Ins and Outs of Running an Independent SEO Conference or Meet-up

If there’s one thing I love about this industry it’s that we are not backwards in coming forwards. Whilst there are a number of fantastic conferences run by larger organisations, dedicated event and publisher groups there is no shortage of people that are creating, organising and growing independent or not-for-profit conferences within this sector. I wanted to find out about the challenges these (often volunteer) conference organisers face and if the benefits to them or their business match the time and effort put in. I asked the following group of indy conference and event organisers for their thoughts on the same topics:

Dan Harrison, who runs SotonDigital

Sam Noble, who runs Digital Females

Gus Ferguson who runs OMN

Jo Turnbull who runs Search London

Kelvin Newman who runs BrightonSEO


White Liger Woodbaby by ~Dream-finder on deviantART

The Paid or Free Dilemma

Jo: I have not considered charging people for Search London, nor would I want to as it would go against the principles of Search London which is a place where people can share information freely. It is important to keep Search London open for all, which means not charging a fee. There are many conferences with great speakers but due to the expense, many people miss out and cannot attend.  I am lucky to have some of these fantastic speakers talk at Search London.

Gus: I’m determined that the OMN events, such as they are now, will remain free, or virtually free. The main issue with this is that it’s virtually impossible to judge how many people are going to turn up as there’s no commitment further than a click on an RSVP button from members. This is a challenge as there’s a legal capacity in most venues, so if we set the max limit too high, and everyone turns up who RSVPs ‘yes’, then we could be in trouble. As the group grows bigger we’ll potentially implement a token charge that will go straight behind the bar. Maybe. Who knows? I don’t have a tip about this as I’ve not got it right yet.

Dan: We had over 100 attendees booked at the May SotonDigital event. 50% didn’t turn up. I think that free conferences are not valued compared to paid ones. As an organiser, this is very depressing, it’s like saying “you know all that hard work you did? yeah, I don’t really care”. About 10% (of non-attendees) apologise with some decent reasons for not attending. Makes me wonder about the other 90%!

Kelvin: We’ve always been free for the main event and I can’t envision that changing anytime soon. As soon as you charge even a single penny you change the relationship between attendee and organiser. It’s tricky to make the sums add up but not impossible, before I spend a single penny I need to ask myself what does this really add to the conference? is this something the attendees or sponsors will value? And it’s about spending the money in the right places as well.

Getting Bums on Seats (Or Fannys, for our American Readers)

Sam: Having a free event you will always struggle to get a 100% turnout on the day, so I always overbook the event and work to a 40% drop out rate. I don’t know what the ratio is like with other free or paid events but this seems to be about right for Digital Females.

Kelvin: We’ve fortunately never had a problems getting people along to BrightonSEO, with a sell out in less than an hour for every conference. But it never ceases to amaze me how many marketing events are poorly marketed. We understood very early on that scarcity makes people value the tickets more, so we push that, each conference will have it’s own angle but it does need a marketing strategy, not just a book it and hope approach.

Jo: Once you have the fantastic speakers and you have announced the event (sending out emails or publishing on your blog), getting bums on seats is not that hard.  It is very important to have a venue in a central location making it easy for people to attend, otherwise you will not attract many people. I always Tweet about the meetups I host via Linked in and I also advertise it on my own seo website. When I attend other meetups in the run up to mine and where relevant, I mention to those I speak with during the night, that I am running an event and ask if they would like to come along.

Gus: OMN was originally run by someone else, and called the Online Marketing Networking Group on Meetup, had about 100 members at its height. They ran events on Saturday’s to which only 3 or 4 members would turn up. So there’s tip number one, don’t run professional events at times that most people consider leisure time.

My main business, Quad, has offices on HMS President, which as well as being a pretty unique place to be spending my working life, is also one of the best events venues in London, and I was already considering setting up an event to take advantage of the space. So, when the disheartened organiser of the Online Marketing Networking Group stepped down, I took over the group and OMN was born. Tip number two, get a good venue.

