people will have to them and it’s hard to win back respect once you’ve sullied it. If you’re rude to people or act like a “rockstar” it may help distance you from the rest of the industry but it might not distance yourself in a positive way.

Think about how your behaviour will impact some of the following:

Would this presentation make new clients want to work with me?

Does this presentation/conversation make my company feel like a fun and professional place to work? Would I want to come work for this company based upon what I’ve just said?

I totally appreciate that some people approach conferences differently than others and that’s fine – but I’d just suggest as part of SEO “growing up” we think a bit about how we present ourselves, represent our personal brands and represent our companies.

If you’re uncomfortable in a suit, don’t feel too pressured to wear one… but if your company is quite traditional you might want to dress the part. If your company is in start-up mode then keep the beard coming and wear whatever you like.

Just remember that your behaviour/style/attitude often reflects on more than you and you will be judged on it. Whether you work in house, for an agency or as a freelancer, it’s worth thinking about.

Don’t glamourise blackhat if you wouldn’t do it for your clients
We all get tired of certain people in the industry that we know do really dodgy stuff for their clients harping on about how they’ve never bought a link (trust me, I’ve inherited enough SEO clients and link profiles to know that some of the white hat enthusiasts aren’t so squeaky clean). However, something that bothers me equally and never really gets talked about is the fascination and glamourisation of black hat at conferences.

This is definitely one where I should put my hands up – I’ve definitely spoken about vulnerabilities and things that I’ve seen (Defense Against the Dark Arts) that I don’t actually do myself.

But I think there’s a real risk in speaking about tactics that you wouldn’t use for your clients. Ultimately it depends on the venue – there are certainly niche and advanced conferences where some of this may be appropriate, but I personally feel like it does an agency/reputation a bit of a disservice to speak about this sort of thing if it’s not something you’d do for your clients. We all like to learn about it, but it all comes back to the perception and thinking about the audience beforehand.

Meet new people and take the time to engage with the attendees
It’s always tempting to just hang out with other speakers and friends from the industry (I’m guilty of this too) but I think it’s important to take the time out to speak to attendees and meet new people as well. I’ve had some great chats with people who ultimately I’ve ended up working with on a project, gone out for drinks on other occasions, and so forth.

There’s a point below in the tips for attendees that could help take away some of stresses of this and dinner with your friends is always going to be a fine thing to do… but you can meet some cool people if you don’t hide in the speakers room all day.

Remember to be humble.
As someone that is still really new to the industry I’m a bit baffled by the behaviour of some individuals.

The vast majority are absolutely wonderful people and some of the “bigger” names in the industry are some of the most down to earth and friendly people I’ve met.

Sadly there are some seriously arrogant individuals as well. At the end of the day I personally think it’s important to remember that we’re still a young industry and part of a much broader marketing set. There’s no doubt that being a “head of” or running your own successful agency is a big accomplishment but it’s not a reason to speak about yourself as some sort of demi-god or shamelessly promote all the time.

Let your work and results speak for your experience and skills, engage with people and treat them with respect (even if they ask a silly question), and remember that there’s always something to improve upon.

Try and cite your work
Last point for speakers – and it’s a fairly small but important one: try to cite your work. I think it’s ultimately a lazy habit that we get into a lot of times – we either assume people know where an image or idea came from and thus treat them as common knowledge. It’s totally okay to borrow and share some thoughts that you’ve learned from others or done in conjunction with others – but give credit where credit is due.

If you’re sharing a trick that someone else shared with you, pass along the love and give them a mention or link to the original conversation.

Advice to attendees

Last section, just wanted to give a few tips to attendees both from a fellow attendee perspective and also as a speaker.

Don’t be shy, but don’t be annoying either.
Out of habit we tend to shy away from engaging new people in these events and it can be a bit awkward. When we do finally decide to speak to a fellow conference goer it seems the default is to talk about what we do, what happens to our site, “how do you deal with this…?”, etc.

