Seth Godin Asks, Would They Miss You If You Were Gone?

The PCMA Convening Leaders featured speaker and marketing guru would like organizers to think about that question in terms of their events.

Author: Michelle Russell       

Seth Godin has inspired and informed entrepreneurs, marketers, and business leaders via his blog, online courses he teaches, speaking engagements, bestselling books including Purple Cow, and stand-alone events that he organizes. His latest book, This Is Marketing: You Can’t Be Seen Until You Learn to See, crystalizes the marketing wisdom he has accumulated over the past 25 years to a few central ideas that speak directly to event organizers: Great marketers don’t just make noise; they make the world a better place. Real marketing isn’t measured in clicks and tweets — it’s about connection, empathy, being of service, and making a difference.

Godin finds those things wanting in many conferences, which are “very strange artifacts of days gone past that have not really changed dramatically,” he told Convene. And that’s a shame, he said, because organizers are “taking this extraordinarily precious set of assets” — including people’s time and money and their “prime unsquandered attention — and they’re wasting them.”

How not to squander those assets? Godin said he’d like to challenge people in the events industry to get really comfortable with the questions of “What’s it for?” and “Who’s it for?” If the purpose of your event is truly to create change, which is what Godin said “marketers do, we make change happen,” then meeting planners “need to use this moment to create tension, to use status roles, to get under people’s skin, and to create experiences that people will remember.”

Convene asked Godin just how he’d go about doing that.

In terms of marketing an event to get people interested in coming, how do you create tension?

So the reason that conferences work at all today is because of the fear of being left out. The tension of not going is much greater than the hassle of going. That what you’re actually selling when you’re offering people a chance to come to a convention or a conference, is people are going to be there. They’re going to probably be talking about you behind your back, and if you’re not here you’re going to miss that.

Seth Godin

Seth Godin says organizers should consider themselves marketers, because the purpose of a conference should be to create change and make a difference, and that’s what marketers do. (Brian Bloom photo)

So the tension of this … is fundamentally different than the promise of “Look at all these speakers we have,” or “Look at how nice this venue is.” These are fine promises to make but they don’t create any fear of missing out.

When we [think of] conferences that truly change the game, an iconic one [that comes to mind] is the Allen & Company [Sun Valley] Conference in Idaho every year. What we can see from the photos that they’re happy to circulate is that the people we seek to be sitting at the table with, they were all there. So what can I do to get myself invited next time? And that’s a really different perspective than the check-the-boxes, RFP-focused, did-I-meet-spec mindset that is often enforced on these conference organizers.

You touched a bit there on the notion of status and you say in This Is Marketing that every big decision is made based on a perception of status. What role might status play in attending a conference? Certainly there’s status associated with being accepted to attend TED, but how about events that don’t necessarily traffic in “ideas worth spreading?” Is the status in attending conference more about affiliation or dominion?

These are great questions. Status doesn’t just mean who has the fanciest car. Status is about who gets to eat lunch first. Status is where anyone is in the pecking order in whatever pecking order you can describe. So when I think about a conference, there are so many opportunities for this, from “What does it say on my badge?” to “Where do I sit at the gala?” to “Whose name is getting mentioned?” to “How are people grouping up?” When you see what happens during the break, a few insiders find each other and they’re talking, talking, talking. And the outsiders, feeling their low status, hang around on the edges. Right? That’s a reinforcement of the status role.

And what we see is there’s a huge need for affiliation, a huge need for people like me to do things like this, that I’m dressed properly and that I’m accepted. But there’s also, particularly in organizations where there’s a nonprofit volunteer chair, etc., this idea of dominion. Who gets to call the shots? Who’s in charge of this and who’s in charge of that?

One thing that bothers me all the time is why are meals served at round tables for 10? Round tables for 10 make the caterer happy because you can serve more people faster that way. But it creates no tension on the part of the people sitting round the table because it’s so noisy and people are so far away. You’re not actually expected to talk to anyone — maybe the person on your left or the person on your right. Except when you talk to the person on your left, you feel badly because you’re ignoring the person on your right. Right?

And also that table has no one at the head, and so none of the social dynamics we live the rest of our lives with are used to cause anything important to happen at that meal. All you’ve done is fed people mediocre food. And if the conference organizer is clear about who’s it for and what’s it for, you can use that money and you can use that time to create interactions that might last for years.

I still remember sitting on the floor of the Javits Center with two people at the American Booksellers Association in 1989. On the floor, right? But that moment worked because for the first time in my career in the book industry I felt affiliated, because I was talking to people as peers who I didn’t see as my peers before I showed up that day. And that is the micro work of running a conference.

