Do We Need a Different Kind of Search Conference?

First published September 17, 2009 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Something’s been bothering me for the last few years. In that time, I’ve probably spoken at two to three dozen industry events: trade shows, summits, conferences and workshops. In fact, this week, I’m at one such event – a user summit. Throughout that entire time, I’ve felt that there’s a fundamental disconnect at these events. And this week, I think I’ve finally put my finger on it: the wrong people are attending.

Let me give you one example. Earlier this year, I was at a client’s internal summit, talking about the importance of “Getting It.” I looked at the 100-some assembled people, responsible for driving forward the digital strategy of this company, and asked the fateful question, “How many people here are senior C-level executives in the company?” Not one hand went up. Oops! Houston, we have a problem.

Where are the Actionable Takeaways?

Most of the events I speak at focus on giving attendees actionable “to-dos” to take home. In fact, I’ve been told time and again: give people a list of things they can do Monday when they get back in the office. That makes sense. Conference organizers have learned that attendees find the most value in these things. Yet I tend to ignore the advice of these conference organizers and talk about things like research, understanding buyer behavior and how this integrates into marketing strategy.

Increasingly, I’m seeing more confused looks in the audience:
“Where is my top ten things-to-do checklist? This guy is just giving me more questions, not answers.” This disappointment bothers me, because at my heart, I desperately seek approval.

But, in those sessions, after the rest of the crowd has dispersed to look for a speaker with a list of things they can do Monday, there are also a handful of people that come up to me and thank me profusely.  They seem to operate at a different level: a strategic level. I’ve seen this pattern over and over again, and as I said, it’s been bothering me.

Are the Takeaways Really Actionable?

Here’s the biggest thing that bothers me. My suspicion, borne out by several conversations with people that attend these shows, is that very few of these “to-do” tips that make the list ever get implemented. Months later, they still sit somewhere in a conference handbook, quickly jotted in a margin. Stuff just doesn’t get done. Why?

The people that attend these conferences don’t control their to-do lists. On Monday, their list gets put aside to respond to the all the other things they have to do — because they’re not calling the shots. The to-do list is being determined by priorities that have been put in place somewhere else by someone else. People come back from conferences with a list of “what” to do, but unfortunately no one told their bosses “why” they should do it. The bosses don’t often go to search conferences.

Less “What” and More “Why”

“Why” doesn’t come from to-do lists. “Why” comes from seeing things in the big picture. “Why” comes from “getting it.” The people who go to search shows already get it. That’s why they have the job they do.  You don’t have to explain to them why this “what” stuff is important. They understand at a fundamental level. But eventually they leave the conference hall, full of other people who get it and with whom you’ve swapped stories about how your boss desperately doesn’t “get it.” Monday, you’re plunged back into a culture where “what” is not aligned with “why.”

There are no easy answers here. Even if you have that rare CEO or boss who gets it, you need a fully integrated culture that is committed to executing at the highest level of “getting It” from top to bottom. Everyone in the company has to agree on the “why” and the “what.” And I’ve yet to see a conference or summit that manages to pull that trick off.

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