Thursday, June 11, 2009

Five reasons why your business/social media conference sucks

Longtime readers of The Viral Garden know that when I speak at a major business/social media conference, I try to recap my experience to help not only conference-goers, but conference organizers as well, to help them better structure their events. With that in mind, here are five areas that the Marketing Profs Business 2 Business Forum nailed, and these are areas you should pay close attention to as you plan a similar event:

1 - You have boring, cookie-cutter sessions. Every session is a speaker standing behind a podium addressing an audience. That's a lecture, not an optimized learning experience. Now granted, some speakers can speak well from behind a podium, and this will happen often, but the point is, if every session is like this, it tends to blend together and become fairly boring.

At the B2B Forum, the MP staff was smart enough to shake it up a bit. There were interactive sessions where the audience was encouraged to participate from the start. There were hot-seat labs, where again, audience members were put on the 'hot seat'. And of course, Amy Africa closed out the event by having a Family Feud themed presentation on conversion and website design. All of this worked to spice things up, and it helped spark attention and learning.

2 - After the sessions end, so does your event. One thing Marketing Profs did that was brilliant was they had a tweetup at the end of the first day, and got 451 Marketing to sponsor it. Why was this important? Because it let a bunch of people in the Boston area that couldn't attend the event, to show up and meet everyone. This was one of my favorite parts of the conference, as I got to meet Julie Ann, Doug Haslam, Michelle Wolverton, Christine Perkett, and even Chris Brogan showed up. This also gave people that didn't attend a chance to get a taste of the experience at the conference, and I'm sure this helped sell these people on attending future Marketing Profs' events.

3 - You have boring meals. One theme that ran through the B2B Forum was expanding the event beyond just the sessions. This was evident with the Tweetup on day one, and then afterward there was a dinner which featured a wonderful group of magicians going through the crowd amazing us. Then the following morning during breakfast, the tables were organized by topic, and you picked the conversation you wanted to be a part of, and joined in. This was a great way to get everyone's brain moving before the general sessions started on day two.

4 - Your speakers leave the stage, and leave the event. This is a BIG pet peeve of mine. At many events, the speakers fly in, collect a check, and leave. If you aren't lucky enough to catch them as they are walking off the stage with your question, then you are SOL. At the B2B Forum, the attendees could not only schedule one-on-one time with many of the speakers about several different topics (blogging, Twitter, email, usability, etc), but the speakers themselves were great about spending time with attendees and answering questions. I missed lunch on the first day of the forum and so did Amy Africa. That's because she spent two freakin' hours with me helping me with the organization of I don't even want to know how much that time would have cost me otherwise.

5 - You aren't a friend of Lucky the Lobster. Ok this one has nothing to do with the conference, but my two days in Boston were capped by a dinner that featured Ann setting Lucky the Lobster free into the Boston Hahbah. Here's a pic, and here's the video Justin Cresswell shot.

But the bottom line is that when you are planning your business/marketing/social media conference, think about what Marketing Profs' did right with the B2B Forum, and try to better the structure of your event. The staff found a way to make the event more fun and enjoyable, but at the same time, this increased the learning and sent everyone home from the event satisfied. This was honestly the best business/social media conference I have been to yet, and has me even more pumped for the Digital Marketing Mixer in October.

Some pics via Flickr user Robert Collins and SWoodruff


Tom Martin said...


I hope all conf organizers read this -- couldn't agree more that it is essential to understand conferences are as much about what happens on stage as off.

One more suggestion I'd add -- give attendees a place where they can post Q's or tell a speaker what they hope to get out of that speaker's session BEFORE the conf starts. That would help speakers tailor their talks to the audience and lessen the need for folks to go up after the talk with individual questions.. seems to me that would make it a better experience for everyone.

Mack Collier said...

GREAT idea Tom on getting feedback from attendees BEFORE they present. Love that idea.

Anonymous said...

Although I couldn't make the MProfs' B2B Forum, which made me both angry and sad, I did attend the Online Community Unconference in the San Jose area yesterday. One thing I thought was interesting was that, in true unconference format, the chairs were facing in. But the most valuable sessions for many attendees seemed to be the lecture-style ones -- even though the unconference did not encourage that style. PowerPoint and lectures won the day -- at least for me.

I think part of this is because most people have NO IDEA what they're doing when setting up online communities or social media activities, and are hungry for someone to tell them what to do.

That doesn't mean the sessions were necessarily successful, but I sure found them more valuable than the groups of people sitting around discussing a topic that no one had a good handle on.

AJ Gerritson said...

Hey Mack,

Nice job with the post. Glad you think the Tweetup was a success too!


Jay Baer said...

Great post Mack. We're lucky enough to know just how good MarketingProfs is at this stuff. I'm looking forward to seeing you at the next one, and the one after than, and the one after that.

I also really like their effort to continue the conversation post-event, by encouraging attendees to post links to their content (like this post) on, and giving away a ticket to the next event (Digital Mixer in October in ChiTown).

Juliann Grant said...

