We’re Jet Setters, But Where’s the Paparazzi?

First published April 27, 2006 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

April has been a tough month. At last count, I’ve been in nine different cities (not including my home), a ski resort, on four different airlines for a total of two dozen flights and connections, in eight different hotels, at six different shows, and have also packed in assorted client and organizational meetings. I’ve been spending more time with search marketers than my family, and that can’t be a good thing. As lovely as Anne Kennedy, Greg Jarboe, Kevin Lee and Dana Todd are, I’m pretty sure we’re not related in any way. And I actually had to nix at least two shows from the agenda. It could have been worse!

My perception of reality is getting a little skewed. When you do too many industry shows in a row, you get a distorted sense of your own importance. In SEM circles, I’m fairly well-known. People tend to come up to me in the halls after a presentation and introduce themselves. Many are readers of this column. So, in my own, insignificant way, I guess I’m somewhat famous in search circles. But a rude awakening comes when you actually step out in the real world. The average ticket agent for American Airlines doesn’t really care that I helped define Google’s Golden Triangle or have spoken to standing-room-only audiences at SES in New York. It doesn’t get me a first class-upgrade. Those accomplishments also hold little weight with my wife, just in case you were wondering. The line “Do you know who I am?” usually lands with a decidedly flat thud whenever I try it.

The division between the search world and the real world has led me to postulate on the life of the average search marketer. We seem to be always jetting to some search hotspot (it’s not as exciting as it sounds; one hotspot happens to be Chicago in December). Our lives are lived on laptops and PDAs. We have all the trappings of a high-powered celebrity lifestyle, without the celebrity or the accompanying discretionary income.

If you’re part of the “circuit,” there are no shortage of speaking opportunities. There are search sessions everywhere, including a brand-new crop springing up to join the venerable stalwarts such as Search Engine Strategies, Ad:Tech and Webmaster World’s PubCon. Increasingly, there are cross-country “road shows” as well as demand for search-savvy speakers at other vertical industry shows. One could probably make a full-time job out of speaking, if one chose to. Just in case you’re interested in this job, the busy seasons are the spring and fall.

In part, this reflects search’s current status, caught somewhere between big business and cottage industry. The proliferation of speaking opportunities reflects the growing interest in search, and the demand for speakers is indicative of the relatively small number of thought leaders in the industry who are used to speaking in front of crowds. The ones who have proven themselves tend to find themselves a hot commodity. And for the most part, we do it for free, often covering our own travel costs, in return for raising our profile and hopefully attracting new business to our respective companies. We go from city to city, bleary-eyed and jet-lagged, promoting the gospel of search for all who care to listen.

From the outside, it looks to be an enviable position. In fact, some grumble that we in SEM’s elite “inner circle” unfairly use our connections to grab all the plum promotional opportunities. I understand, because I was once on the outside, looking at how to get in. I used to stalk Danny Sullivan and Chris Sherman at the shows, trying to figure out how to grab a spot on a session panel.

I can certainly share what worked for me. Come up with something different to talk about. For us, it was search user research, and we’ve invested thousands of dollars and man hours in different studies to give us the content we speak about at the shows. Be original, because it’s tough to be a thought leader when you’re just echoing other people’s thoughts.

But a word of warning: be careful what you wish for. Sure, the life of a search marketer may appear to be fast-paced and glamorous, but underneath it all, we’re really just the same as you, very humble and ordinary, and really, really sleep-deprived.

Of course, I’m probably just tired and grumpy. Did I mention that it’s been a tough month?

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