Sponsorship

Sam: We have only run four meet ups so far so finding sponsorship hasn’t been too difficult. The first event was sponsored by Koozai to help get it off the ground and subsequent meet ups have been sponsored by Linkdex, Manual Link Building and Distiled. The last meet up was sponsored by Distilled and I was able to secure this sponsorship because we had Hannah Smith talking and we also helped push SearchLove and DistilledU in exchange.

Dan: This is tricky, as it’s tough to ensure sponsors get value. Invariably, it’s about visibility, but I’ve found that sponsors are only interested in sponsoring once the event is popular.

Kelvin: Being a free event we’ve never had the luxury of ticket revenue so we’ve had to build great relationships with sponsors, that means understanding what they want and helping them achieve it, as wanky as that sounds. In our case for the conference it’s the sponsors who are really are customers not the attendees so we try our best to put as many of the right people as we can in contact with them. And try and charge a fair amount for it.

Jo: It can be difficult to confirm sponsorship.  It is important to have the speakers confirmed, a date in mind and a venue with the costs before you ask for sponsorship. I am hosting my next meetup on Tuesday 18th of September and I pleased to say that MoneySupermarket are sponsoring the event.  I did book the venue and arranged the speakers before I had spoken to them about sponsoring.  However, for my last Search London event for the year which takes place week commencing October 22nd, and where Craig Bradford from Distilled will be speaking, I have yet to confirm a sponsor. If you are interested, please get in touch with me via Twitter.

Attracting Quality Speakers

Kelvin: We’ve never had a general call for speakers, for two reasons. One it makes you lazy as an organiser, the temptations there just to choose from those people who present themselves to you. Some of our most successful ever speakers have been the people who wouldn’t have put themselves forward for an SEO conference in a million years they only got involved because we asked them two. Secondly you’ve got to realise a lot of your friends and social media buddies are going to want to talk at your event, there’s only  limited slots and often they won’t be the right person for the gig even if they’re a great. Anything I can do to avoid that situation is good in my book.

Dan: I’ve found that inviting as many people as possible to speak allows you to choose the best range of topics that suit the audience. Give yourself a choice from a range of talks. Most potential speakers are aware of how they can boost their profile by speaking at a well-attended event.

Gus: We set an event for a couple of months in the future and reach out to industry connections, such as SEO chick extraordinaire Nichola Stott, (Author Note: I swear I did not pay him to say this) who we knew had a lot to offer the online marketing community and membership grew steadily. Tip number three, it’s all about the topics and the content. Get great speakers, talking about topics that are popular and you’ll get an audience. OMN is now a 2000+ strong community of London’s best and brightest online marketers, supported by a blog with a growing following and we’ve big plans for the future.

What Attracts People to Your Meet/Conference? 

Jo: The topics and the speakers are the most important factors in attracting people to Search London.

Sam: Networking with like-minded individuals in an environment that people feel comfortable in, then after that the speakers.

Kelvin: I think our price point as always helped us, we instantly wipe out the biggest objection people would have to coming to an event. Originally I think the party was one of the main attractions but I think that’s changing over time, now we’re lucky to have such a huge audience its becoming one of the places where there’s the greatest likelihood of you bumping into someone within the industry you know or who you would like to meet.

In which ways do you benefit? (If you do benefit?)

Gus: OMN is purposely kept separate from my main business, Quad, as I’m very conscious that I don’t want it to be seen as a sales event, although on the occasions that we sponsor the bar I’ll put a sponsor message in a group email, and this normally generates a few enquiries into our content marketing services. It’s about building genuine relationships

Sam: I didn’t create Digital Females to benefit me individually; it was set up to help increase the number of females attending some of the larger conferences in the UK. Many of the larger conferences are very much male dominated and I know there are a lot of females in the industry that don’t go attend them at the moment and I want to see this change over the next two years.

Jo: People have often asked this question. I enjoy arranging the meetups and meeting the speakers and the attendees. Everyone talks and works online, but it is nice to meet in person and also share knowledge with others. The search industry constantly has new updates and Search London is one of the ways to get real “how to” knowledge to stay ahead of the news and implement best practice for your websites and clients.