As someone who’s given more than 1,000 speeches at conferences — and I’m very grateful for the chance to do it — if I show up and the room is in a convention center and they’ve put those long 8-foot tables that are only 2 feet wide and rows of chairs behind each one, I know it’s not going to be a good talk. And that’s not my fault. It’s not going to be a good talk because the room is half filled with wood, and there’s no sense of energy or intimacy or possibility. Everyone is in a protective bubble and they can sit back, arms folded, and check their email [while I’m] up on the stage.

Well, if I’m going to fly all the way to Orlando, let’s make something happen. We don’t need to go to Orlando to watch a speech anymore because we can watch a speech from our desk. If we’re going to go to Orlando there’d better be a good reason.

How would you change that environment?

Well one of the things that typical conferences try to avoid is creating tension within the event among attendees because it’s scary to do so. But if you’re going to make change happen, there must be tension. Always. [Going back to] the tension of what will happen if I don’t come. Well, using the fact that everyone is connected to the organizer before the event starts, it would be really easy for me to create 50 tables of six, each with a special interest theme that people signed up for in advance.

So now I know at Table Marmots or the Groundhog Table — name them after weird animals — six of us are going to talk about something specific that we were assigned to know we were going to talk about before we even came. And so what’s going to happen during that hour is not small talk, but big talk. And it doesn’t matter what we’re eating. Put it in a box. You don’t have to have waiters bring me chicken. I don’t eat that way at home, right?

But now, six of us are going to form a connection. Then we have another lunch tomorrow with the same six people. And so now, familiarity is built. Now I’m bringing my A game because I don’t want to let these five people down because I know I’m going to see them again. And that bond that the convention organizer made is why I have to come back next year.

Or when it comes to giving a talk, one thing I’ve been doing lately is I bring a foam box … with a lavalier microphone that I can throw across the room. And when someone catches it, they have the microphone in their hand. It’s called the Catchbox.

I don’t bring a presentation. I just talk to the audience for an hour and a half. And the magic of this format is it’s more like watching the ninth inning of a baseball game because you don’t know what’s going to happen next. And you can’t sit back because the box might land on you. So people are thinking really deeply about the questions, and the answers. And it feels completely different than what happens in a meeting when someone says, “Let’s everyone go around the room and in one minute say who you are and what you do.”

Because that pushes people apart whereas you can create environments that pull people together and make a change happen in real time. And to the organizer, that’s frightening because it means you are responsible. It’s not the standard. And so part of the problem we’ve got, the challenge we have is that organizers have been pushed by their organizations to be really conservative and really careful because these are expensive events. But the outcome is not only are they expensive in terms of time and money, but they’re becoming more and more banal compared to the opportunity that’s on the table.

Going back to status, I might have said before reading your book that events are mostly about affiliation. But then dominion really does come into play when you think about scientific and medical conferences where presenters share research or otherwise exert their influence or expertise.

Exactly. Exactly. And it’s something as simple as who are we going to accept questions from. That’s a chance for the organizer to dispense status. Because if the organizer gets to pick in advance who’s going to get to ask the questions, who’s going to be on the questioning panel, you’ve conferred status in those given dominions to somebody who didn’t used to have it.

Another idea you talk about in This Is Marketing is the peer-to-peer movement or the network effect. How would that work for marketing events?

One of the challenges in the old days of marketing events is that the potential attendees were isolated from one another. And what’s happening gradually with hashtags and things like this, they can find each other. And when we think about the conference more like we would think about a kick-starter, we realize that we have the chance to say to people long before the conference starts, “You could be one of the ringleaders who is engaging with other people who are thinking of going.” Because the phrase “I’ll go if you’ll go” didn’t just end in high school. It’s real. Right?

And so it’s easy to fear “I’ll go if you’ll go” because the organizer says to him or herself, “Well, what if people say, ‘I’m not going’?” Then the whole thing could end up nowhere. But this gets to my argument [in the book] about the smallest viable audience. That if you could make your conference sing and dance with just a hundred people, then instead of saying “How do I get a million people?” obsess about the core 100. It’s easy to point to TED as a success story, but I went to TED when there were only 300 people there because the room only sat 300 people. And so part of what [founder] Richard [Saul Wurman] did that was brilliant was he booked a venue that was too small. And if you begin with a venue that’s too small and you fill it up, suddenly you’ve created status roles. Suddenly you’ve created tension: “I’m going. You didn’t get in? You should go faster next time.”

And so now there’s an incentive for the network effect to kick in because people who got left out don’t want to get left out next time. And now you can move to bigger venues because you’ve built that core energy.

The smallest viable audience flies in the face of how the industry measures success, which is a bigger turnout. What would you say to that?