Hi Mack,

I appreciated the MPB2B open networking event at the end of Monday, I was so glad to finally get to meet you in person!(thanks for the mention) along with Steve Woodruff, Beth Harte and others I connect with through Twitter. It was nice to make the real human connection.

I would agree that event coordinators have something to learn from this, and the suggestion to mix it up is right on. I really wish I could have attended, but it just was not possible until the end of the day. But beyond that, attendees are there for collaboration, perspective, sharing of experiences, and do not want to be "talked at" all day long. Interaction is needed, helps keep the mind and creative blood flowing.


Joe Hage said...

Mack, thanks, good stuff.

Your readers might be interested in a piece I wrote a while back about how to get people to your event in the first place.

Danny Brown said...

I've not been to one of MarketingProf's events yet. Always wanted to - and this makes me want to even more.

It's like school. Most of my classmates were far more open to learning if fun and interactivity was involved. Field trips, mock battles on the playing fields, chemical experiments as well as theory.

It's the same for conferences. Where's the rulebook that says, "You must use a podium", "You must be formal", "You must broadcast"?

Give me a conference like the one you describe and I'll sign up for every single one.

Cheers, Mack - let's hope organizers are reading and learning.

Beth Etling said...

Hey Mack,

Great post and as an American here in Australia, I have the opportunity to do exactly as you have requested!

I have been in the events industry for the past 15 years and recently left my last employer due to the fact that I believe "formulaic" events are no longer valuable or fun and exciting for that matter. It's about who's at an event, how we engage and uncovering the passions and learning’s from a topic or issue.

I've just launched a new company, The Insight Exchange, ( which is all about the attendees and not the speakers. I interview our "presenters" ahead of time, develop questions that are distributed BEFORE the event, so that our audience can prepare, and then facilitate an interactive discussion to the entire room covering all questions and presenter statements getting down to the topic at hand and allowing the attendees to take home some real value - insights from peers.

We're brand new and are finding that people just want to engage and participate - they no longer want to be lectured, told, or "sold" to. As someone who's passionate about people, technology and learning, I had to do something, hence the company was born. Hopefully people will see that technology is changing the way we behave, learn, and communicate which means, our live experiences need to embrace these new methods and provide something more than just "talking heads".

That's my speech - thanks for listening. :)

If you're ever in Sydney, let me know as I'd love to have you come to one of our events.

Beth Etling

Twitter: BethEtling

Ann Handley said...

Thanks for this report, Mack. Well done. I love the headline, too. ; )

I think a key point here, as you mention, is continuing the conversation after an event. There is such great energy and enthusiasm during a well-run event, then you go home... and that energy often fizzles. We're definitely trying to keep things flowing via the blog/Twitter/etc., toward our September virtual event and then October in Chicago.

p.s. Glad you mentioned Lucky. But it was really Amber the Instigator who suggested the saving... while I was passively moaning and whining about the poor lobster on the tray! Amber is all about action. Which I absolutely loved and learned from myself... *outside* the event walls!

Justin Cresswell said...

Well said Mack.

The Profs are impressive, to be sure. Ann and the MP crew were on the ball. Ann's comment on this post is a clever attempt to pin the #lobsterrescue caper on @ambercadabra. Those of us who were present know better.

DJ Waldow said...

Love this post. Love. Love. Love.

I haven't seen this done yet, but how about encouraging everyone to blog or tweet or write down on a piece of paper or even shout out their "ah ha" moment. You know, the one thing they learned that made them say, "Dang. That's good."

My 3 cents.


Mack Collier said...

DJ that's a good idea. I was talking to Ann about something similar that SXSW does. They have a 'how to get the most out of SXSW' session at the start of the conf, then a 'how to keep the SXSW excitement going throughout the year' session to close the interactive portion. Maybe something similar could work well at other events?

BTW congrats on the new gig!

Shashi Bellamkonda said...

Hi Mack,

I love the 5 points and I must make a diligent effort to make sure to follow No. 4 more and keep my schedule better organized. :)

Great work as expected.


CB Whittemore said...

Mack, what a super summary and forum for encouraging new ideas - perfectly illustrated, too. Loved seeing you, too. CB

Aaron said...

Man you got me good with that title! Good post, and so true. Can this be required reading for any event organizer? Although the exhibit room was tight, the vendors I spoke too were thrilled with the traffic, and we marketers are a tough crowd! I would add using Twitter to capture the voice of the audience in real-time.

Swan said...

Great Post. No doubt that conferences need to evolve to meet the goals of their audience.

Here are a few more ideas on the topic:
Future Conf Part 1
Future Conf Part 2

There is so much room for improvement here that we are all going to be able to make some great strides in the next few years.


Adwido said...

Wow, I didn't even know there were so many social media conferences. I'm going to have to start attending some of these events. Just goes to show you how new events are created out of new technology and trends.

JK Bertel said...

I'd very much like to state full agreement to your points!

In particular, the events after the presentations are crucially important. They're about work-life-balance, and that's where people open up, network, and become creative.

Just check out this side-tripping community on to check out what some folks are up to when they check out a conference location!

The social programming is definitively a selection criterion for participants.