How to Keep An SEO Conference From Clipping the Iceberg

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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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

john andrews December 12, 2007 at 5:52 am

Thanks Dan. I want to point to this the next time I am “offered the opportunity to sponsor a seat on a panel”. I think pay-to-appear is behind much of the sales pitchy stuff at other conferences. At search conferences, there seems to be a very casual attitude that produces plenty of negative reviews, but nobody seems to care. Maybe the money comes too easily?

My personal favorite is when a speaker says “I didn’t make up any notes because I knew the people before me would do a fine job covering the topic…” Please…somebody pay these speakers so they feel obligated!

Carrie Hill December 12, 2007 at 10:46 am

Hi Dan,
I was in the audience for your PubCon panel -and I thought your information was very helpful and concise. I spoke on a panel at SES Travel and luckily had a somewhat interested moderator.

I was absolutely FLOORED when your panel dissolved into a 15+ minute Pitch on how to use the other panelists “beta” for building mobile websites – I cant believe it was allowed to happen and then continue.

I think that if you’re not interested in doing it right – dont volunteer or agree to do it at all.

Anoop December 12, 2007 at 4:15 pm

Pretty insightful, Dan. I trust your judgment since you have done may be a dozen of these presentations.

I have seen the other end of over-involved moderators too…in one panel, the Moderator insisted on adding his comments to every single question that was asked to the panel by the audience…and then an additional set of comments for every response a panelist gave and he also tried to insert his company’s view point in every comment he made. Not a pretty sight…

I think the suggestions on pre-event preparations are critical to avoid overlap and ensure comprehensive coverage. In many events, I have seen that the panel topic itself is not very well conceived…the topics are too generic & stale, and the handbook doesn’t provide sufficient guidance on making a choice between the multiple parallel sessions. If the moderators take the lead, it can help the attendees by setting right expectation from a panelist’s session.

Andrew Goodman February 3, 2008 at 12:14 am

Dan – sounds like a lousy panel. A couple of responses.

1. I think you have it partially wrong. The job of avoiding overlap, and developing an interesting panel in general, shouldn’t fall entirely to the moderator. Honestly, in all the years I’ve moderated, I’ve marveled at how limited the responsibility is – but that the mundane logistical stuff like keeping it smooth, timing the speakers, and heading off problems should they arise – is the main duty of the moderator, as opposed to programmatic stuff.

Programmatic stuff should be the responsibility of the show’s chair or programmer, and contact with speakers should be ongoing to map out interesting angles on a panel. Part of that stems from the strength of the speakers. There are a lot of average speakers out there. Cohesion goes way up when you have top quality speakers. And the speakers themselves can feel free to collaborate prior to the show.

Really, the moderator *is* busy and *is* uncompensated for the most part. If they’re engaging, self-effacing, and good with mikes and timers at the right times, to me, that’s the main thing. The main thing is not to screw it up!

Generic and stale topics and indifferent speaker recruitment seem to be the bigger problem at hand! You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

2. Do you have any recollections of good panels and good moderators? Constructive feedback is often more helpful than the negative stuff. I’ve told friends in the past how much I’ve appreciated the context-setting role played by experienced moderators in sessions, especially when stimulating Q&A. Danny Sullivan and Rebecca Lieb would be good examples.

3. The moderator might have a lot to say in Q&A. As long as she doesn’t dominate, but simply adds a comment, the moderator might be a recognized industry expert and thus contributing much to the discussion. I don’t see why everyone is so down on moderators who participate. It seems that you’re damned if you get involved, and damned if you don’t. That’s partly why I advocate the “good with a mike and a timer” approach, when in doubt. But moderators are on a par with speakers on many panels, even if they may not have PowerPoint to prove it.

4. There is “nothing valuable” about “thank you very much, and our next presenter is…”? A lot of the time, that’s the best thing you can do. The audience really is just waiting for the next speaker, and time is an issue. Here I just think you are being hypercritical. As for getting all the panelists together beforehand – sure, ideally you would meet months beforehand in a pub. :) But try getting the Microsoft, Yahoo, and Google rep together in the green room before the sessions? Track down a hungover social media marketing expert for an extra meeting outside the session in the a.m.? Good luck.

Andrew Goodman February 3, 2008 at 12:15 am

5. Anyone who is not writing off a business trip has a serious accounting problem!!

danperry February 3, 2008 at 12:35 am

@Andrew Goodman You’ve brought up some good points. Let me add where I think it may clarify.

1. Fair enough; it makes sense if the chair or programmer is responsible for the quality of the panel participants. I agree.

2. Absolutely. I spoke at ad:tech Chicago last year, and it was hands-down the best panel I’ve ever been a part of. The moderator showed me what a good moderator is. Having been on such an exceptional panel at ad:tech may have heightened the bar for me, making the let-down that was Pubcon seem like a bigger deal than it was. I agree with your comment on the need for praise, and agree that I may have been more callous than usual, but this really was a painful session, and I wasn’t the only one with that opinion.

3. Point taken, but there wasn’t even a little input by the moderator; there was none. Also, I disagree with the damned if you do, damned if you don’t line. Clearly you have much more experience with this than I do, but I think the moderator should at least show an interest in the panel, and be informed with the material that’s going to be presented. Any moderator who’s taken this step will, almost by default, come up with a question or two on their own.

4. Sometimes time is of the essence, and this is necessary. Also, I didn’t mean we needed to get together in a pub; how about one conference call prior to the show? We knew months in advance we’d be on this panel. I personally don’t think one call is asking too much. This one call can assist with avoiding overlap, introductions, etc. Hypercritical? Love the term, but have to disagree. Any level of effort on the moderators behalf would’ve caused this post to never have been written. It was the lack of action (email, conference call, physical meeting, etc., even to the point that we still haven’t met), which was interpreted by me as lack of interest, that caused this to be written.

Thanks for commenting; I appreciate it.

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