Social Media World Forum North America 2011: Review & Feedback

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This week, I was in New York attending the 2nd Social Media World Forum North America. I attend and speak at many marketing and technology industry events throughout the year and a majority of my experiences are great.

However, my recent experience was not entirely positive. So I’m compelled to draft a post reviewing this event because I wanted to offer the organizers critique to (hopefully) motivate them to improve the event next year.

As we are passionate about the marketing industry at The Future Buzz, we feel it is our responsibility to provide honest feedback to events, media, agencies and others who are a part of the digital marketing and PR ecosystem. Ideally, in time this will help weed out those who are here simply to take and not give, and provide direction to those legitimately looking to improve.

This feedback should also be applicable to anyone putting on an event.

So here we go:

1. Stuffing as much content as possible into each day ruins attendee experience

According to the website, there were more than 100 speakers / presenters for a two day event, with only two presentation rooms. You can do the math here: the content felt extremely rushed and there was no time to digest the information.

Further, most good conferences allow for a brief networking break after each session so attendees can discuss what just happened, wrap up taking notes, and take a brief break / grab coffee. At Social Media World Forum North America, it was (no exaggeration) presentation after presentation with no breaks. More content is not better, focus on quality presenters and give them ample time to share their story or interact with the audience.

2. Don’t go cheap on the venue / layout

I know conference organizers are trying to save money: but the venue for Social Media World Forum was completely unacceptable. First of all, as mentioned above there were only 2 presentation areas. And one of the presentation areas was held on an open showroom floor in the same space as exhibitors, concessions and another presentation area for a separate conference.

Even worse, both conferences were running sessions concurrently. As a speaker this was extremely distracting, so I can’t imagine how bad it must have been for attendees. This was an extremely low quality experience for everyone, including exhibitors who had paid money to be there and were trying to chat with attendees at the same time two different speakers were presenting in the same room.

3. Who is leading this? Poor event governance, lack of community feel

At events like Webmaster World’s PubCon and Search Engine Strategies the event organizes do a fantastic job creating a feeling of community before, during and after the event. For example, at Search Engine Strategies, they always do a creative “White vs. Black Hat” session and give (physical) white and black hats to attendees as a fun way to inspire discussion and connections.

At Social Media World Forum there wasn’t much, if anything in the way of creativity, connection or community from the event organizers. The only forms of this came from attendees / speakers. In fact, for most of the event I couldn’t even find a single event organizer. It really showed a lack of ownership or care for the event itself, making it feel, at least compared to my experience with other marketing events, as a transactional experience as opposed to an event with leaders passionate about our space. This might not actually be the case, but it certainly felt like it.

4. Use moderators who actually listen and understand our industry

I’m going to be totally honest: I was unimpressed with some of the moderators. They basically ignored the fact that the audience was tuning out some of the sessions, they didn’t ask clear / concise questions and they kept going back to the same topics. And that was especially bothersome because there were no breaks between sessions, so the next panel was responding to the same questions as the previous. I’m also not convinced some of the moderators actually listened to the responses by their panel as they didn’t do a great job continuing threads of discussion.

5. Don’t burn bridges with sponsors – our industry is small

I’m not sure the Social Media World Forum event organizers realize this, but our industry is small. Most of us know each other personally. I seriously worry about their ability to gain tier-1 sponsors next year when they burn bridges with existing sponsors by not providing a level of service or living up to promises made.

Yes, my employer was a sponsor, and yes they messed up our branding, but let’s set that aside – I spoke with several other sponsors / exhibitors and almost none were happy with the quality of event or the service provided. You know what sponsors are going to do next? Chat about that with their peers. If you want to conduct damage control I suggest a follow-up being honest with sponsors and letting them know the event is still nascent and admit your mistakes noting you are working to improve it next year.

I’m not going to go into more details (you can email me if you want to know specifics) but I personally would not have been pleased had I had been a company and paid to sponsor this event.

6. Don’t be disingenuous about numbers

I was initially skeptical of this event as none of my peers had heard of it. However, the website for the event claimed 2500 attendees:

At the very most there were 400-500 people there (and that is being generous). This was a gross exaggeration and I felt mislead. Also the “4 tracks” notion was a flat out lie, there were 2.

It wasn’t all bad, though…

With all of that said the redeeming factor of this conference were the speakers and attendees. The speakers (digital marketing professionals from NASA, Coke, StumbleUpon, Dominos Pizza, Tumblr, Wired, Hershey’s and Radian6 to name just a few) were all both compelling and friendly. Also the attendees were there with the right attitude and were interested to learn more about the topics presented.

While social media is (still) not new, there are many seeking to broaden their skills and so there is plenty of demand for conferences in the space. I sincerely hope the Social Media World Forum organizers aren’t putting this event on merely to profit from attendees and sponsors, but rather become an annual and respected event for our category. That’s why I’m writing this post – not to be negative – but instead help them see what it is they need to improve if they want to succeed.

After all, they are a social media event, so they should be open to this type of feedback.

Curious, have you ever heard of this event before? Did you attend this year or last year (either in New York or globally)? What did you think?