So for the first time since the BlogHer09 Conference I have 5 minutes to sit and think and write.
From July 24-25, 1200+ women gathered in Chicago for a conference by, about and for women bloggers. Mommybloggers, FitnessBloggers, HealthBloggers, BusinessBloggers, ShoppingBloggers, HumorBloggers, PetBloggers, and any other kind of blogger you could imagine. There were also a ton of women who dont blog but want to learn more and were ready to start.
And so were Brands. Tons of them. Official sponsors of the conference (Pepsi, HP, GM etc.), sponsors of the lunch (Ragu), brands in the exhibition hall, sponsors of individual parties, sponsors of individual bowling lanes at the BowlHer party, etc. Mostly CPG brands (Pepsi, Ragu, Pork the Other White Meat), but there were some apparel brands (Crocs), cosmetics brands (ELF), Nikon, HP & Microsoft there too. The brands were there with their own people (George from Crocs, Chris Barger from GM, Scott Monty from Ford, Bonin Bough from Pepsi, Bev from P&G, Johnson & Johnson had a guy there), their agencies (Social, PR or Marketing & guys like BlogTalkRadio) as well as bloggers Brands sponsored to attend.
And there were maybe 20 guys there in attendance (like Me and Carfi) who werent with a brand, or agency, but who were there to attend BlogHer09. The most common question I was asked was “what are you doing here?”. 🙂 Last year Carfi and Micah talked up BlogHer08 so much I decided I had to go, and I am glad I did.
First the Good:
Holy crap, this is one of the most well run conferences I have ever attended. It rivals Gnomedex in coordination and is almost 3-4x the size. It was organized, ran on time, the food was great, the sessions I sat in had spirited discussion and were amazing, the people were awesome, the wifi was pretty good and there was a lot of power for charging phones and laptops.
Two of the more amazing things that happened at BlogHer were Speed Dating and the Community Keynote. After the opening keynote with Lisa, Jory and Elisa, the entire audience got up and formed 2 circles (one inside the other) and proceeded to spend the next 20-30 minutes meeting new people as the inside circle moved one person over every minute. (this is where I got most of the “what are you doing here?” questions). A. This was fun. B. I got to meet some amazing women. C. I wish every conference I went to did this.
The Community Keynote followed the end of the first day’s sessions. Basically 10+ men and women from the BlogHer community got up to read their blog posts that the community had recommended and the curators selected. JD told the story of how she faked a concussion as a little kid and the hilarity that ensued. Grace talked about surviving and fighting back from abuse. Some funny, some sad, one about about race, one about getting something stuck somewhere (long story) but all were amazing. There wasnt a dry eye in the room from either laughter or tears.
And the price point for all this was ridiculous. At $305 (inc tax), this is one of the cheapest conferences tickets I have seen. For a conference with 1200+ attendees? With a really nice space, decent wifi, good drinks and food? With a waiting list (which I was on), BlogHer doesnt push all of the costs down on to the attendees ticket price – they push them onto the Brands.
Without the Brands it would have been either a smaller event or a more expensive one – and maybe not the same. This is a BUSINESS decision on the part of the BlogHer team. More Brands wanted to work with them ($$$) which allowed the Wait List to be opened up. Brands wanted to leverage the center of gravity being built by this community to get noticed and start conversations. Attendees want a great experience, with as much quality and at as low a cost as they can. It was Win-Win-Win (attendees, BlogHer the org and Brands) all around.
Brands want to connect with these women bloggers because they have influence and an audience. Just like a TV show, magazine in the newsstand or a golf player walking the back nine at Augusta. Unlike TV or celebrity endorsements, BlogHer09 is a forum to do just that AND listen to their opinions and have a discussion in realtime. Brands want to “share space” with these bloggers as they share their observations, opinions and ideas. Like any good marketer some want to sell product, some want to get noticed and some are taking steps into the Social pool.
J&J is a perfect example. They had a guy sitting in the PatientBloggers discussion who was GREAT. He wasnt shilling (selling anything), he didnt try to control the conversation or play the chest-thumping “I am J&J” game. He listened. He hung out. He added where he thought he could and HE THANKED THEM for sharing their stories. Holy crap. A company thanking anyone for anything other than “thanks for buyin my stuff”.
And that was a big deal for me. Watching Brands interact with the attendees. Watching attendees eyes light up when they met Bev from P&G or George the Crocs guy. Brands weren’t selling to them, but sitting with them at sessions and during breaks and at BOF tables at lunch. Attendees were getting to speak with the PEOPLE behind the products they buy and talk about. Interacting, learning together, asking questions, paying it forward. Some brands didn’t represent in the way or the frequency I would have liked (sending a blogger is AWESOME but I would have like to see their people, not just their agency folk) but others did. Brands were getting to show BlogHer attendees a human face and voice.
And it was GREAT to see agencies representing the right way at the sessions. Asking Bloggers about what they wanted from Agency interactions, how they wanted to be pitched (OR NOT), about how they felt about sponsored conversations, blog advertising etc.
First off, I had a great time. But there were legitimate complaints from others. Complaints about Brand overload, about the over-emphasis on SWAG (Stuff We All Get), complaints about the quality of some of the panelists, a dummy trying to intimidate George from Crocs for a free pair of shoes (wtf?) all with this the FTC-Blogger-Advertising-Transparency debate running in the background. When I go to a conference I firmly believe that I get out of it what I put into it. If I hang back and don’t interact and complain incessantly, its my fault. If I engage and try to have the best possible experience I have EVERY right to point out things that piss me off because ITS MY CONFERENCE.
