Industry Events: A Bore or A Boon?

I have mixed feelings about industry events. From heady Pop-Tech in Maine and the uber-glam Cannes Lions in France to niche events like the First Corporate Podcasting Summit at the San Francisco Airport Marriott to the decidedly un-glam Direct Marketing Association annuals all over the country, I’ve accumulated my fair share of necklace name tags and canvas tote bags.

On the one hand, conferences are a chance to glean wisdom from real (or alleged) experts in the field. We don’t, after all, have enough time or money to do formal education and training, so nowadays we create blogs, pass links on Twitter, and post our presentations on Slideshare. We rely on each other to stay current. These acts, however, don’t really solve for depth and context. What’s personally profitable about in-person events is that they can help you get to know the people behind sophisticated thoughts and the frame of reference from which they came. Plus, if you don’t get out much, it’s good face time.

Through a more skeptical lens, however, trade conferences can be bitter and expensive disappointments — perhaps in the lack of wisdom shared, in the presentation skills or preparedness of the panelists, in the shameless self-promotion of a company sponsor, or the cardinal sin of tacky shwag distributed.

To me, the most dismaying is being subjected to what I call TWAKThings We Already Know. I don’t mean hearing people colorfully package the latest theories with fresh takes or elegant graphics—that’s helpful and can be validating— but when I shlep a few hundred miles or take a day out to hear a guy in a suit say that social media is “really big now” and “has really changed everything” and that it’s a—wait for it— “revolution” I pull out my iPhone and take back my one asset available when trapped in a conference room: my attention. Now the speaker doesn’t know if I’m retweeting their brilliance — or bored out of my mind, checking my Facebook wall. It’s usually the latter.

So with a balanced set of (no) expectations, I registered for several sessions during last week’s Social Media Week 21012. Three years young, Social Media Week is remarkably global and well organized and works hard not to waste your time. You can watch sessions from home on your PC via Livestream, or attend talks for free in more than 20 cities around the world. Several agencies and media companies sponsor ‘hubs’ around different themes like, in New York: art & culture (Hearst), advertising & marketing (JWT), business innovation (Bloomberg), health & wellness (Saatchi & Saatchi) and global society (Big Fuel).

On Monday, I first attended social consulting firm Dachis Group‘s talk at Bloomberg on measuring your brand’s social performance. Jeff Dachis had founded pioneering web dev agency Razorfish, so I was curious to see what his talk would be like. (I also wanted to see Bloomberg Media’s office, which was as slick and modern as I had hoped.) A charismatic and eloquent speaker, Jeff talked about big data and the opportunity for brands to now do ‘performance brand marketing’ — a clunky phrase, but poignant in that the social web offers more than pure performance marketing we’ve been used to in digital marketing and something more useful than pure brand marketing we’ve been seasoned in through traditional channels such as TV and print.

Jeff’s firm has a Social Business Index in which you can plug brands into and see how well they do internally and externally tapping social channels. After Jeff spoke, a related session from Dachis Group started set up in a workshop format, seemingly to help people learn about designing outcomes for social media efforts. Probably a big issue at companies struggling with how social media investments can actually pay off. At our tables of 10, we were handed worksheets to sketch out sample outcomes and then were supposed to, well, I don’t really know — I left. The session had jumped a shark for me or perhaps I just felt trapped in someone’s self-conscious exercise like the trust game or an awkward icebreaker in which you’re asked to share a humiliating moment from your past. So not feeling like I needed a primer on writing objectives — and definitely not wanting to “share” with the room —I unapologetically snuck out at my first chance. A friend who stayed let me know that several others jumped right afterwards as well.

On Tuesday, I visited social media agency Big Fuel on 23rd Street to hear my buddy Joseph Jaffe be interviewed by Jon Bond, the agency’s CEO. Joe, who’s a three-time author of provocative and timely texts, has launched a new innovation agency called Evol8tion. He spoke about how brands too often move from “lilypad to lilypad” of shiny social media objects and gave a good plug for one under-appreciated channel: podcasting. But Joe’s bigger point, and a foundational principle for his new business — was about how brands can and should take much better advantage of technology upstream (note: his URL is even startupsforbrands). Jon and Joe didn’t make us share any personal goals or secrets, just questions if we had any.

Not officially part of Social Media Week’s lineup, but to contrast experiences, I was a judge on Monday night at BrandSlam, a entrepreneurial workshop developed by Alona Elkayam of 321Takeoff. Startups submit to Alona their brand challenge, and she gathers about 30 folks from various fields and agencies to work on creative and marketing ideas to tackle the one she thinks the most people can learn from. Highly productive, and a boon to the lucky business whose brand challenge was workshopped, we all got to see half a dozen innovative ways to tackle the same problem. Perhaps I’m just more attuned to hands-on learning (or maybe simply being in control as a judge), but I left inspired, informed and most of all hungry to do create more ideas myself — which, to me, should be the point of any industry event.

Final note: Next month I’ll be at SXSW in Austin, so expect a full recant of the above or just more detail.

Mat Zucker is Chief Creative Officer of OgilvyOne Worldwide, New York. He is a recognized leader in digital and direct marketing and creative management, working across industries including auto, cons ...read more

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