As a veteran of many search engine marketing (SEM) conferences, such as ad:tech, Search Engine Strategies and PubCon, I completely empathize with other professionals when they gripe about the shortcomings of attending industry events. Common complaints surrounding industry conferences include hard costs (registration, travel expenses, etc.), opportunity costs (being away from the office) and boredom. While I agree that attending SEM conferences can be expensive, the benefits usually outweigh the drawbacks.
There are three primary reasons for attending SEM conferences: marketing, education and networking. Marketers see conferences as an opportunity to get their message out via sponsorships and exhibition. Other attendees see it as a professional development opportunity for catching up on the latest industry news, tools, tips, and trends. Others prefer to focus on exploring business development opportunities by networking with other conference attendees.
SEM conferences have been around since cavemen attended the First Annual Hunt & Gather Conference & Expo in the early Holocene era. Shortly thereafter, companies looking to reach out to potential customers realized the potential value of marketing to a captive audience composed of business owners, marketing managers and professionals (etc.). Common forms of conference marketing include sponsorships and trade show exhibits.
Unfortunately, sponsorships at top tier SEM events can be prohibitively expensive, and are often ignored. Exhibiting, however, can be more expensive when factoring in hard costs, but it does offer valuable face-to-face interaction. Beyond cost, the downside of exhibiting is the level of competition for an individual’s attention on the show floor, which is at a premium. The battle for getting bodies into booths often leads to extravagant and costly promotions and gimmickry.
Being a guest speaker can be good for the ego, but it’s also kind on the pocket book. While presenters usually attend for free, they also get the additional benefit of free exposure and a level of credibility that money can’t buy (assuming they have decent content and presentation skills). The fall-back plan for cost-conscious attendees is to gain press credentials, which also offers a comp pass and unique backstage access to key individuals and resources.
The primary objective of the average SEM conference attendee is to learn and grow their career. If this is your objective, be sure to do your homework when selecting a conference to attend. I recommend researching individual sessions for relevance, presenter credentials and identifying other attendees to meet. Even the list of sponsors can help qualify the quality of an event.
Once you’ve determined if a conference is appropriate, start formulating a plan, including selecting sessions to attend, which presenters to meet and which booths to visit. One efficient way to cover a content-heavy SEM conference is to tag-team concurrent sessions with a co-worker, peer or even a stranger you befriend at the event (trust me, it works).
Don’t expect to retain more than a fraction of the content thrown at you during the many sessions. Take diligent notes, ideally via laptop, to aid with organizing, proofing and dissemination to peers. Last but not least, it is critical to bring closure to the event. Review notes and presentations thoroughly and separate out action items to be taken once you return to work.
If marketing or education takes a back seat to your desire to building your network, you’re not alone. A significant number of SEM conference attendees are primarily interested in identifying and building rapport with potential clients, partners or employees. If you fall into this category, don’t forget to bring cards (double the number you think you’ll need, as it’s better to take them back home with you than to lose out on a deal due to a lack of business cards).
Many networking-savvy attendees do not properly prepare. Beyond bringing a nice suit and stack of business cards, they rely on charm and luck to develop new connections. If you’re like me and prefer not to fly blind, I recommend reviewing your initial SEM conference research to provide insights into companies and individual contacts to target.
Rather than bugging target attendees while sitting together in sessions or walking through the halls, take advantage of natural networking opportunities. People are generally more receptive to conversation when eating or drinking, so make an effort to mingle. Obviously, alcohol is a bulldozer when it comes to breaking down barriers, so plan to stay up late if you want to close that (business) deal.
SEM Conference Overview
There are a variety of SEM-focused industry conferences currently in production, with many more in development. Below is a brief recap of the most popular and relevant SEM conferences available today:
Search Engine Strategies – (New York, April 10th -13th) Hosted by Danny Sullivan, SES is the oldest and most popular SEM-focused event. Although expensive, the cost is justifiable. Advanced SEM professionals value the marketing and networking opportunities, while beginners appreciate the educational aspects.
PubCon – Produced by WebmasterWorld, this technically-focused event is more affordable and intimate than SES. The conference is ideal for education (at all levels) and networking with limited marketing opportunities.
ad:tech – (San Francisco, April 25th – 27th) This conference targets advertising industry professionals interested in learning more about the realm of interactive marketing. The events are ideal for marketers interested in networking and marketing opportunities within the advertising industry (with some educational value for beginners).
As the SEM industry matures and evolves, a number of SEM-focused industry events are being created (Elite Retreat) or gaining momentum (Search Bash). Industry trade organizations like SEMPO and SEMpdx are also developing their own educationally-focused events. For a helpful laundry list of Internet marketing industry events visit:
Coffee is for Closure
Whether your objective is to build awareness, generate leads or learn, the overall benefit of attending a conference isn’t truly realized until you get back to the office. To maximize your investment in your marketing efforts, follow up with tradeshow booth leads within one week.
The same is true for questions for presenters, or leads generated by presenting. Many otherwise unapproachable SEM industry gurus will be receptive to your inquiries stemming from a conference (for a week or two afterwards at least).
At a recent conference, I gave my card to a presenter and requested a copy of their recent white paper. It took him nearly two months to send me the paper I requested. By that time, I was so disappointed that I made a mental note not to do business with the company. Ironically, the culprit was an email marketing company with the word “response” in their name.
I typically follow up with potential leads no more than 48 hours after returning from an SEM conference. Lastly, I tend to tier business cards/leads I receive from networking and follow up with my top tier immediately. The second or third tier cards may not get my attention for a week or two, if at all. Instead, I prefer to wait for them to contact me to confirm their interest in further discussions.
Regardless of your objective: marketing, education or networking, well-produced SEM conferences offer a valuable combination of all three. Always be sure to map attendance of each conference to your needs, weigh the costs against those needs, and keep costs down by attending local events when possible. Armed with these tips, you can start planning for your next SEM conference today.
Kent Lewis is President of Anvil Media, Inc., a search engine marketing agency based in Portland, OR. He is also President of SEMpdx, a Portland-based trade organization for search engine marketing professionals.