I used to go to creative writing conferences – where with some careful planning, about 70 percent of the sessions would be worthwhile. The same was true for the Nieman Conference in Narrative Journalism I attended in 2009, its last year of existence because journalism is dying and no one pays journalists enough to go to conferences. These conferences have/had plenty of sessions that got into the guts of good writing and reporting, with plenty of takeaways (though I don’t think this buzzword existed then) that I still apply to my writing today with such regularity that I no longer think about it.
So when I shifted into a content* creation heavy position, I figured what better way to spend my conference time than to attend content-laden conferences and webinars. I’ve attended three conferences and about a dozen webinars over the past 18 months. I also signed up for emails from various industry sources about content creation. What I’ve found in this content creation learning landscape is a time-suck wormhole of horribleness that fills my regret sacs** for weeks.
On the off chance you are someone that organizes such events, please consider this list a source of humble suggestions to keep your event from sucking and having people hate you.
Five things that make me hate your content marketing event:
1. The Bait and Switch
Problem is, about 10 percent of these seminars, presentations, articles and/or conferences are actually about content creation. Instead, they delve time and time again into the sexy world of distribution and measurement.
Just recently I attended the “Collaboration Nation” webinar, which was billed as a way to learn how to “keep lines of communication open throughout the content creation process with your external vendors, freelance contractors and internal team members.” Hey, I thought, I could use help learning how to communicate with subject matter experts and others outside our company who may or may not want to help out with a case study! Problem is the whole thing was an webinar sales pitch for a project management web system (like Basecamp or Intervals if you are familiar with those, and if not, imagine going to an hour long sales pitch for Word and how it saves you time from having to write by hand). Sprinkled in there were interesting yet useless facts about how many marketers use content marketing, how many have a strategy, etc.
This happens ALL THE TIME with content marketing. Like I said, other conferences I’ve been to may fall victim to misleading seminar titles or descriptions, but at least they aren’t designed to suck people in so they can sell a product.
2. The Case Study
I pore over conference breakout session descriptions with a vengeance against case studies. When competing tracks all have case studies, I look for the one that promises to be least case studyish. Why? Because every time they become a self-congratulatory look at something the presenter did with a campaign that 97 percent of the time has nothing you can take and apply to your own efforts.
Examples: at the MNAMA conference this year there was one period where I had to choose between learning how Target used fashion models to sell groceries (which I’ve seen listed at both conferences I’ve been to this year) or how Carmex capitalized on a half-court shot. I chose Carmex merely to pass the time. The two presenters talked about how the guy made his half-court shot at an NBA game and won a bunch of money and how they then took him around to various media outlets to talk about the experience and other things I won’t need to know ever.
Last year Becky and I attended the Social Media Explorer conference Minneapolis, and one of the sessions was spent with a manager from Campbell’s and one from the Mall of America (and two others I can’t remember) talking about how hard it is to find good marketers for their organizations. What they wanted – someone who loved soup. or the mall. Really. That was the qualification they have trouble finding.
I’ll admit that this isn’t entirely limited to content marketing. Academia is rife with people who like to talk about themselves in front of a captive audience. This happened to Becky at the MnCUEW education conference in 2012. She went to a “Teaching Inside and Outside the Classroom” session presented by Jenni Swenson, Dean of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, and Kimberly Lynch, Chief Information Officer, both from Anoka-Ramsey Community College. It was billed as a session for adjuncts to learn what else they can do with the degrees they earned. They spent the hour talking about their careers and how awesome their jobs are to a room full of low-level staff and adjuncts. Their advice on how to move up was more education (of course it was) and to take sabbaticals. They told this to a room full of adjuncts. As the awesome K.C. Hanson, an awesome teacher and fellow MFA graduate, said so awesomely at the time during the Q&A session, “Well, you made my decision clear. Admin is not the way to go for me.” (Bonus blog tomorrow from Becky with a complete recounting of this conference session in its full glory, so stay tuned.)
3. Too Rich for My Blood
Almost nothing is worse than spending an hour with someone from a ridiculously large company, like Carmex or H&R Block talk about spending butt loads of cash on a campaign (which the H&R Block guy described as a “cheap” campaign for $100,000) and the responses they got from their million Facebook or Twitter fans.
At the recent MIMA summit, I spent an hour listening to a guy, formerly from Dell and now with Adobe, talk about how Dell found online influencers in the computer market both pro- and anti-Dell, and flew them to a conference at Dell to talk about their opinions. Now, imagine you are a small business owner, or a marketing person from 90 percent of the businesses in existence – do you have a budget to fly people in from around the country? Probably not. Especially not if your business is selling car wash equipment to other businesses or something.
This happens more often than you’d think. Conference organizers know that names like Adobe, Reese’s and other fortune 500s draw butts into seats, even though these marketers play on a different field and in a different sport than most people there. Divide out the cost of the conference by sessions attended, and you just spent $100+ to listen to a guy talk about how awesomely huge Dell is and how they changed people’s minds by buying them a two day trip to headquarters. Congrats.***
4. Where’s the Beef?
No examples on this one except to say see ALL of them. The most disappointing aspect of going to these conferences is that they are largely about how to better schedule social media publications and how to reach the most people or find the “right” data that will lead you to the promised land of increased sales HALLELUJAH! You are also guaranteed to see this tweet in every session, which is hailed as genius – so much so that 13 people get credit for creating it, including one that quit because of how ridiculously stupid the industry has become for giving awards for getting a normal ad out in a timely fashion.
There will be recommendations for sites that will help you with scheduling or analyzing tweets or email open rates. There will be statistics about how many people use Facebook every day and how many tweets go out every minute. These stats will be amazing, but rather meaningless unless you work for Facebook or Twitter.
Which all leads me to my biggest soapbox:
5. Stop It. Just Stop It.
The overall endgame that all these presentations about anecdotal successes and ROI**** and quantification leads to is to reduce an industry that is half creative and half assessment into wholly business. For those not in the biz, think Roger Sterling eats Don Draper and shits out numbers.
I went to my first conference Social Media Explore, with Becky, and halfway through asked her if she was getting the feeling that most of these sessions could have been titled “How to justify your job to your boss.” It’s insane how much time is spent on measurement and how to make as much of the marketing process into a mathematical formula for the businesses we work for. Perhaps this is a result of the new found ability to measure such things online with computers when not too long ago all one could do was put a special code in the newspaper to see which customers were brought in by that coupon or deal. Maybe everyone is just super excited about being able to measure results, but I think they are overselling it.
For example, say you want to make a hit movie this way. You look at the numbers – and all the info says to make a movie with this actor in his prime, this director coming off a HUGE hit, this team of writers who have collectively come up with some of the biggest action movies of the decade, in a genre that’s proven to have lots of fans, and lots of explosions and humor. You look at these ingredients, each one a proven asset that audiences have loved time and time again. And you still get Wild Wild West, a steaming pile of crap.
Marketing is not just a number. Numbers help. They can nudge you in a direction, but setting up your entire operation so that you are ready to send out content on every relevant channel forgets the most important ingredient – having GOOD content.
Dear event organizers, maybe, just maybe, it would be worth having a session or two about creativity and ways to break out of the ruts we all get into creatively from time to time? Just a thought.
*Content = bullshit new term for marketing materials, includes blogs, tweets, whitepapers, news releases, images, videos, podcasts, whatnot, tomfoolery, jibber jabber.
**a medical condition I made up
***I will say though, that MIMA did have a good 50 percent of presentations that I went to that weren’t crap, so they did better than others.
****Return on Investment, a term that since created means that marketers have to account for the amount paid for a piece of content and how much money that content directly led to the business making.