Remember the Deanna Carter song from a few years back, “Did I Shave My Legs for This?”

There were a few points during this week’s ad:tech Chicago conference when I was thinking “Did I brave air travel for this?”

Overall, I was somewhat disappointed with ad:tech Chicago, billed as “The Event for Digital Marketing!” (Be sure to remember that exclamation point, guys!  Good copy needs more exclamation points!)

To be fair, thanks to issues with the afforementioned air travel, I missed most of the first day, arriving just in time to catch Clay Shirky’s keynote “Here Comes Every Customer:  The Former Audience is Talking Around You.“  Which was, for me, pretty much the highlight of the conference.   I’ve been a fan of Shirky’s since I caught his Web2.0 speech, which I wrote about in a post here considering whether or not social media is a waste of time.  You won’t be shocked to hear that I think it’s not–but if you’re currently doing social media marketing work, then ad:tech may be.

When I found out Shirky was keynoting, and that the second day had several social media sessions, I was pretty excited about going.  Being relatively new to agency life (I spent most of my earlier career working in marketing on the client side, as the in-house marketing person), I was stoked about going to my first ever Big Event.

And to be sure, there were some great things about the conference.  I’d never been to Chicago, much less Navy Pier where the event was held, and I found both to be quite awesome.

I met some folks who were every bit as excited about marketing on the web as I am, and that’s was great.  I discovered that apparently, all geeks, whether ad geeks or social media geeks, love playing plastic guitars on video games.

Someone from Tribal Fusion connected me with a company in the exhibitor hall called House Party, and they’re doing some very cool things with brand evangelism.

The panelists in the sessions I attended (Power Panel: Widgets and Applications – The New Media Network, The Consumer Experience in a Multi-Platform World, Part II, The Long Tail of Social Media: Analyzing the Value Proposition for Publishers and Advertisers, and Viral Branding: Creating Brand Ambassadors) did have some interesting case studies with some impressive numbers.  And if you were a marketing director looking for some ammunition to convince your stakeholders to embrace social media, it probably would have been valuable information.

But if you are currently working in social media, following the blogs and microblogs of the thought leadership in the field, and were looking for something groundbreaking or new, you were probably sorely disappointed.

The irony of ad:tech is that almost all the sessions on social proved that actual participation in social media is a far better way to learn about it than attending a conference or event. I think that may have been the crux of the problem.  They were talking to an audience that effectively doesn’t exist:  marketers who want to understand and “leverage” social media but don’t want to use it themselves.

Or maybe that audience exists, but since they’re not participating in the social web, their quiet appreciation of the material covered was effectively invisible to those actually using it.  Come to think of it, that seems far more likely.

As I said to some colleagues at the end of the conference, it’s as if there are two groups in digital advertising: the traditional advertising folks who have finally moved through all five stages of grief and accepted that the internet isn’t going away, but still want to do things as if they’re in a static, one-way medium; and the people who embraced the interactive aspect of interactive marketing immediately and are now saying “Guys, can we please move on?”

In his keynote, Shirky said that in regards to the social web, it’s no longer a matter of who gets it and who doesn’t get it, but rather what elements of social media are a fit for which companies, communications purposes, and contexts.  I would respectfully disagree.  I think there are still an awful lot of holdouts, particularly in the advertising industry, who don’t get social media.  Because I don’t think it’s possible to get it if you don’t participate in it yourself.  It’s an intrinsically personal medium, and I don’t think you can understand it sans personal experience. Shirky was speaking at the institutional level, and I’m speaking at the level of individuals who are working in marketing and advertising, but ultimately action is taken or not taken at the individual level.

In the session on Widgets and Applications, towards the beginning one of the panelists said “if by the end of this session you know what a widget is, what an application is, and what the difference is between them, you know more than the majority of people.”

The unspoken follow up to that statement is, if you walked in here knowing that already, don’t expect to get much out of this session.  And if you didn’t know it when you walked in, it’s pretty likely you’re still going to walk away still not actually understanding what the appeal of widgets and applications are.

At one point during the “Long Tail of Social Media” panel, someone leaned over to me and said “is it just me, or are they not talking at all about the long tail?  They keep talking around the subject.”

I could basically sum up that whole session in one sentence.  “Don’t just focus on blogs with massive traffic, find the ones that have a highly engaged, if smaller, audience that has high relevance and contextual fit for your brand and message.” If I can sum up an hour long panel in one sentence, I have to ask myself how valuable that hour was.

Okay, that’s the bad.  But I’m nothing if not resourceful in trying to extract as much value as possible out of any experience.  And there was some good stuff, mostly in the keynotes I attended. And since the breakout sessions were extremely repetitive, and mostly echoed the best stuff from the keynotes, it makes summing up the big takeaways of the conference fairly simple.  So here goes.  The top 5 takeaway messages, as I saw it:

1.  Engaging the social web is no longer optional, because so far, the companies that have been most badly burned by have been the ones who tried to pretend they can ignore it. The Scrabulous debacle is the most well-known example, but there are several.  It’s now just simply too easy for massive numbers of pissed off customers to organize and make themselves heard.  Playing possum will cost you more than engaging them.