Brand Overload –
Yup, they were there, all over, at every party, session, room, lunch table, on the conference program, signage, in SWAG bags, etc. Either sponsoring a room or a party or a lunch or the drinks, whatever. BlogHer is a FUBU (for us by us) environment that has a deep connection to Brands. Every conference has sponsors and people footing the bill – because SOMEONE HAS TO PAY. But it seems to be, the difference here is that BlogHer, like Gnomedex, seems to do a great job of separating the pay from the play. Brands are there, they support the conference experience (keeping prices low, providing services like break rooms and drinks, etc.), and they bring their own experiences to the table (like the GM guys in the exhibition hall or the Hershey’s party) – its all part of the show. Brands are paying for ACCESS to the Attendees. Attendees pay for Access to the Brands and other Attendees. Access is a currency.
Is it bad? I haven’t been to previous BlogHer conferences so I don’t have context for that, but I don’t think the Brand integration at BlogHer09 was any worse than any other conference I have attended (and paid a LOT more for a lot less value). I didnt see Brands have any say over the editorial. Brands (and their agencies) are a fact at most conferences and it is up to the community of attendees and organizers to decide what level of Brand influence is allowed. “Too Many Brands!” is a valid complaint for some, but not for me.
There was NO SWAG FOR ME. I have to be honest, there was a TON of swag. Now at most conferences I go to, the SWAG includes tshirts or trinkets, pads and pens, etc. Sometimes there are giveaways for X-Boxes at parties and stuff. But BlogHer is different (are you seeing the trend here people?). At BlogHer swag was EVERYWHERE. Every party, all of the Brands in the Exhibition hall, pretty much everywhere. 2 or 3 times I was asked if I wanted to keep my swag bag (because there was nothin in there for me – but my Nephew scored the Spiderman book from leappad). George from Crocs was basically threatened with blogwarfare if he didnt get someone a pair of Crocs. There was a Swag bag stolen at some point. All that being said, I have no idea what BlogHers of the past were like but I have to assume based on some of the blog posts I have read regarding the SwagInsanity this year was over the top. Were people crazy for it? Yup.
Should it stop? Nope. Why? Because thats what the attendees (for the most part) wanted at the time. Free is powerful, value is in the eye of the beholder and people like stuff. Not everyone likes Pepsi and not everyone likes sessions about Twitter and not everyone likes blogging and not everyone likes Swag and not everyone likes the way a conference changes and and and… Brands want to give away stuff – they make TONS of Swag every year and events like BlogHer are a way of getting something with their brand in front of the public to take with them. BlogHer is trying to provide the best possible experience to the community and I think if a sponsor or Brand offers a giveaway they would be kinda nuts to turn it down. Now if the community gets together and says “hey Brands, save the Swag this year and feed 1000 kids in the third world” that would be interesting.
I hate multi-track conferences (after being spoiled by Gnomedex-goodness). I hate them because I always feel like I am missing something and then I meet folks who were in another session and they rave about how great it was and I get session-envy (and hope someone recorded the session). BlogHer had multiple sessions running in parallel and more than a few times I had to choose between one and another. Some were great, and one or two invoked the “law of two feet” where I decided the session didnt interest me that much and split. 3 of the standout sessions include the PatientBlogging, Advanced Social Media, Syndication and Stats, and Sponsored vs Unsponsored with Anne-Marie Nichols of This Mama Cooks! Reviews and Lucretia Pruitt of GeekMommy.
Now StephanieBamBam wrote this piece about the panels and speakers at BlogHer09 and I think it raised some great points (and I doubt she is the only one). She points out that there are some amazing women in tech who werent speaking, how great the geeklabs were and how there needed to be more experts in the panels who were actually experts (she has a real issue with some of the content). Considering the current conversations on twitter and the blogs over the lack of women speakers at other events, this is a growing, important subject.
A couple of years ago I spent months talking up Gnomedex and how great an event it was, and how it was my favorite conference (and one I ALWAYS pay my own money to go to). I love the party Chris and Ponzi throw every year and I love catching up with my friends in realtime in one of my favorite cities in the world (Seattle). Unfortunately, that year, after convincing a client and other guys from the ad agency I worked at to attend the show was less than spectacular. The curatorship over content from previous years had seemed to slipped and there were MORE than a few duds – and in a single track conference I travelled across the country for, thats not a good thing. Actually the conference was a disappointment compared to years past and a number of people wrote passionately about how and where it didnt work that year (including me).
And thats the thing. Chris and Ponzi listened. Last year Gnomedex was easily the best of the 4 years I had attended. Great speakers, parties, and discussions. They took the community’s feedback with an open heart, pulled up their sleeves and got past it.
So how does this impact BlogHer? No conference is perfect for everyone, but there is no doubt that the BlogHer team did a kickass job across the board.
Brand overload? Perhaps.
Too much Swag? Maybe.
More focus on experts in the panels? Sure.
I am not a conference organizer, but they put on a great show, and have serious feedback for making next year better. The Swag issue is something the community needs to discuss and get past on their own. I think the Brands are kinda responsible for a number of people getting to go at all (either as guest-bloggers or as waitlist folks). Experts in panels is something that all shows have an issue with. I understand that BlogHer has a policy of refreshing the speakers list every year and sometimes people can’t make it or have to cancel – its a tough business.
Are they listening? The founders of BlogHer seem to have already started. Jory and Elisa have started commenting on their feelings of how it went and where it needs to gohere (Jory) and here (Elisa).
I plan on going next year and adding it to Gnomedex as a show I plan on going to every year (its that good).
And in the spirit of Brand overload, Scott tissue or Kleenex or someone should sponsor tissue boxes on all the tables for the BlogHer10 Community Keynote (see description above).