How to Keep An SEO Conference From Clipping the Iceberg

by danperry on December 12, 2007

in Conferences

I’ve been lucky enough to speak at over a dozen conferences over the last 4 years, most of them being search conferences. I’ve spoke at Multiple Search Engine Strategies, ad:tech, Search Insider Summit, eMetrics, the Internet Marketing Conference in Montreal (old school; hey Barb Coll, remember that show?), and most recently, Pubcon. There’s one element of every panel that will either make it a floating success, or turn it into the Titanic: The Moderator.

My moderators have run the gamut from impressive professionals, to unprepared legacies, and the problem for the audience is that many skew towards the latter.

Now, before every moderator decides to ban me from future sessions, let me preface this by saying that I understand. You’ve probably been attending/speaking at shows longer than I have, and based on seniority, have been elevated to mod status. It only makes sense.

Also, I understand that everyone has a day job, and it’s very, very easy to push a lot of the “non-essential” duties aside, specifically moderating. Making money for your respective company takes precedence over moderating; I get it.

Finally, it’s a pretty thankless job that takes up a lot of time, for no pay, and probably little to no value for you personally. In fact, it may have evolved into more of a chore for you than anything else. The problem is that in some cases, it’s starting to show.

No doubt about it: The audience suffers when the moderator is weak. Couple that with the fact that, regardless of the strength/weakness of the moderator, these conferences are going to continue to grow. It’s like having a very poor marketing department at a casino. Sure, there are numbers to hit, but at the end of the day, they’re going to make money, so it’s not as critical as it is to most organizations. Same thing here: More and more people are getting into the industry regardless of the strength of the shows.

Here are a few things I’ve seen lately that have made for poor panels.

I was asked to speak on a panel, about 6 weeks prior to the conference. During that six week period, I never received an email from the moderator. Nobody asked what I’d be speaking on, to ensure there was little overlap between presentations. When the conference began, nobody reached out to me to ensure I was prepared. Nobody reminded me to bring the presentation on a USB stick. When the session time arrived, nobody shook my hand and thanked me for spending my time and money (OK, my company’s money) to educate the audience.

Here’s the rub, and the reason for this article: I spoke on a panel, and never met the moderator. Other than introducing me (luckily my name is easy to pronounce), I haven’t carried on a conversation with this person in my life. Never shook their hand, never heard about their business, nothing. To me, that’s a sad state of affairs, and I can see the conferences taking on water. The quartet isn’t on the main deck, and the women and children aren’t being loaded into life-boats, but the hull is definitely not fixing itself.

So how did the panel perform? In my opinion, lousy. Most of the moderators covered the same industry statistics, all having different numbers from different sources, which had to be confusing for the audience. Since there wasn’t any collaboration ahead of time, how were they to know who was covering what?

In addition, one of the speakers decided to turn his presentation into a sales pitch. I’m guessing this was his first speaking engagement, because normally, it’s well known that that is frowned upon. I’d bet that he had no idea, and again, since there wasn’t any contact before-hand, why shouldn’t he plug his company?

The result? From the time he started plugging, to the time he was finished (and it was painfully long; at least 6-7 full conference minutes of plugging away), I’d estimate 1/5 to 1/6 of the audience left. It was unbelievable to watch. The speaker seated next to me kept looking at me in amazement: When will this end? Why isn’t the moderator stepping in? WTF? I felt bad for the next speaker. He was about to present to 20% fewer people.

Don’t let this happen on your panel. Here’s where a moderator can stand out. Not only should you select good moderators, but keep them on the same page, for conference consistency. Here are a few ideas:

  • Plugging your company in such a painfully blatant way is not acceptable. Viewing presentations before-hand would fix this problem. (Jim Sterne of the Emetrics Summit starts his conferences off by telling the audience that when a speaker starts pitching his own product, start booing, and has the audience practice their booing, so they’re ready. The message is pretty clear, and it works well.)
  • Set up a conference call at least a month in advance (two months is better, if possible) with all the speakers. Discuss who covers what, to avoid overlap.
  • Two to three weeks prior to the show, collect the presentations from the speakers, and ensure both of the above areas are covered. This will also assist in setting up the batting order of the speakers. Have the “stats and industry numbers” presenter go first.
  • Set up a meeting with your panel in the speaker’s lounge prior to the session so everyone can meet in a relaxed setting. I’m nervous as heck prior to speaking. This is not the time to meet my fellow panelists. Plus my palms are sweaty, and nobody likes the guy who wipes his hand on his pants prior to shaking theirs. A short meeting in a more relaxed environment to exchange last minute ideas and business cards is a much better approach.
  • Ask the speaker for a tidbit of info about them that nobody knows, and use it in their introduction. (For me: After getting discharged (honorably) from the Navy, I spent 2 ½ months in England, with time in London, Hull, York, Scarborough, and a long, interesting weekend in Amsterdam). The value? This gives audience members a lead-in to start a conversation with the speaker after the presentation. Very conducive to networking, and when done at the conference level, very valuable all around.
  • Collect a question from each speaker to ask them after their presentation. (What’s the one big takeaway? What’s the most important lesson learned? … Something like that.) I spoke on a panel where the moderator liked “shooting from the hip.” I’m sure you can see where this is going. Nobody was prepared, and the answers were weak at best. Personally, I froze, and that’s not a pretty sight. In addition, this give the audience the ability to differentiate the most important point from each presenter’ great for note takers.
  • By having this question before-hand, it can make the transition between speakers much more valuable. There’s nothing valuable about this: “Thank you very much; good presentation; very interesting. Our next presenter is…” Don’t be that guy. This is the perfect spot for a predetermined question, and also gives the moderator ample time to switch presentations.
  • Afterwards, thank the speakers for presenting. Most, if not all of them paid their own way to come to the show. Some of them may be able to write it off, and others won’t. Regardless, remember that they have not only paid with money, but also time, and everyone in this industry knows how valuable that is.

By following a few of the above ideas, your next conference will be more fluid, your speakers will be better prepared and more relaxed, and your audience will walk away with a better overall conference experience: A win-win-win. I can see the people stepping from the lifeboats back onto the ship already.

What’s going to differentiate all these conferences going forward? In my opinion, the quality of the moderator will play a big part.

What do you think? Do you have any ideas to add to the list to make moderators consistently better? Are some of the points valid, or am I just a whiner?

UPDATE: I posted a follow-up to this with some additional thoughts on conference moderators.

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