March 9, 2012

A Survival Guide for SMX (Search Marketing Expo)

One of the Conference Halls
Why write a survival guide for SMX?
This a guide for fellow SEO Professionals who have never attended an SMX - Search Marketing Expo.  Below is a list that I have put together to help  provide a better experience.  These are the things I wish I knew before I attended the Conference. SMX isn't cheap so the more you know before hand, the better prepared you will be.  Some of my tips are just common sense but hopefully provides amusement.  The big question you probably have is one that I had before clicking on the registration button and that is, 'is it worth the money?' the best answer to that question is ask you another question, 'Can you afford not to go?'

Brief SEO Background 
I started in the SEO business around seven years ago but started in PPC over 10 years ago.  I fell in love with SEO because it gave so much value to our client's websites.  For the last 4 years my small web design business which started in the living room of my previous home has grown from just me to 15 full time employees and yes we have an office now. In fact, two offices. The reason we have grown is because I believe we provided that additional service that most web designers don't want to worry about.  After all time is gold, if the client doesn't ask for it, why provide it? In the last four years, my awesome team and I have integrated SEO strategies into our web development process to help our client's websites rank. In true form, within a month of any redevelopment launch (old domains) these websites would be on the first page of their keywords.  We have done this over and over again and we have built a solid reputation or providing value for our clients money over the past 4 years.  So much so that in late 2011 I knew I would have the budget to go to an SMX event, which costs around US$ 2,000 for an early bird registration (including a training session).  As a small business owner, I was hesitant at first, I mean, its not like money grew on trees and the sad state of the economy wasn't helping any.  But in my mind, it felt like affirmation.  If you can afford to go to an SMX event: cost of conference + ticket + accommodation + pocket money = over US$ 5,000, then it must mean you are doing something right.

Survival Guide before SMX
1.  Definitely get the early bird price of the event, which is around US$ 700 less than the actual price.  I booked my conference tickets way back in December - at least two months in advance.  This price included the workshop.

2.  Book the hotel that is suggested by the Event Committee. In this case, it was the Marriot in San Jose.  Being the Scrooge that I was I didn't want to spend over US$ 150 per night so I looked for a more inexpensive hotel and figured I could do with the walk.  I ended up taking the taxi, of course. You are too tired to walk and being in the hotel next to the conference will actually let you meet other SMXers during the event as you would probably run into someone familiar during breakfast/dinner or out in the lobby.  Because I stayed in a hotel that was filled with hockey fans (There was a hockey game at the HP Pavillion, San Jose on the same week), I made a few hockey-fan friends... I totally missed the boat.  Point is this:  You have already paid for the event, don't go cheap on accommodations and stay in the hotel where they recommend!  I am planning on attending an SES event towards the end of the year and will definitely plan on staying at their recommended hotel.

3. Know the temperature of the city.  I come from the Cayman Islands where 80F is already cold for me.  I don't own thermals or coats or have boots so thank goodness I have an amazing sister and friends who lent me the clothes.  During the entire week I was wearing four (4) layers of clothing.  I felt heavy and slow but at least I was warm.  There was a girl in the conference who didnt bring a jacket and she had to buy one from the hotel boutique store.  She bought it for US$ 29 and the same jacket was retailing at the airport for US$ 11.99. If the Cayman Islands ever hosts an SMX, I strongly suggest you bring bathing suits ;-)

4.  If you are not from the US then I suggest you bring a big luggage so you can go shopping in Costco. This has nothing to do with SMX but is just an FYI. I'm not certain if anyone outside the US attends an SMX event but just in case, bring a big luggage!  In the Cayman Islands a medium sized tube of Sensodyne costs US$ 10, In Costco it costs around US$ 19 for four large tubes of Sensodyne.  Wow!  I think I bought enough to last me an entire year.

5. Use to check out the City.  Being the explorer that I am, I wanted to check out San Jose whenever I could.  It was my first time to go and I found Yelp very helpful.  Download Yelp on your iPhone before going, make sure you know what the zip code is.  There is another app I found helpful, Around Me (This link will take you to the iPhone App store)

Survival Guide during the Workshop and SMX 
With Bruce Clay
1.  Attend the Bruce Clay Workshop. If you are like me and you did your entire research online, one of your early heroes would be Bruce Clay, the man.  Even if you think you already know everything, like I did, its so inspiring to just be in the same room with him and his, "Raise your hand if you think Google is in the business of making money" questions.  The training session alone costs US$ 800 and it was the one thing which I thought of dropping to save money.  In the end my business partner convinced me to attend.  Was it worth it?  Yes.  If I was in University I think that he would have been one of my favorite professors.  He is very strict and he had a reason for everything.  During our lunch break he let us out five minutes early because he wanted us to be first in line to eat. How thoughtful is that? ;-) He also introduced a lot of new concepts to us that are not normally found online.  Concepts, that we are attempting to try with the new projects we currently have.  Thanks Bruce Clay, you are still the man and you were right, I did have a massive headache at the end of the day.

