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August 28, 2007

A Look at What It Takes To Run an SES Conference

Since Search Engine Strategies San Jose has just past us, we thought it would be interesting to get the low-down on what it takes to actually manage an SES conference.

Andrew Goodman, author of “Winning Results with Google AdWords”, editor at, founder of Page Zero Media, a frequent speaker at industry conferences, and conference chairman at SES Toronto, was kind enough to chat with me in Toronto.

I have to say that Toronto had one of the best SES conferences I’ve been to. The keynote speech by Seth Godin was phenomenal, and Andrew made some changes that made me (an occasional conference wallflower) enjoy it even more!  – Pauline

Pauline: Let’s talk about the organizing. When you first got this opportunity did you have a bunch of new sessions in mind or was it sort of a brainstorming team effort? How did you come up with the new sessions?

Andrew: It evolved from past SES Toronto conferences. I had given input to Chris Sherman on past ones from previous evaluations of other panels. Overall, I think I had the anecdotal feedback from people in Toronto who had previous complaints that people had stumbled into panels that were too basic. There were people around the table trying to determine whether it should be more basic or less. My analysis of it was that we had the widest spectrum in Canada running the whole gamut.

All SES conferences have a large number of brand-new people who need to be given fundamentals — that’s what they’re paying for. So you need to keep that fundamentals track. You can’t just get rid of it and have this avant-garde SES advanced or whatever. I tried to track it so that it would stretch to have both — and maybe even be extreme. That way we could have a really basic kind of panel on SEO in a way that was fun, like one of the ones Jill sat on. (Is Content King? Is SEO “BS”? White Hat Hotseat) I didn’t attend it but I sensed it might have been fun and light to get people easing into understanding content in a more discussion-based format.

Pauline: Well, I thought when looking at the program that just by changing some titles of the sessions, things sounded a lot more entertaining. It was great to see some new presentations and content. It seemed like some speakers were kind of scrambling about putting finishing touches on new presentations, too!

Andrew: You’re absolutely right. I may have caused a lot of discomfort just by changing titles and revamping the descriptions or mixing it up slightly. I got this kind of weird reaction sometimes, “What’s this all about?” For instance, in the Purple Cow workshop, Rand Fishkin made this kind of “What’s going on?” gesture. The session was like a site clinic, only it was more about differentiation and cutting through the clutter and creativity and business ideas. I didn’t know how that would turn out, but I wanted to have a panel that followed Seth’s keynote that paid homage to one of Seth’s concepts. Of course, it turned out well, although it’s true that updating your material is hard. I don’t like to do it, but I do it all the time. People do appreciate new stuff.

Pauline: Yes, the banter I was hearing amongst the speakers made it seem like it was their first time! I thought that was brilliant. But I think all in all people were very happy that the sessions were really great. Was that your main job in putting this whole thing on? Paying attention to the content and who’s going to speak? What was your actual role in putting this whole thing together?

Andrew: It started there. It does involve a lot of adjusting and interacting with the speakers. But it also involves finding speakers, and that’s a fun thing because there’s a process. Either people are pitching or you’re finding the ones that have already presented. This was all new to me. So I think again with so few tracks there’s an interesting thing that happens. I mean, I certainly proactively contacted some people, but it was getting full and I just didn’t get to contact a lot of the old familiar and awesome speakers that I know personally. Also a lot of people who pitched wanted to know why they didn’t get on, and I suppose that’s something I’ve never experienced before. Often there’s no good reason, it’s just that we proactively went after 3 or 4 people, because in our heads we thought that would make for a dynamic panel. So there’s no reason. Nobody had done anything wrong in their pitch. We just thought, “Let’s try this,” and we already had enough people. So this aspect was kind of interesting.

Pauline: So there are some politics involved. Saying no must be tough too. Did you get a lot of people pitching to you?

Andrew: Yeah, and I was pleased with that specifically. I don’t have experience receiving pitches for Chicago or elsewhere — I’ve never had that experience, but for Toronto, what Chris and I noticed for the first few years was that we were trying to find people. The marketing community in Canada didn’t know SES and SES didn’t know the people. And that included companies. So we didn’t get many pitches in the past. We’ve started to get them now. Most potential speakers don’t know where the blog is that tells you the dates to pitch. I’ve had friends say, “Well, you know the organizers, and you were helping with SES Toronto 2 years ago, so can I just get on?” And I’ll say, “Look, I have to pitch just like everyone else at San Jose, etc. It’s the same thing. There’s this page with the instructions and the dates, and everyone should pitch according to plan.”

Pauline: Did you have anyone speaking who was doing so for the first time?

Andrew: Quite a number actually.

Pauline: Oh, good.

Andrew: I think it’s important even though people don’t do their very best job the first time out. I didn’t my first 6 times out. And I remember Danny noted in 2001, my first time speaking at SES, that I’d been nervous. That can detract, but people become very good with practice. Rebecca Kelley of SEOMoz was a first-time SES speaker; it was very well received. It’s obviously because she does SEO for a living. She has the fundamental info. There are also a number of local speakers I’ve gotten to know and did proactively seek out. I sat down with them and asked what they could contribute. Some of them had new ideas, which helped me decide that these panels were going to work out!

Pauline: OK, switching gears, do you have any plans to write another book or an update to “Winning Results with Google AdWords”?

Andrew: Yeah, I’m under contract to write a second edition with the same publisher. That’s behind schedule — catastrophically so, maybe. My colleague Mona has just completed a new report; it’s about Yahoo, which is the second-most important company in this space. [see “Stuff You Might Like” below]

Pauline: So, she’s got Yahoo and you’ve got Google.

Andrew: Yeah, I know, her topic is harder.

Pauline: That’s all I have, thanks Andrew.

Andrew: You’re welcome, Pauline.

Author:  Pauline Kerbici is the Director of Marketing of High Rankings, a search marketing firm outside of Boston, Massachusetts. She co-founded SEMNE, a New England search marketing networking organization in 2006 and holds an MA, Integrated Marketing Communications from Emerson College.