Next Week in Captiva: Shaking Things Up, TED-style

First published April 8, 2010 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Today you sit there, an audience spread across the digital marketing landscape, scraping together a few precious moments on your daily calendar to read this column. Next week I hope you’ll all be basking in the sunshine of Captiva Island, Fla., your cranium brimming over with tidbits and brain-bombs about search and the industry we toil in. The Google-gods willing and major algorithmic overhauls aside, we can all get away from the daily grind long enough to step back and take a look at where this whole thing might be going.

A Summit Three Years in the Making

I’ve been fortunate to work with MediaPost to help program the Search Insider Summit for the past five shows (I think, the brain’s a little numb at this point). Over time we’ve refined and tweaked to the point where we had a pretty smooth-running operation. This time, however, I decided to change all that. I’ve never been a particularly loyal adherent to the maxim: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I believe in mixing stuff up on a pretty regular basis. In this case, the catalyst for change was a chance to attend the TEDActive conference this spring.

I loved how TED managed to lodge particularly toothsome concepts in my brain (at a breathlessly unrelenting pace, to be honest) and then throw me loose amongst the TED-sters (yes, it is a little cult-like) to try to digest in my limited downtime.

The resulting conversations were nothing short of amazing. The first day at lunch, I was sharing a picnic basket with five other strangers and eavesdropping on a conversation happening beside me. The topic? The role of mirror neurons in determining the vicarious enjoyment on thrill rides at an amusement park. I didn’t catch names at first, but one speaker owned an amusement part in New Jersey, and the other was a professor of neuroscience at UC Irvine.

This past week, as I was zipping past TV channels, I saw a familiar face. There was my neuroscience prof! He was appearing as himself on the crime drama “Criminal Minds.” He just happens to be one Dr. James Fallon, a world-renowned expert on the psychology and neurology of psychopaths! Now, where else could you just happen on a conversation like that?

The Convergence of Conversations

That was the spirit I wanted to create at Captiva (minus the psychopathic stuff).  Like TED, we have an atmosphere that invites conversations. The informal and intimate atmosphere is conducive to brainstorming. And this time, I wanted to borrow from the TED concept and transition what happens up on stage to be more forward-looking and strategic in nature. I wanted to give more people a chance to share their thoughts, so I borrowed the TED format of a mix of 18-minute and five-minute (TED actually limits to three-minutes) talks. Plus, we retained unique Search Insider traditions like our roundtable break-out sessions.

The challenge I threw at presenters was to crystal-ball the question: Where is search going from here? I divided the question into five parts: the core technology, the user experience, the marketing strategies, the search marketing industry and the data and tools. Then, with the help of our advisory board (Gian Fulgoni – Comscore, John Nicoletti – Google, Stefan Weitz – Microsoft, Chris Copeland – GroupM and Frank Lee – The Search Agency) we created a 3-day agenda from the pitches we received. It’s promising to be a fascinating summit. And for good measure, we’re bringing Ball State University back to re-envision Google through Gen-Next eyes.

It was a little hairy, taking a tried-and-true format and reinventing it, but I think you’ll be pleased with the results. See you soon in Captiva!

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