 

Kelvin: We benefit financially, BrightonSEO is slowly but surely becoming a ‘proper business’ in it’s own right. It’s no big company yet but if it brings in more than you spend it’s much easier to continue investing emotionally into the project. It’s been great for the profile of the city and me individually, I’m much better known as a consequence but I could have achieved a similar effect with much less effort if that had been my aim.

What I enjoy the most is seeing the friendships, business partnerships and successful careers that have been built to some extent as a consequence of BrightonSEO, someone came up to at the last event and told me how a freelance contract he’d won at the event had the potential to change his business. That’s hugely gratifying, seeing speakers who spoke first t BrightonSEO presenting all over the world is hugely gratifying, seeing things like Dave Trott’s book sell out on Amazon after speaking at BrightonSEO that’s gratifying too!

Dan: I generally get more visibility in the area which in turn benefits my own business profile, but I’ve found it short-lived. I’d need to keep running events to maintain it. However, there’s been no new business as a direct result.

Why Should Anyone Consider Organising an Independent Conference or Meetup in their Area?

Kelvin: What are you going to do differently, just being in a different location isn’t really enough, also don’t under-estimate how hard it can be to get sponsors or ticket sales, I’ve known of at least one event that was launched under blaze of publicity and if my sums are correct will have lost a bucket load of money. That doesn’t mean it won’t go on to be a huge success but if the people behind it thought they were going to make a huge ammount of money after event one they were mistaken. I think most people are better of starting small, Think of the smallest the event could possibly bean and make yours smaller. I think there’s a brighter future for someone who sells out a fifty person event than someone who sells a hundred tickets to an event that they thought would attract 250.

Dan: It’s great for the community, but be aware, it will eat up your time, far more than you’d expect… although it depends how much effort you put into it.

Gus: Running OMN takes a LOT of time. Managing the members, the event, promotion, speakers, sponsors,  door people, cloakrooms, etc. could easily be a full-time job for someone, and in the very near future it probably will be. I don’t make a profit out of the events, and for me it’s a labour of love. It’s a chance to give something back to the community that I love being part of, that provides my income and feeds my passion for digital marketing. Tip number four, be prepared to put your reputation on the line and give up evenings and weekends. If anyone reading this is interested in starting a Meetup/conference of their own, sign up to OMN, come down to the next event and grab me at the bar for a chat, or get me on Twitter @GusQuad. As I say it’s a passion of mine so I’m more than happy to discuss your plans with you and help if I can.

Sam: It is a great way to get people together but I would recommend looking around first to make sure there isn’t something already running. If there are already conferences or meetups in your local area, you need to find a specific niche that you can start to run with. If there isn’t anything in your area, go for it! It gives you a real sense of achievement when attendees come up to you after the event and say how much they learnt from enjoyed the event J

I‘d really like to thank Sam, Kelvin, Dan, Gus and Jo for taking the time to respond to my questions. One of the clearest points that each of these guys have stressed is that even though there are indirect or sometimes direct financial reward as a result of running these events, on the whole there is a huge amount of consuming time, effort and energy required to make these events a successful learning experience (and usually a whole bunch of fun.)

If you have ever attended, spoken at or simply joined one of these events for the fun networking, I hope you will join me in thanking these guys for their very hard work.

Thank you!

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11 Responses to “Ins and Outs of Running an Independent SEO Conference or Meet-up”

  1. Gus Ferguson says:

    Many thanks for the opportunity to write about this Nichola! Really interesting that everyone’s experiences and opinions are so aligned.

    I missed the opportunity to mention that we’re running a social media week event next week with the Content Creation Collective which is the other event that we run… everyone’s invited! Here’s a link http://www.meetup.com/Content-Creation/events/80938232/

  2. I don’t know if you’d count Searchlove as “independent”. We’re not a publisher / dedicated events company nor a large company so I guess it is.

