Upfront Disclosure: I applied to speak at SMX West and was rejected.

I don’t know anyone who has been in SEM for more than a year or two who has ever come back from a search conference with oodles of new and useful information. The purpose of going to SMX or SES or Search Insider Summit, or Search Outsider Summit (if it exists) is really to network, as far as I can tell. Typically the sessions have the same speakers every time, most of whom are either totally unprepared or totally unqualified, or both.

Last year I spoke on an “Advanced Paid Search” session at SES SF and one of my fellow “experts” told the audience to never buy competitors’ keywords. This is like a tax advisor telling you not to take charity deductions – it’s just wrong and will cost you money. I’ve also seen some well-known speakers who bring their computer up on stage and tweet/do work while other people are presenting. Isn’t that sort of like talking loudly on your cell phone at a five star French restaurant?

This year’s list of speakers at SMX West appears to have been chosen through a complex vetting process that can only be described as a combination of Cronyism and laziness. To wit, a quick review of the speakers (only on the PPC side mind you) reveals that the following companies each have representatives on three different panels (in some cases, the same person):

  • AimClear
  • Click Equations
  • Did It
  • Efficient Frontier
  • Rimm Kaufmann Group

Don’t get me wrong, these companies have a lot of smart people working for them (and apparently even smarter PR and event management people). But given the sheer number of PPC agencies and experts in the SF Bay Area alone, one would think that having five agencies take up 15 speaking slots could be – and should be – avoided.

I find it especially troubling when I see the same person speaking on two or sometimes three panels. If you are such a great expert that you are worthy of appearing on three panels, you are no doubt in such high demand that you simply do not have the time to adequately prepare for multiple presentations. The inevitable result, of course, will either be rehashed or ‘re-purposed’ presentations from prior panels, or no preparation at all.

I’ll be the first to admit that I am not qualified to come up with a solution for this conference malaise. I tried to start my own conference two years ago and I don’t believe I succeeded in truly creating valuable content at every session. Based on my own experiences, I think part of the problem is that there is simply a disconnect between creating a ‘successful’ conference from a revenue-perspective, and developing high-quality content.

Building a conference requires a ton of work that is not related to content – booking event space, closing sponsors and exhibitors, promoting the event, selling tickets, biz dev deals, etc. Ironically, putting together great content almost becomes an after-thought. And let’s not forget the subtle and sometimes explicit pressure that comes from top sponsors to have their speakers on the primo panels. The line between editorial and business is not very clear in the conference world.

On top of that, there’s the problem of trying to be all things to all people. Conference organizers feel an obligation to create some panels for beginners, lots of panels for intermediate knowledge, and just a few advanced sessions. And speakers often feel that they must water down their knowledge, thereby talking to the lowest common denominator. It’s sort of like a one room schoolhouse – the sixth graders have to sit through 1st grade arithmetic.

It all comes together in a well-packaged, cool-sounding, but incredibly stale and pointless series of conferences. Attendees continue to attend to network and meet old friends, speakers continue to speak to build their personal brands, and sponsors continue to sponsor because they probably do snag a few new clients from the exhibit floor. In the process, little knowledge is actually shared. It pains me that we can’t break this cycle.

7 Comments

  1. Terry Whalen February 2nd, 2011

    Agreed.

  2. Jeff February 3rd, 2011

    When I reviewed the speaker list I had the same thoughts. Impressive that you were willing to put it out there.

    Are you saying that bidding on competitor’s brand terms is a no-brainer?

  3. Alex Cohen February 3rd, 2011

    Hey David,

    As both a person who works at one of the companies you mentioned and a guy on two of the panels at SMX, I figured I’d share my 2 cents.

    First, I appreciate the spirit of your post. No one should be allowed on the stage unless they have something meaningful and valuable to say. I’ve seen you speak and I’d pick you again to present. Rand and Lisa Barone wrote 2 good posts on the topic of search conferences:

    http://www.seomoz.org/blog/optimizing-search-conferences-how-differing-incentives-create-audience-vs-organizer-issues

    http://outspokenmedia.com/online-marketing/how-to-rock-your-presentation/

    I actually think SMX crew, Danny Sullivan and the others, has the fairest system out there. Anyone can pitch a session idea or pitch for a speaking slot on a session and you’re evaluated on the merits of your pitch vs. the others. No doubt your reputation as a speaker and previous reviews if you’ve spoken at the conference come into play, but I think that makes sense.

    As a sponsor of SMX, I’d like to be very clear that we never subtly or explicitly ask for speaking slots. I write my own pitches, submit them through the same forms that everyone else does and then just cross my fingers!

    Your point about experienced SEMs and conferences is a good one. If you’re looking to learn new topics, advanced specific conferences like SES Accelerator or SMX Advanced might be a better fit. Or, vertical specific conferences like LeadsCon or Internet Retailer.

    I really care about being a good speaker. If you ever come to my presentation and have feedback to help me be better, please email me: acohen @ clickequations.com.

    Cheers,
    -Alex

  4. Danny Sullivan February 3rd, 2011

    David, we actually spend a huge amount of time reviewing pitches. It’s not being lazy. We also try to ensure that we spread around the speaking slots and actually have things built into our system to flag if we’ve already got the same speaker or the same company on multiple panels.

    It’s not perfect. And sometimes it makes sense to have some of the same companies and or speakers be on multiple sessions. For one, they might have proven themselves in the past. For another, they may have put in excellent pitches. Especially important, they may have suggested a great session idea in the first place.