That’s fine as a starting point, but try to read what people are acting like and if they don’t seem interested in how your site was impacted by panda, try asking them about their personal life, what they do for fun, what their favourite conference is, etc. Some of the coolest folks I’ve met at conferences (and the ones that I still keep in touch with) are often the ones that took the time to talk and to share their passions outside of SEO with me and ask me about what sorts of things I like to do at the weekend.

Some people like to talk about SEO all day – and that’s cool – but some people don’t. Just try and read the situation and try to avoid the temptation to ask Rand what you should do about your ongoing problems with Panda at the bar. I’m just guessing here, but I imagine that gets a bit old for him. It’s all about reading their response and moving on once it’s clear that they’re not feeling the SEO chatter.

Make the most of your opportunity
As much as above I was suggesting that you don’t corner a speaker at the bar and ask them how to sort out your website that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t capitalise on the opportunity to ask questions of the speakers. In most cases you’ve paid a load of money to be at one of these conferences, so you should make the most of it.

If there’s a panel or session that you were dying to attend but didn’t answer your question, ask it in the Q&A or try and pull the speaker aside immediately following their presentation (this would be the appropriate time to ask).

If there’s a site review, put your name in the hat – it can be embarassing and your site might get ripped to shreds but at least you’ll learn something, hopefully get some free advice from an expert and perhaps have the ammunition to take your site back to your boss and let them know what needs sorting out.

Likewise, don’t just hang out in your hotel room – go to the parties, the dinners, etc. Go meet some people and make the most of your investment in the conference!

Remember to keep your critical thinking hat on.
Most conferences are good at getting experts to come speak on a particular subject area – but that doesn’t mean that their advice will always be correct or that it will apply to all sectors/niches equally.

If a speaker says something that you know is not the case in your sector, for your website, etc. don’t change your plans because of someone else’s experience. Always test your own theories!

I’ve seen a lot of blogs and bloggers be given a hard time for sharing their experience and the deductions they’ve made from their personal experiments and anecdotes catch a lot of flack for being “wrong.” This isn’t the way to deal with it – and the same goes for a conference – keep your mind open and try and test something out on your own, but don’t take everything you read or hear at a conference as gospel.

Don’t liveblog if it doesn’t suit you
I’ve decided that for me liveblogging is not the best thing for me to do when I’m at a conference. It’s fine if the topic is something that I know relatively well, but it sucks if it’s a speaker or presentation I’ve been dying to see.

I probably won’t be liveblogging much in the new year because it’s exhausting and it makes it hard for me to keep my critical thinking hat on. It’s great for traffic and it’s very helpful for those not in attendance but it’s not a great way for me to learn so I’ll probably leave it.

As I suggested to the speakers – always be aware of what you want to get out of a conference. If you’re looking for exposure but not speaking this time around liveblogging might be great for you. But if you’re quite advanced and want to really focus on the event perhaps liveblogging won’t be for you – or perhaps you’ll be less ADD than I am and can handle both.

Just do what works for you!

Try and take one good idea from each session
The most important advice I can give to any conference attendee is that you can’t always learn too much from a presentation. If you’ve been in the industry for a little while you’d like to think that you’re not so far behind that it’s totally new to you! But at the same time, don’t let the fact that not ever presentation is going to be completely *groundbreaking* distract you from the opportunity.

For me, if I learn one new thing – or better still – get one good idea as a result of a presentation, that’s a huge success and if I get more great! Don’t expect the panacea, but try and think critically enough to come away with at least one really good idea from each speaker. If you can’t even do that, then the speaker may well have failed.

I hope the above is constructive and will help enhance everyone’s conference going experience in the next year. I hope none of this is a complete shock or hurtful as I don’t intend to single out any individual conferences, speakers, or attendees here as “doing it wrong.”

We’d love to hear your conference going experiences below in the comments!


Written By
Sam Crocker is SEO Associate Director at OMD UK. Sam focuses on increasing traffic and conversions for websites whilst always keeping his eye on a company’s bottom line.
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