2. Decide on your Sessions before going to the Conference.  Which I did and indadvertedly left my notes at the hotel, which was a 3 miles away. [sigh]  There are four Sessions going on simultaneously during the conference days and each and everyone of them is interesting to a serious SEO.  During the conference there is so much excitement in the air that you forget why you chose what topic. During this particular morning, I had planned on going to "Solving Problems & Seeing Success in Google Places" but instead went into "Don't Panic, A Hitchhiker's Guide to Surviving SEO Changes" - and you can see how I would get confused.  Anyway, it was an interesting Session nevertheless, even if it wasn't in the plan. 

With Danny Sullivan 
3. Danny Sullivan hums while trying to pick out questions.  Ok thats not so much a guide but a side note.  Its amusing to me because I only "know" Danny through  articles and because I follow him on FB and Twitter.  To see him, in live and in person and seeing him having fun while moderating a session is, well, fun. He also has an endless supply of sensible questions and answers and what i respect most about him is he is not afraid to say, 'I don't know' - which is pretty cool.   He is one of the Search Engine Rockstars of our time and for him to say he doesn't know says a lot about his character.

4. Bring a laptop or smartphone or iPad so you can ask live questions during the seminar.  I love the way technology has revolutionized Q&A and instead of standing out and speaking, you can easily tweet your question to the panelists.

With Shari Thuow
5. Do background research on your Speakers.   You would have to be pretty darn special to be a speaker at the conference but not all the speakers have a focus on your area of specialty.  We at are a web design company and our core focus is developing Search Engine and User Friendly websites -  I wish I had done my research before hand and perhaps I would have attended SEF Web design instead of the hitchhikers guide session (by accident).  Anyway, its a good thing SMX provides all the presentations of the speakers so I can at least see the presentations I missed.  Had I known Shari Thurow before the convention, I would've attended all her talks.  She is an awesome speaker and her focus is what our company does so definitely a right fit for me.  She has already suggested that I take the certification exam and its now on my list of things to do.

6. Ask Questions during the Sessions.  I come from a small, very small island in the middle of the Caribbean and in this place, everyone knows everyone.  At the conference, you will be in the company of other people who don't know you.  Its going to be very hard to stand out and have anyone remember you, especially when you have such an odd name. Ehem.  What I should have done before going to the conference was write all the questions I had about Web Usability, SEO, IM or SMM.  In that way I could've asked the questions during one of the sessions.  Its hard to ask impromptu questions because when you are at the conference, you are busy thinking of being in the conference and you sorta forget some of the issues you encounter when working on a project.  So, write all your questions down, make sure they are sensible questions and ask them when you are at SMX.  This is probably the best advice I can give to survive and conquer SMX.

7. Don't be shy now.  A lot of tech people are shy.  Or at least I am. In fact, there are some instances where I prefer the company of my mac than other people.  Well, you just spent over US$ 5,000 to go to this convention and for you not to make any contacts would be plain silly.  In fact this is one instance where smoking is good for you if you aren't sociable to begin with.  I'm sure I'm going to get flack for saying that but its true, at least for me.  We, smokers, all tend to huddle outside and talk to each other.  In that social place, the social walls aren't as high and when someone asks if you have a light, thats already a conversation starting point.  Now I am not saying go and start smoking...  that would be irresponsible.  All I am saying is try to find things in common with other people, a conversation starting point that can open doors for others to share their opinion. But at the same time, don't stress about it and don't let your shyness be an obstacle for you to go to an SMX.  Even if you don't make friends, you will learn a whole lot more than researching online.

8. Arrive early and sit in front of the Stage area.  During the first day of SMX I would sit in the back and just prop up my laptop on my, well, lap.  (Wondered why they called it a laptop?) I figured they didn't have tables.  Towards the end of the day I noticed they had tables but only at the front of the stage.  Hah.  It is more comfortable to have your laptop in front of you than on your lap even if it is called a laptop.

I'm sure I will think of quite a few more survival tips for the SMX but in the mean time I have a meeting to prepare for.  Thanks for reading.  If you have any questions or clarifications, feel free to drop me a line @easycayman on Twitter.

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