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POINT: Smaller Size Means Bigger Rewards

by Lisa Barone, April 30, 2008

A debate has been raging ever since the inaugural Search Marketing Expo show launched in Seattle last June with a capped crowd of just 500 paid attendees. What makes for the optimal search conference experience: Small, specialized and intimate or large, broad, and corporate?

In 1999, the first Search Engine Strategy show launched to give search marketers a crash course in search engine optimization and getting listed in the search engines. With the industry still in its infant years, the stage was small and intimate. It was welcoming and exhibited the ideal format for networking and knowledge transfer. Then, as Internet marketing and search engine optimization became viable sought-after tactics, it began to grow, with other large search conferences growing around it.

At the time, large search conferences allowed search marketers to sit in a room with 500 of their peers and feel connected. They offered introductory sessions on a broad range of topics and let search marketers pick the sessions they thought were most important. The system worked for a number of years, but as the industry matured search marketers began demanding more focused SEO training. The basic introductory sessions may be useful the first time through, but after a few visits attendees are left wanting real answers.

These days search marketers have choices when it comes to which search marketing conference to attend. Not only have the mainstays like Search Engine Strategies, ad:tech and WebmasterWorld PubCon continued to thrive, but we're seeing the emergence of the new, smaller niche shows. Shows that allow search marketers to network with a targeted group of their peers and dive into topics on a much more advanced level. Some of the more popular small shows and educational opportunities we've seen come to light include:

  • Search Marketing Expo
  • SEMpdx
  • Small Business Marketing Unleashed
  • Elite Retreat
  • SEO Show

Last week I had the opportunity to attend SMX Social Media Marketing, a smaller, more niche show held in Long Beach, CA with only a couple hundred attendees. There was no giant exhibition hall requiring a map and a PhD to navigate. In fact, there was no exhibition hall at all. There were no flashy signs, keynote light displays or search engine-sponsored parties. It was simply an understated gathering for search marketers to immerse themselves in a laid back, two day seminar on everything pertaining to the who, what, when, where, why and how of social media. It was an event where specialists come to network with other specialists and reveal advanced trade secrets.

And it was a giant success. Smaller, focused events that are simply better at addressing education, networking, recruiting, and knowledge transfer than the larger shows.

What do smaller shows provide that their larger counterparts just cannot?

Better Networking Opportunities

If you're looking to establish real connections, then you'll want to pay close attention to the small conference circuit. There may be more faces and business cards at the larger search events but that doesn't mean you'll walk away with any more contacts. When you're in a room with 1,000 of your closest colleagues, it's hard to actually talk to anyone. In fact, unless you're one of search's elite, it's difficult to feel at home when you step into a large conference hall or a packed session room. You're left looking up at the speakers on the stage, listening to them tell inside jokes that you don't understand and harking back to times you weren't around for. The only time you actually talk to someone is when you're forced to during the Birds of a Feather lunches. It's not the optimal environment for learning, sharing or networking.

At the smaller shows, it's different. It's more relaxed and laid back. It's welcoming. The small group setting creates an environment where attendees aren't afraid to start up a conversation and form bonds that later evolve into strong networking connections. The benefit of smaller shows is that everyone is able to meet up at a central location after the sessions have ended and take part in the understanding that comes with sharing war stories with your peers and partaking in meaningful conversation. The fancy Google-sponsored parties are a nice place to unwind and pick up some free shirts, but the time where the hotel bar is the only event listed on the "after hours" itinerary and everyone is considered an equal is where the real magic happens. That's where you really learn what those around you do for a living, where they work, what their specialty is, what they hope to get out of the show and more. Networking is about establishing relationships, and that's always better done in an intimate setting than in a cold, corporate exhibition hall with blaring music.

Deeper, One-on-One Training

Broad Internet marketing training may have had value when the industry was less competitive, but in order to compete today, you have to know your stuff inside and out. In other words, you have to go beyond the introductory courses offered at the large shows. This is another area where small, topic-focused shows thrive because they strip away that introductory level material and get into the meat of the issue. Larger shows like ad:tech and SES simply can't do this because they're forced to cater to a beginner audience.

Sessions are niche conferences are taught by field experts and those who have turned that subject into their bread and butter. They are there to teach search marketers real-life tactics, strategies and methodologies so that they can go back to their offices and actually use what they have learned. Not only does this help search marketers grow their own SEO toolset, but it sets them up to be experts in a specialized field. This will make them invaluable in their offices at home and may also win them great praise in their main industry, as well. You don't have to look much further than Bill Slawski, Neil Patel or Eric Ward to know that much fame can be obtained by making yourself a noted expert in a singular field. As the industry matures, it's less about knowing a little bit about everything and more about becoming a specialist.

Another thing about smaller shows is that they give attendees a unique opportunity to get up close and personal with the speakers they've paid to see. They get direct access to panelists during the sessions, lots of time to ask questions, and there's always ample opportunity to hunt someone down during lunch or after hours for a quick chat. This is a key advantage for search marketers that the larger shows just can't compete with. At SES, getting face time with your favorite speaker can be nearly impossible. Take Matt Cutts, for example. Matt gets mobbed so often that it's hard to get within 10 feet of him at the larger shows. However, at SMX Advanced last year, the small size meant Matt was able to mingle with attendees and everyone got lots of face time with one of Google's most popular (and knowledgeable) engineers. One-on-one time with speakers also ensures they'll remember your name and be more likely to lend you a hand in the future.

More Education, Less Sell and Better Speakers

One of the best parts about the intimate setting created at these small search shows is that the focus is 100 percent on education and knowledge transfer. Everyone, including the speakers, is there to learn. There often is no exhibition hall. That means no one is there to get you to buy their book. They are no vendors trying to lure you to their booth so they can stuff your pockets with useless schwag and empty sales pitches. It's all about giving back to the community, networking and education. It increases the value ten-fold and attendees inevitably go home having learned considerably more.

The educational-aspect of search shows increases as new blood and topics are introduced to the mix. There's nothing worse than opening up a conference agenda only to see the same speaker year after year, at show after show. These topic-centric shows help to spice up the speaker pool and ensure that attendees are always seeing something they have never seen before. They're covering topics that the broader conferences simply can't fit into their agenda and creating new platforms for specialists to speak on topics they're well-trained in.

And the myth that the big name speakers only attend the big shows is just that -- a myth. SMX Social Media Marketing featured top tier social media experts as well as search royalty like Jimmy Wales. The difference between hearing Jimmy Wales speak at SMX and hearing Jimmy Wales speak at ad:tech, is that at SMX Jimmy is available to answer your questions and interact with you. At ad:tech you're simply one of 15,000. You're lucky if you can see him from your seat.

If you're a business just getting their arms around search, in the big spender category, or are looking for a way to immerse your advertising or branding people into the field, then the bigger, more general shows may work for you. But at some point the broad introductory sessions will lose their value and becomes more about specializing, becoming a true expert in your craft and networking with those who can help you advance your goals. When you get to that level, I think you'll find the smaller, niche shows provide far more value. They're more approachable and provide a far better networking and educational environment.

If you're looking to build your industry knowledge and expert level, seek out the small shows that emphasize the aspects highlighted above. These are the shows that are going to really benefit you.

For another opinion, please read COUNTERPOINT: The Value of Going Big

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