    In your case, I’ve checked, and you pitched for exactly one session. There were several PPC sessions, but I gather this is the only one you were interested in. So were 12 people in total. We can’t put them all on. We went with four.

    I didn’t coordinate that session, so I don’t know exactly why your pitch (or 8 others) didn’t make the cut. Looking at it briefly, it seems fine. But I think we already confirmed two people for this panel before it even started, because they’d both suggested the topic as one. I suspect the session coordinator just liked the other ones better.

    Your post gives the impression that the five companies listed are all that are involved in the conference. But for the session you pitched on, only Click Equations is on that panel. There are three other companies not on the “crony” list above who are also included.

    Going through the entire list of confirmed speakers, looking at just the PPC & conversion sessions, the list is like this:

    The Rimm-Kaufman Group
    ZenithOptimedia
    Wpromote Inc.
    Five Mill, Inc. (2)
    Clix Marketing (2)
    Google (2)
    Microsoft (4)
    Yahoo! (2)
    Engine Ready
    Rimm-Kaufman Group (3)
    Page Zero Media
    Closed Loop Marketing
    ion interactive, inc.
    Invesp
    Criteo
    The Trade Desk
    Didit.com
    Efficient Frontier (2)
    Oyster
    Marin Software
    aimClear
    FanReach
    ClickEquations (2)
    Trada
    Kenshoo
    Sears Holdings / Instant E Training
    Avenue100 Media Solutions Inc (2)
    BD Biosciences
    eSearchVision
    Viator

    Some of the companies you listed on multiple PPC sessions might be getting counted for being on SEO sessions. I’d have to take a closer look – and I know Did It is also moderating a session, which is different than speaking on it – but you might not consider that. But still, that’s a pretty diverse and big list of companies.

    I’m sorry you didn’t get picked this time. I hope you’ll try again in the future.

  5. davidzhawk February 3rd, 2011

    @Jeff: It is not *always* a good idea to buy competitors keywords – perhaps I overstated that point. But it is *generally* a good idea to do so and anyone who says you should *never* buy them is mis-informed. Perhaps this merits a separate blog post from me.

    @Alex: I appreciate the comment. As I’m sure you know, I was not trying to single-out ClickEquations nor imply that you or any other company did something unethical to get on the panels! I do think, however, that as a general rule, a conference is going to get a greater diversity of opinions and best practices by having as many companies/speakers on the roster as possible. This is especially true in SEM where best practices vary so dramatically from company to company!

  6. Alex Cohen February 3rd, 2011

    Hey David,

    I would be okay if conferences had a 1 panel per person policy. That might not be a bad way to broaden the conversation. As long as I can apply for multiple and I can pick which one I want if they think I’d be good on more than one :-)

    While we’re on the topic of conference wish lists, can we limit panels to 3 speakers and a moderator?

    -Alex

  7. davidzhawk February 3rd, 2011

    @ Danny: First of all, let me just state for the record that I have immense respect for everything you’ve done to promote education in the search community. I’m proud to say that my first SES was 2002 (maybe 2001 . . .).

    Second, though my rejection for the SMX speaking session was the direct catalyst for writing this post, these are thoughts I’ve had for quite a long time. I guess you could say that SMX was “in the wrong place, in the wrong time” with respect to this post.

    My observations are not SMX-specific, they apply to all SEM conferences and for that matter virtually any trade show circuit out there. To summarize and expand:

    1. Speakers on two or more panels are unlikely to be adequately prepared for their presentations. The same is true for moderators, IMO.

    2. Many speakers who are established on the circuit do not appear to prepare at all for their sessions. At the majority of conferences I’ve spoken at, there is no requirement to submit presentations in advance for review by the moderator, no pre-conference calls (or even call) with the people on the session. People just seem to think it is OK to get up on stage and “wing it” or roll out their standard presentation they created in 2007.

    3. There is undo preference given to ‘circuit speakers.’ I believe this is due to a sort of “quality score” metric that conference organizers give to established speakers, i.e., there is a higher level of predictability with a known quantity. While I understand the value of past experience, I think this is over-emphasized. I’d much rather see an “in the weeds” SEM manager at an etailer give a detailed analysis of their SEM strategy than a consultant I’ve seen a thousand times before (and you could put me in that latter camp, though at least I do prepare a specific presentation for every panel I’m on).

    I’d like to again admit that I am clearly a Monday morning quarterback here, and its much easier to complain than to fix something. I suspect that I am not alone in my assessment, however, and that if you and any other organizer reading this takes some of this feedback to heart, it will only serve to benefit your shows moving forward!

    David

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David Rodnitzky
David Rodnitzky is founder and CEO of 3Q Digital (formerly PPC Associates), a position he has held since the Company's inception in 2008. Prior to 3Q Digital, he held senior marketing roles at several Internet companies, including Rentals.com (2000-2001), FindLaw (2001-2004), Adteractive (2004-2006), and Mercantila (2007-2008). David currently serves on advisory boards for several companies, including Marin Software, MediaBoost, Mediacause, and a stealth travel start-up. David is a regular speaker at major digital marketing conferences and has contributed to numerous influential publications, including Venture Capital Journal, CNN Radio, Newsweek, Advertising Age, and NPR's Marketplace. David has a B.A. with honors from the University of Chicago and a J.D. with honors from the University of Iowa. In his spare time, David enjoys salmon fishing, hiking, spending time with his family, and watching the Iowa Hawkeyes, not necessarily in that order.