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COUNTERPOINT: The Value of Going Big

By Susan Esparza, April 30, 2008

If you're in the market for a conference that's going to expand your horizons and build your address book, you should make sure you don't miss the next ad:tech. Large conferences have several advantages over niche conferences, including a broader range of topics, more viewpoints, bigger name speakers and plenty of opportunities to network.

Conference season is in full swing, something that's very obvious here at Bruce Clay. This month, we went to two very different conferences with very different profiles. SMX Social Media was a small conference focused on a very specific emerging market. Attendance was less than 200 people, with only a single track of sessions offered. Ad:tech San Francisco was a record breaking industry conference spanning everything digital media. 14,000 pre-registered attendees had the three days of multi-track sessions to choose from. Both conferences were immensely valuable, but if you could attend only one of these two conferences, you'd be wise to weigh what you're looking to get out of the trip.

Broader range of topics

The most obvious advantage of a larger conference is that there's something for everyone. In fact, the hardest part can be choosing which session to go to and which you'll have to give up. It's all well and good to dive deeply into a niche but the real power in Internet marketing comes from learning to combine several disciplines for maximum efficiency. As the saying goes, when all you have in your toolbox is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Search engine marketers turn first to Google. Social media marketers can't escape the thrall of Digg. On-demand marketers have to contend with TiVo. Brand managers know which ad networks are going to pay off big. A truly savvy marketer will find a way to use all of these elements in order to make their whole media campaign a success. Large conferences give you a chance to put more into your arsenal.

There's more to Internet marketing than search engine optimization. Once you've conquered every aspect of your field, it's time to get your head out of the trenches and take a look at the big picture. At ad:tech San Francisco, attendees could choose from panels on pay per click, search engine optimization, Web analytics and mobile marketing. Even traditional media like television and print garnered nods from this conference on digital advertising.

At a large conference, instead of fifteen speakers, you'll have the chance to hear fifty. From all walks of life, all levels of engagement, speakers at big conferences are guaranteed to expose you to new thoughts and ideas that had never come up before. Take good notes here and incorporate the best parts of it into your new strategy. Figure out what you need to learn more about and then find someone who knows more about it than you to explain it to you.

Not finding enough food for thought in the sessions? Take a walk through the exhibit floor where vendors wait to explain what they do, how they do it and the ways in which they can make your company more successful. If you're a vendor, this is the place to be. You'll make sales here in a way that you'll never get at a smaller, more tutorial conference.

Big name speakers

Though you might see the rising new voices at a niche conference, for full on star power, the choice has to be big conferences all the way. From appearances by Kevin Rose to Kodak's case studies made possible by the Apprentice, the biggest names only show up for the biggest conferences. Though fame doesn't always equal importance, it's hard to argue that the macro level experience that industry superstars can bring to a show can be found at smaller venues.

Big conferences can afford to bring in panelists that are the cream of the crop. Not only is the name recognition there, but big companies know that the audience is there. To be blunt, it's a better value proposition. If you can reach 14,000 people, chances are you'll jump at the chance. Small conferences by definition can't offer that sort of return to a speaker and while there are people who'd like nothing better than to make it to every conference, the truth is that in the end they'll choose the ones that offer them the most opportunity. Matt Cutts has a real job too, he can't come to every little conference on the planet. But he's certainly going to make time for Search Engine Strategies in San Jose.

At these shows, you'll get speakers who can deliver success stories and anecdotes of failure, who can test a theory because they weren't constrained by budgets and who are willing to tell you what happened because they're not afraid that it'll be revealing something. Learning from those who have gone before is a time-honored way to increase your knowledge and gain inspiration.

The Best Networking

The last day of mega-conference WebmasterWorld Pubcon is the famous pub crawl. With the sessions done and the keynotes given, it's time to get down to the real value of a conference: the networking. At a large conference you have many more opportunities to make new connections. In your day to day existence, chances are you won't run into anything like the variety of people that will show up for a large conference. Marketers, C-level execs, reporters and programmers, they all come to the big conferences to meet and greet.

Anticipating a brand opportunities, big companies throw big parties during large conferences and give you a chance to meet and greet without pressure. Everyone's on equal footing. Large conferences aren't the time to cement business relationships; they're the times to sow the seeds. Bring along a stack of business cards and introduce yourself to everyone you run into. Ask them what they do, who they work for, what they think is the next big thing. Jot down their best idea on their business card and send them an email when you get back to the office to follow up. With any luck, you'll run into them later at a small conference and have time to sit down over a drink. Do your legwork upfront and it'll pay off big in the long run.

In the final balance, big or small, going to conferences can be a valuable investment of time and money for you and your company. Whether you're diving deep into a particular niche or climbing on the shoulders of giants to get a glimpse at the future of the industry, you're bound to get something out of your conference experience.

Back to POINT: Smaller Size Means Bigger Rewards

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