Last week I attended Searchfest 2010. I have been a regular attendee at this Portland based search marketing conference for several years. Each of the previous years I have been reasonably satisfied but this year was different. This year I was left with a feeling of emptiness, disappointment and overall exhaustion.
So what made this year so dramatically different for me? The speakers were of the same caliber, the conference was well-organized and the 3 track agenda was a similar format to the prior events. I don’t think the conference changed, I think I have changed. The way I digest and process information has changed.
Social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and even Google Buzz have allowed me to actively choose my trusted sources of information and ignore or dismiss anything I feel is a waste of time. This puts me firmly in the drivers seat and in control of the content. These tools also give me a voice within my network, allowing me to actively participate in the conversation and feel as if I’m a valued member of the community. I have now become conditioned to want this same experience off-line, in the real world.
Perhaps this is why Twitter has taken on an important role in my overall conference experience. Relying on and participating in the #Searchfest Twitter stream afforded me real interactions and access to valuable information. At one point I realized that the #Searchfest Twitter stream was far more engaging and interesting than what was actually happening at the front of the room. One speaker made light of the situation by joking that it would be hard to keep the audiences attention as they were all tweeting.
I strongly feel that with the advent of social media there has to be a new way to gather, engage, learn and build community. The traditional format of industry conferences just doesn’t cut it any longer. Below I have outlined several issues I have experienced in hopes of being able to come up with some creative solutions. I welcome all comments, suggestions and living examples of ‘conferences’ that have successfully integrated community participation and engagement. I know many Portland marketing types are headed down to SXSW for the annual interactive conference. I’ll look forward to hearing reports on how they did it right, in hopes of being able to import a bit of that spirit to future Portland events.
1) Twitter stream is far more engaging than conference speaker or panel
This isn’t surprising as Twitter offers up a multitude of voices, perspectives and persona’s instead of just a select few. There’s bound to be someone commenting or reporting on the session that manages to make it more entertaining or presents the information in a new way.
Reading the Twitter stream during a presentation feels a bit like passing notes in class. You can giggle under your breath when someone makes a snarky yet accurate tweet. It feels like a dirty little secret and only those scanning the stream are in the know. This does offer a certain level of excitement but it doesn’t do much for improving or informing the main event. I’ve noticed that as Twitter has become more mainstream, more and more audience members ARE ‘in the know’ and completely out number those who are not. It’s not such a secret club any longer and perhaps it’s time to allow Tweeters a more active role.
I have been to conferences where they will have a monitor displaying the Twitter stream and have heard horror stories of the stream being projected behind a speaker while they present, YIKES! As scary as that might sound, it makes sense to make this real-time reporting and commenting public so it can be openly discussed.
2) Conference attendees have ZERO input on who is speaking and what they are presenting
One bright moment occurred during Searchfest when Aaron Kahlow, a presenter on the final social media panel, started his presentation by surveying the audience. He asked ALL attendees to participate by voting on which presentation they would prefer. I was excited to actually have a voice in choosing the content I was about to digest. In the same way I get excited about choosing items off a menu, my ears perked up and he had my full attention.
Unfortunately the choice he offered was a bit of a red herring, as he had only prepared one presentation but was offering to skim through it so everyone could ask their own questions and get a beer. Despite this fact, the teaser of being able to make a choice was like an oasis in the dessert. I feel there must be a way to expand upon this and allow attendees to not only vote on content but why not the whole enchilada. The Who, Where, What and When.
3) The audience knows more than the speaker
This is becoming more and more common as there ceases to be black and white answers to most questions and everyone and anyone has access to information. One Tweeter, @Texagonian, made the insightful comment that many of the speakers were contradicting themselves. One would say DO this and the other would say DON’T do this, leading to attendee frustration and confusion.
This points to the fact that there really is no one answer or perspective. It’s becoming evident that discussing issues openly instead of presenting a panel of so-called experts is much more effective at knowledge sharing and problem-solving. Conferences that can capitalize on the combined knowledge of the ‘audience’ would present more value to attendees or participants.
So there it is, my treatise on the sad state of the traditional conference. I’m sure there are more issues and concerns floating around out there so feel free to comment with your own. I also know that there are some innovative events happening that address the issues I have outlined above. I’d love to be pointed in the right direction so as to experience them myself.