    Since we are an “independent” that charges for tickets unlike some of the others, I thought I’d briefly lay out why:

    - As some of the guys mentioned, it means we can be confident with numbers. If people buy tickets, they show up, so we can fill the room, confidently book party venues etc

    - We can pay our speakers’ expenses – so they can travel from further afield / take more time to prepare

    - It gives us editorial independence (the kind of “independent” we truly value). To date we have never had a sponsor. While that could change, it will only happen if we can find a way of making it work with our editorial core values

    None of this is a knock on any of the other guys here (I’ve spoken at some and enjoyed attending BrightonSEO just the other week). I think they are doing phenomenal things but I just thought I should lay out our case for doing things the way we do.

  3. Thanks Will. Some really interesting background and I don’t think there’s any right or wrong way of doing any of these things.

    Possibly an oversight on my part not to have included you guys at the outset. Sorry. My bad. :-(

  4. Duncan Reid says:

    That’s an interesting piece. I’d not actually thought that there might be some indie conferences worth investigating (but you guys certainly prove that there are) – I certainly can’t afford to go heading off Stateside or spend £££ on glitzy UK events.

    My only comment is that these all based ‘Down South’ – Know ye of any SEO Conferences or get togethers Up North? (It’s not all whippets & flat caps you know! :) )

    Anyhting around the North West would interest me greatly!

  5. Oh no – I have no entitlement complex – I thought you picked a great set of people to answer. It was only since they all happened to be free events that I wanted to drop in a view from the other side :)

  6. Thanks for publishing this post, its perfect timing for me and has given me a lot of food for thought!

    I’ve currently organised three ‘meetups’ under the banner of SEOProSco and have the fourth one planned for the 18th of October in Edinburgh. There are a few digital events in Scotland but they tend to be quite wide ranging and don’t attract the best speakers from around the UK or the world. As it costs a lot of money to spend a couple of nights in Leeds, London or Brighton, I want to attract some of the best talent up to Scotland so that people who are new to the profession have a chance to learn from the best.

    My plan for the future is to go from small meetups in the pub where we have a couple of presentations, to having a full day event where people can come along and really learn some new skills.

    So far we haven’t really tried to get a sponsor, although we are lucky that one of the venues does supply us with free pizza(!), but in the future I would like to be able to offer drinks and a buffet or to pay for more professional venues.

    Since I work in-house, and not at an agency, there aren’t really any business benefits from organising the events. What I do enjoy is doing a little bit of public speaking (it helps that we are still so small), meeting new people who have great stories to tell, hearing from people who have got job offers after attending a meetup and from building a network that I can reach out to in the future.

    As of 12.34 21/09/12, we have filled 31 spaces out of 40 for our next event. I’m sure that all of the signup spaces will be filled but whether we get 40 along on the night is anyone’s guess.

  7. Hi Duncan, have you ever tried any of the MancSEO meetups or the SASCon mini-conference? Also Gus tells me there’s a Scottish linkedin meet-up group if you want the details?

  8. Duncan Reid says:

    Scottish is a bit far for informal meetups but I’ll have a look at MancSEO (is that a LinkedIn group? The LiverpoolSEO one was just full of spam last time I poked my head in) and the SASCon.

    Thanks for the ideas Nichola, much appreciated.

  9. Actually MancSEO is now MancSAS: http://www.mancsas.com/ I went to one a few years back and it was great fun!

  10. And there is SASCon (http://www.sascon.co.uk/)of course. Which is sort of collaborative. We use an event management company to pull it together, the delightful Dont Panic (http://www.dontpanicprojects.com/) We use them becuase the event simply wouldnt happen otherwise. Those involved in the committee are just too busy to do all the bits and bobs that make it happen.
    It looks like there will be a Mini SASCon in November. Single track one day. And Big SASCon will be back next year. We’re yet to finalise a date but I guess it will stay 2 days 3 tracks.

    We’re meeting on Monday which I hope will lead to some finalised details.

  11. As someone who has attended and spoken at Sascon I can definitely +1 this one Duncan ;-)

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