The single best way to get there is to begin with the smallest viable audience. TED has a plenty big audience now, but they only have it because they started really small. But the second thing is, let’s get back to the heart of what is this thing even for. And if you can figure out a way to get tens of thousands of people to come to a mediocre conference because it’s going to help your company market, I don’t think it’s going to help your company market.

I just think it’s a lot of people came for a not very good conference. They’re not more likely to buy your product because you’ve exposed them to a not very good conference. The conferences that people pay a lot of time and money and attention to, aren’t the big ones. They’re the ones that matter. So if you can build one that matters it can fuel all the other objectives of your organization.

I’ve run many events on my own. I do them with a staff of one or two and just volunteers. I rent a theater. I sell 300 or 400 tickets. I run the whole thing all day. And people come to me three years later, seven years later, and say, “When are we going to do that thing again?” And that’s the opportunity, you can get big, sure, but don’t compromise anything on your way to getting big. Why bother?

Most associations consider their members to be their “tribe” and that it’s their job to educate them. Yet in your book you say that your tribe doesn’t belong to you. Can you provide an example of what you mean by that?

Volunteer firefighters have associations. They have events. They have conferences. They have training [sessions]. But if any one of them went away, there would still be volunteer firefighters. The volunteer firefighters are a tribe regardless of which association is doing what.

So if you are going to show up to lead them, to instruct them, to teach them, to connect them, you have to realize they’re not yours. They are their own thing. And you are welcome as long as you are bringing value to them to be a narrator, to be a connector.

And so when we think about associations in the pre-internet era, they used to have a huge role, which was the only way people could find each other was through the association. And so if that’s not true anymore what are you going to do to make up for that? And I think what you can do is be the organization that delivers status role. Be the organization that is the adjudicator of a certain kind of authentic information flow that would be hard to replace if you weren’t there.

But you can’t just announce that you’re in charge. Because when you do that people move on. Like the Consumer Electronics Show [CES] tried to tell the electronics industry that you could only launch new electronic stuff twice a year at [its event]. Well, the electronics industry said, “No. We can just put it on our website.” And that’s what happened. So CES isn’t as important as it used to be because stuff’s not launched there anymore. So they didn’t own the Consumer Electronics tribe, they were just a facilitator for them.

You wrote about free ideas that spread and expensive expressions of those ideas that are worth paying for. If we could substitute “expressions” for “experiences,” and use your model of listening to an artist for free on the radio and then buying an expensive ticket for their live performance, how would that translate to changing the model of associations?

We could turn this whole [conversation] into a book probably. But you’re touching on a really key point here. If you think about the book industry, they’ve been acting for the last 50 years like they’re in the business of cutting down trees, not in the business of educating people. Because if they’d realized that’s what they were, then they would have started Google because that’s what Google does, is it helps you find the information you’re looking for.

So Random House could have started Google, but they didn’t. And we think about the conference. Is the conference’s job to rent a convention center? Is that what it’s for? No. The renting of the convention center is a side effect of what it’s for. What it’s for is to connect and educate the people in a given segment of our community.

Well, we ought to be doing that all year round. And the magic is if you don’t try to defend the event, but instead try to defend the group, you’ll spend an enormous amount of time and effort connecting them. And if you do that — if there’s a year-round place where they are constantly exchanging information and learning and teaching and connecting — then when you have your annual event, more people will want to come, not fewer, because they want to go where the other people are.

One of your recurring messages, which I love, is that your ultimate contribution is that you would be missed if you were gone. What are the indicators to know that could be true?

Let’s start with a very specific trivial one. If you didn’t send that email tomorrow, the one sent to 10,000 people, how many of the 10,000 people would call you on the phone to complain and say, “Where is it?” And when I bring this up on stage, there’s always this embarrassed laughter because everyone knows that no one would complain. And if no one would complain then you don’t really have permission, then you really haven’t earned people’s attention. Because when the newspaper that you subscribe to doesn’t show up, you miss it. When the blog that you subscribe to doesn’t show up, you wonder what happened. If they didn’t give the Academy Awards out next year, a whole bunch of people would say, “What happened to the Academy Awards? Where’d they go?” So that’s the goal, to build things that people would miss if they were gone, that have become part of their work and their expectations so that they’re counting on it.

And so I would say most successful conferences have at least that place, that people who go regularly say, “Yeah, I would miss that if it wasn’t being held.” Okay, great. That’s a given. Now what are you going to layer on top of that? How many other pieces of what you do with and for those people could reach that level? Because that asset building is the job of the conference organizer.

Michelle Russell is Convene’s editor in chief.

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Convening Leaders 2019