February 13, 2009
An Experiential SMX West Review
Ever been in a busy room full of people and felt as if you and they were not really there? The sensation falls between an out of body experience and an unfortunate brain-full of high dosage pain relievers. Standing with a small group of old-time search marketers on the trade-show floor at Search Marketing Expo (SMXWest) in Santa Clara at the beginning of this week, we all noted how the vibe of the show was sort of like that. Long used to feeling like ghosts in the machine, this month’s pilgrimage to the Valley made many of us feel like spiritless specters. It took a couple of days for the conference spirit to catch its first wind. Unfortunately, the conference was only three days long. “You know Jim,” said Danny Sullivan in his wistful sing-song voice, “I read the other day that when you fly between time zones so frequently you leave a bit of your soul behind. It takes a few days for it to catch up with you.” I think that was the most profound non-Internet related statement I heard in the four days I spent in California. My own soul must have gotten itself misplaced during the stop-over in Vegas. Similar things must have happened to the seven or eight hundred other attendees. Perhaps it is the economy. The exuberance of optimism shared among the best optimizers on the Internet feels super subdued. Perhaps it is the sick air of Santa Clara which is the industrial park section of the Silicon Valley. Perhaps it was the long day of travel and the even longer night of drinking that preceded the show. I can’t put my finger on it and neither could anyone else at the show though everyone reported feeling the same way. Perhaps it is just everyone is tired or a mixture of all of the above. Weird… Well wired but really weird. Held in the cavernous Santa Clara Convention Center which is attached to the extraordinary Hyatt Regency, this second edition of SMX West succeeded in every possible way except the one they had no control over. The vibe was weird for the first 36-48 hours. I think it was during the Tuesday night IM Charity party in the Yahoo! offices where the conference vibe really started to pick up. The conference sessions themselves were, as usual, amazing. Danny and Chris Sherman and the Third Door team set up good shows. Over the past decade, the partnership between Danny and Chris has produced some of the most eclectic and exciting education experiences any of us in the industry have enjoyed. Their thoughtfulness and talent were on full display at SMX West. After the speaking grid, it’s the little things that count biggest in the end. The WiFi was ubiquitous and strong. The layout, signage, room-rate arrangements, registration and event scheduling were so well planned they were beyond simple for attendees. Such things are rarely so easy for attendees in the real world of conventions and conferences. The Third Door Media team knows the science of large-scale event planning. Another thing that made this conference much easier was the staff of the Hyatt Regency Santa Clara. The hotel and its staff were incredible. Last year, WebmasterRadio.FM had a terrible experience at the hotel. So awful in fact, Daron was moved to record a half hour long profanity laden mega-rant detailing how bad it was. He then placed that tape frequently in our rotation for at least four months. The rant made its way up the pipe to Hyatt corporate headquarters. Suffice it to say, the message had gone out to the staff at the Hyatt Regency Santa Clara, “Treat WebmasterRadio.FM right or find another place to work.” They did and then some. The moment we pulled up in a nondescript yellow cab, four or five doormen were on us. The staff wanted to create the best experience possible and that seemed to carry over to the rest of the attendees. The raw power of a polished and powerful platform should never be underestimated or underappreciated. “Is everything OK? If you need anything, my name is Manny, that’s M-A-N-N-Y”. I kid you not. From the bucket of beers that magically appeared in our room each evening to the chocolate cake and fine linen cards to the fellows who seemed to be following us around every corner, the Hyatt staff went far beyond making up for last year’s crappy experience. In a pinch on Wednesday night as we were doing the last minute planning for SearchBash our room service order was super-prioritized, avoiding the 70-minute wait I was warned of. Hell, I’m pretty sure I saw one of them out of the corner of my eye refilling the shampoo bottle when I was showering but as readers might expect, I perceived things on three or four hours sleep and was probably hallucinating most mornings. I never really get to go to sessions. I wish I was able to make it into more sessions. Check out the SMX West conference grid. Your brain salivates at some of the topics. That aspect of my job sucks. During the days, I am hounding after as many interviews as I can possibly get before my fragile voice gives up and gets gravelly. Then there’s the commitments WebmasterRadio.FM makes to the conferences. I can’t report on the brilliance passed from speakers to their audience but I can say that the sessions I ducked into for fleeting seconds were packed. The loose estimate of attendance reached 750 – 800 people, not including the vendors, speakers and the small legion of conference organizers. The other thing outside of anyone’s hands that didn’t cooperate was the weather. It was cold in the Valley this week. Because of the cold and the intermittent rain, we were forced to move WebmasterRadio.FM’s SearchBash event inside. We had a far different event planned (which we weren’t able to execute) that would have split SearchBash between the Hyatt bar and the adjacent pool deck. Instead we held the party inside a tricked out ballroom. We opened with a live-cast of a PPC Rockstars Roundtable which sounded better over the radio than it did in the room. Our chat room and Twitter streams were raging and listeners appeared to be highly entertained. In that regard, the plan was successful. We engaged an audience outside the conference itself. That was one of our goals. Where we got messed up was the fact radio is not a visual medium. Our listeners loved it but while the nine person panel sounded great, the party-goers saw another session panel when they wanted to mingle. Our original plan accounted for that by splitting the event between two different environments but again and alas, the weather. Special thanks to the sponsors of SearchBash; Clix Marketing, The Hyatt Regency Santa Clara, Pixelsilk, and Marin Software. Also, special props should again go to the event organizing and catering staff at the Hyatt. By Thursday morning, everything was tizzed. The last day of a conference is the most brutal of all. Adrenaline starts to run low when a beleaguered body doesn’t need to produce it anymore. Watching a conference fold itself up is like breaking camp. The dreariness of the experience is redoubled by the knowledge that breaking camp means going back to the grind of hard work. Our flight back to Florida was scheduled for early afternoon thus negating any sense of effectiveness in the morning. I was able to get one last interview in before hosting a rushed Webcology at 11AM pacific. Once the show was done, we were gone and the second edition of SMX was effectively over for us. For the fortunate ones who stayed on today, Bruce Clay is presenting a full day of SEOToolSet training. I have yet to go to a poor SMX conference. SMX West was a good show though again, the vibe in the industry has changed and this was our first group exposure to whatever that vibe is becoming. That vibe will be worth monitoring over the course of the dozen or more conferences WebmasterRadio.FM will be attending in 2009. In the meantime, we’re back albeit exhausted. We worked hard this week. Check out the 14 interviews we recorded in the WebmasterRadio.FM Conference Channel. Also, Vanessa Fox recorded yesterday's episode of Office Hours from the show floor. Vanessa caught a great interview with Maile Ohye, the Developer Programs Tech Lead at Google. SMX West was a good experience though likely more so for the attendees who walked away with a university level education. The next SMX conference is SMX Search Analytics March 31 and April 1 in Toronto.