Trade shows and conferences are like the Energizer Bunnies of the digital marketing industry. Despite hard times, demand for events has grown. I think I’ve figured out why. But first let’s walk through what it’s like to kick off a digital marketing career these days.
Someone launching, say, a search marketing career will encounter information overload. Of course, overload’s not as bad as ignorance. Narrow specialists who don’t get up to speed with related parts of the digital marketing puzzle face career marginalization.
Surprisingly, only a relatively small cadre of newcomers belongs to the same club more advanced members of our tribe do – that of plugged-in, voracious information-gathering and networking. To some, it comes naturally; others need to be taught.
Sadly, by the time many marketers make it to mid-career, they’ve been too heads down to offer useful strategic help to their companies. In certification courses, the instructors and I are sometimes asked what sources we use to stay plugged in. We might mention a dozen or so key ones. To you, references to core sources like TechCrunch or Search Engine Watch may roll off the tongue. But to many, staying current is someone else’s job. Many companies and individuals are skimping on professional development.
So what are the professional development hallmarks of a digital marketing career that can sustain momentum?
Stage 1: Organize your info IV drip. I’d rather know a sleep-deprived information junkie than someone who sits around waiting to be spoon-fed everything. You can always dial back from too much. New recruits should do research and settle on an initial stream of a couple dozen useful sources. Experiment with multiple consumption and updating methods: e-mail, RSS, Twitter, internal company “Digging” – whatever works. Privilege insight over mere news.
Stage 2: Webcasts. Whether these are educational seminars put on by companies like FreshBooks (a B2B vendor that has fostered a small business community beyond its own product); sponsored Webinars on Search Engine Watch and ClickZ; or excellent videos made available by the likes of Google, there is no shortage of distance learning opportunities. Books and audio books also fit into this stage.
Stage 3: Local networking events. It shouldn’t matter where you are, there must be vibrant associations and one-off talks near you. Use a talk or performance as an excuse to meet other smart people and socialize. This ritual accelerates learning and connections.
Stage 4: In-depth training courses and certification programs. Professional associations like the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization (SEMPO), the Web Analytics Association, training firms like Market Motive, and major players like Google have all invested in developing intensive training courses to meet the exploding demand for compressed deep learning. Companies like Bruce Clay, Inc. and Page Zero Media [disclosure: my company] frequently offer intensive training courses in conjunction with the SES and SMX conferences.
Stage 5: The big conferences. Let’s be frank. The people who run digital marketing and strategy conferences have had a very long time for trial and error refinement. One pioneer, Alan Meckler, launched Internet World in 1993! But what was too far ahead of the curve in many markets in the 1990s is now addressing the meaty part of the curve. Digital marketing isn’t something you dabble in anymore: it’s now your profession. What makes larger conferences so unique is that they offer the opportunity to sample new ideas, make connections, learn from a variety of presentation styles, and follow up with networking and social opportunities. Today, many attendees enjoy direct tutorials from big players like Google and Bing (“university” format). To say nothing of the perennial popularity of site clinics inside the session rooms and the increasingly popular Express Clinics run by experts like Matt Bailey and Judith Lewis, out next to the trade floor. Finally, proof that “water cooler talk” isn’t dead: attendees often remember keynotes for years, long after the tweets have come and gone.
It’s plain to see why Stage 5 is a perennially popular option. Companies and individuals are looking at the costs and benefits of these professional development opportunities. The explosion of OMS San Diego‘s attendance year-over-year, for example, indicates that comprehensive events are fulfilling a need in the current market for information. If a marketing manager is heading out of the office, then coming back with news and to-do’s from multiple related disciplines from a single event is an attractive proposition cost-wise as opposed to making multiple trips.
Some attendees will go primarily for training and stay on for the conference. Others will sign up for one conference day or a trade show pass, and then add training to their schedule. Whatever makes sense.
All of this explains why many of our industry conferences have done well financially through a tough recession, despite fragmentation and competition for eyeballs and bums in seats.
An earlier version of this column appeared at ClickZ on March 10, 2010. Reprinted by permission.