2. You have to keep up with the speed of the social web, and stop bullshitting that you don’t have the resources to do it. When it comes to dealing with problems, speed of response is critical in determining how big the issue gets.  How much do you think “Dell Hell” cost the Dell brand?  Compare that with the cost to have Direct2Dell on Twitter.  Or ComcastCares.   Can you keep up with every conversation? No.  Does that mean you’re off the hook from participating in any of them, or at least finding one outlet that works and letting the word spread organically that this is your direct point of conversation?  Hell no.

3. The emphasis in marketing on the web has shifted from trying to force everyone to come to your content, to deploying your content where the audience is. In the lunch forum presented by Avenue A | Razorfish on Social Influence Marketing, Shiv Singh said “The social web is becoming the mainstream web.”  Users are going to the web to connect with people more than “to find cool stuff”–and increasingly, even those looking for “cool stuff” are depending on their online friends to find it for them.

4. Although we’ve reached the point where the cost of ignoring social is greater than the cost of engaging it, social isn’t going to replace other forms of marketing, any more than digital media replaced traditional. All three have an aggregate effect, enhancing the others to make them more effective.  The net effect of consumers using the social web to get more organized and activated, as well as many brands taking the lead and pushing into the space, is that brands will have to have to invest in all three to remain competitive.  To borrow a sports metaphor, if every team starts using performance enhancing drugs, natural performance is going to be unable to compete.

5. Marketing and PR cannot cover over quality issues, and listening is half of participating in the social web.  Maybe the more important half, and definitely the starting place.  Ultimately, if you have a product or service quality issue, social media has leveled the playing field enough that there isn’t a media buy big enough to drown out the voices of your unhappy consumers.  And ultimately, that’s a good thing, because for the first time, companies can eavesdrop on the honest, unvarnished, sometimes unhappy, opinions of their brand and make the changes they need to make.

Okay, I think I can hear a big fat “Duh” from most of the folks reading this blog.   And that’s my final, bonus #6 takeaway: if you really want to know what’s going on in social media marketing, truthfully, you can find it faster in your RSS reader. If you’re depending on an annual conference to get caught up to date on what’s going on in the space, don’t bother.  If you’re not participating, you’re not going to get it by listening to those who are.

But on the other hand, RSS readers rarely offer an open bar or a red carpet.

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About Kat French

Kat French

Kat French is the Digital Operations Manager at CafePress. An exceptional writer both on the web and in other genres, Kat combines creativity with an agile, get-it-done attitude across a broad range of experience in community management, SEO/PPC, social media strategy and program management. She has worked with national brands like Maker's Mark, Daytona Beach Tourism, Optima Batteries and more.

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Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • http://www.digitalcapitalism.com Kipp Bodnar

    Seesmic video reply from Disqus.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Seesmic video reply from Disqus.

  • http://blog.techrigy.com MartinEdic

    You know I went to Ad:Tech SF a few years ago and had the same experience. I was doing SEM and had a meeting scheduled with a Google 'expert' who was clearly thrown off to be dealing with someone who actually knew how to manage an Adwords account. He'd been talking to people for two days who barely understood what it was.
    My personal take is that the advertising agency business is in serious trouble. Social media where its all moving to but they can't figure out how to bill for it!

  • http://blog.techrigy.com MartinEdic

    Enjoyed SF though!

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  • KatFrench

    Kipp – I'm going to give up on the video reply for a bit just to be sure I respond to you today. Yes, you have a point that conferences can provide opportunities to evangelize and educate people on social media–but at a conference that is billed as primarily a training for those in the industry, it's a little disappointing when YOU don't get the opportunity to learn anything new.

    Regarding your comment that “Social media is a way of life,” reminded me of a post I read on http://www.social-media-optimization.com about the differences between your generation, Gen Y, and mine, Gen X. For Generation Y, social media is fully integrated in your way of life–you can't separate it out. For Generation X, it's a set of tools. But either way, tools or lifestyle, you learn through application and personal experience.

    MartinEdic – That's the consensus I keep getting — enjoyable, but not that informative.

  • http://blog.clearcastdigitalmedia.com Matthew Chamberlin

    Holy crap, what a great post!

    I went to ad:tech Miami recently which was billed, predictably, as focused on the Latin market. Same story, different ad:tech.

    Luckily, I had won tickets to go. Had I paid full freight, I would have been screaming bloody murder. I'm not sure if they were even preaching to the choir. Half the people didn't even know what church they were in.

    Your takeaway #3 is spot on. I JUST got through trying to explain this point to a client.

    I could go on for 10 pages echoing everything you just said, but you already said it beautifully.

    • KatFrench

      Matthew –

      Thanks for the feedback, and sorry to hear that you had a bad experience at ad:tech Miami.

      I think #3 is a particularly hard pill for a lot of agency folks to swallow. Getting a corporate website from conception to go-live is SUCH an exhausting process; I think it's disheartening to hear that now, building a great website just isn't enough. Disheartening, maybe, but true.

  • http://www.internet-bard.com KatFrench

    Matthew –

    Thanks for the feedback, and sorry to hear that you had a bad experience at ad:tech Miami.

    I think #3 is a particularly hard pill for a lot of agency folks to swallow. Getting a corporate website from conception to go-live is SUCH an exhausting process; I think it's disheartening to hear that now, building a great website just isn't enough. Disheartening, maybe, but true.

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