The Spring Search Insider Summit and My Hidden Agenda

First published April 16, 2009 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

I have an odd reaction whenever I get an email from Ken Fadner in my inbox. My face contorts in the strangest way. It’s half a bemused smile, half a wince, with a dash of anticipation thrown in. For those of you who don’t know him, Ken is the publisher of MediaPost. I’ve been working with Ken in putting the agenda together for the upcoming Search Insider Summit on Captiva Island, Fla.

You Have Mail…

Ken is remarkable in that, as far as I can tell, he reads every single post and column that goes up on the MediaPost site. In fact, Ken can remember more about my past columns than I can. “You know,” Ken will tell me as we discuss some topic, “you wrote about that last year.” Inside, I say to myself, “I did?” while on the outside I nod wisely and knowingly.

Ken also has the admirable quality of making sure the Insider Summit agenda is as fresh, relevant and insightful as possible. Hence my contorted reactions to his emails. We’re just three weeks away from the Summit. For everyone who’s programmed a three-day show, you know you pretty much want to have the agenda locked down by now. But Ken and I also decided three shows ago to make the Summit more a free-flowing conversation than a series of panel presentations. So I remain damned by that decision. How the hell do you program a free-flowing conversation? And Ken, every time he reads an interesting post or column, pings me and says, “Should we add this to the agenda?”  Hence the contorted facial expressions.

Search Touches Everything Now

What is interesting in this is the breadth of issues that are trying to vie their way onto our three day agenda: Search and the economy, search and brand relationships, search and ad exchanges, search and online experiences, search and attribution models, search and internal corporate politics.

Defining the scope of a Search Summit is not nearly as easy as it was a few years ago. Then you had two topics to choose from: organic optimization and paid search management. Sessions centered on a deeper tactical dive into one of these two areas. But now, search rides on the crest of our rapidly changing behaviors. Search seems to touch everything, including our relationships with our customers, how we navigate our online landscapes and how we create an internal and external structure to better “get” search and execute on it. These are not topics that fit nicely into a 12-minute PowerPoint Slide deck. These are big, brawling, thorny issues, going to the heart of a huge shift in how we market and conduct our businesses. These are topics that can only be dealt with in conversations, in fact; many conversations that don’t begin with the pretense that we’ll reach a neat, tidy answer at the end of them. Which all sounds good in theory, but how do you build an agenda around that?

Snippets of Random Conversations…

Let me give you one example. Gian Fulgoni from comScore and I connected on the phone to discuss the topic for his morning session: Search in a Recession. Going into the call, I though I had a pretty clear understanding of what the session would be.  Gian would share some query trends showing how people’s interests, translated into search queries, have shifted given the economic conditions. But within 10 seconds our conversation had veered down a related but different path. It was fascinating, potentially profound in its implications and well worth a discussion. But there’s only so much you can pack into a three-day schedule.

Here’s another example. One of the agency support team members at Google emailed me, saying one of her team members was looking for something on the “psychology of search.” I had done a presentation on something similar at Google a few months back, and she wanted to pass along the deck. Personally, I was thrilled. The psychology of search is something I’m intensely curious about. I just never expected anyone to ask for it by name.  And it’s certainly not something you would have seen on the agenda of a search conference in 2003.

So, if you’re making plans to come to Captiva Island, (and please do, it’s a wonderful experience) I’ll do my best to lock down the agenda long enough to actually get it printed for the handouts. But don’t be surprised if conversations veer off in unexpected directions.  It’s what makes the Search Insider Summit what it is. Meanwhile, somewhere I’m sure Ken is reading this column, going “Hmm…the psychology of search. We should add that to the agenda!”

I’m expecting the email any second now.

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