Five (important) takeaways from the Agents of Change conference – Rich Brooks

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Five (important) takeaways from the Agents of Change conference - Rich Brooks

One of the most important things you can do after a big event, launch, or campaign, is to review it and figure out how you can do it even better the next time.

Welcome everyone to a new episode of The Agents of Change Podcast, the podcast that’s all about helping you reach more of your ideal customers through search, social, and mobile marketing. My name is Rich Brooks and I am your host for today. This is episode 315, an as always, powered by flyte new media.

Today’s guest is me. Yes, me, I’m going to be interviewing myself. Well not exactly interviewing myself, but this is one of those standalone episodes where I’m just going to kind of talk to you and share some ideas that I had as I look back on the 8th annual Agents of Change Digital Marketing Conference and pull out some lessons learned from that event.

Now every year for the Agents of Change I freak out. It had gotten better for a little while, but its back to the way it used to be. Waking up in the middle of the night in a complete panic, unable to fall back asleep, brain going a million miles an hour and just always constantly worrying. People tell me I need to calm down. My girlfriend tells me, “You do this to yourself every year, why don’t you just learn your lesson and know everything is going to work out great.” And my reaction to that is, “Maybe it works out great because I am freaking out right now. Maybe all this freaking out is what makes it good.” I have no idea, I don’t know another way to behave. That’s just who I am.

And of course every year, as soon as the event is over – or often right after my presentation – I’m so glad that we did it, I’m so glad that we put it on. I’m so glad that we brought together 300-400 people to share in this joy of digital marketing that I have and that most of the people who are attending have as well. So it’s just great to be able to pull all those people together and put on something that people really do remember and it really does impact their lives.

So as I look back on AOC and what I’ve learned from it this year, and what I’m going to try to put into effect – for not just AOC 2020, but in general for my marketing – I came up with five thoughts or ideas that I wanted to share with you guys.

The first one is, build buzz. You’ve got to build excitement for whatever you’re doing, whether it’s an event, a new website launch, a new product launch. But if you’re creating something, you kind of need to draw a little attention to it. And maybe this is why all of these baby gender reveals are going so viral on social media, is because people are making a big deal out of it and people are getting caught up in the excitement.

This year we didn’t do anything. On May 1st or a couple days before, we released tickets to our alumni audience – people who have been there in the past – and the tickets were so low I wondered actually if something had happened to the email. And the next couple emails were the same. It took us a lot of additional work this year building up excitement and interest, because I don’t think we did a good job before the first day of the sales. So next year if May 1st is the first day of sales, I’m going to be promoting this and getting people excited when they can’t buy it, when there isn’t a product available, probably for a month leading up to this.

And if there’s one session I wish I was able to go to but wasn’t, it was Dana Malstaff’s pre-conference workshop on building buzz for your next campaign. Unfortunately I was leading a group at that same time so I couldn’t be in there. But I think that would have been a great session for me to attend just to kind of get some ideas around how we can build buzz next year for this event.

Just think about whenever a new Marvel movie comes out, or any big movie. How long before the movie comes out do you see previews for this movie? Easily a month, sometimes longer. And if it’s a big enough movie, then there’s even things like teasers that come out like a year in advance just to start stoking the interest of fan boy’s and fan girl’s everywhere. And I think whatever our event is, maybe we need to treat it like Avengers: Endgame, and just put that level of excitement around it before anybody can actually have it, so there’s this anticipation that’s building up. And next year I’m definitely going to be building in anticipation to our marketing message.

The second lesson is that friction is the sale killer. You need to remove all elements of friction when it comes to your sales and marketing. Any sort of place where there’s conversion, you need to just kind of lubricate and get rid of that friction if at all possible.

Friction can be a lot of things. It can be confusion, it can be difficulty in finding a product or a service, it can be difficult in returns, difficult in using the product after you purchased it, difficulty in getting the proper approval to be able to buy something. Whatever it is, your job as the vendor/salesperson/marketer is to reduce that friction as much as you possibly can.

In our case, this year it was Eventbrite. The ticket program that we’ve been using every single year for the Agents of Change Conference, and I believe we used it the first 3 years for Social Media FTW, which was my conference before AOC. For years I’ve loved Eventbrite and I’ve talked about it and promoted it, and it still has a lot of great features. Its interface is really easy to use, the marketing tools it has is great, the ability to email people is fantastic, and the reporting tools. I have no complaints about any of those things.

But one of the issues that I have with Eventbrite is if you’re going to be showing tickets on your website, you have to show all the available tickets for sale. There doesn’t seem to be any way around it. It doesn’t seem like that big a deal, right? But here’s how it all came out. This year we had a number of people who reached out to us who couldn’t make the conference on Friday, but they wanted to go to the pre-conference workshops on Thursday. And so we added Thursday tickets so you could buy standalone Thursday tickets if that’s what you wanted to do. The problem is we couldn’t create a page that only sold those pre-conference workshop tickets, we had to have it on the same page where we sold everything.

So if you went to our registration page, there were tickets to the physical ticket, there were tickets to the virtual pass, there were tickets to the physical ticket plus one conference workshop, there was a ticket for the physical conference plus two confernece workshops, or you could buy just one preconference workshop, or you could buy two pre-conference workshops. So there were 6 different tickets that you could buy. And because it got so big, people would have to scroll to find those last two workshops that they wanted to register for. If we were able to create a page that had just those workshops on it, or just the virtual pass. I’m convinced we would have been able to sell more tickets.

Now some people might interpret this story that it’s not about friction, it’s about the paradox of choice, and I’m not going to disagree with that. The paradox of choice, if you don’t know, is that the more choices you give people, the less able they are to make a decision. And the example I always bring up is one of my favorite research marketing psychology stories, which is the story that takes place in a high end grocery out west. And basically they set up one of those food tasting areas in the supermarket like you see everywhere, and they put out 6 different flavors of jam. People saw the display and they came by and tried different jam, and of course you can grab some jam and buy it on your way out.

They did this for a few hours and then they switched it up, and after a few hours they put out 24 flavors of jam. Many more people came over and tasted the jams, but at the end of the day, they actually sold less jam when they had so many flavors out there. Because suddenly there’s three wrong flavors of jam. You don’t think there’s anything wrong with jam but when the choice is so big, the easy decision is to choose nothing at all.

So yes, I agree that perhaps having 6 ticket types on this page is a problem of the paradox of choice, but it’s also a problem of friction. It made it too difficult for people to buy these tickets. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, you just have to scroll down the page a little further, and then scroll down to this are, and then choose your tickets. But between the paradox of choice and the friction of not being able to make it easy to understand and easy to create a purchase page that’s specifically for one thing, it definitely hurt our ability to make more sales.

Lesson #3, don’t be too clever. This is something that I suffer from all the time. I basically think that being clever is the most amazing talent in the universe, I pretend it’s my super power. I always want to be the most clever person in the room. And you know what, all that does is just load a gun and shoot it directly into my foot.

Here’s what I mean. My good friend, Brooke Sellas – who also presented at this year’s event – told me what she wanted to speak on. Basically it was about how to be more human with your automation tools. And suddenly I had this image in my head of the ghost in the machine. Besides being the name of a Police album, I believed at the time was in reference to the soul in the human body. Turns out it’s a little more complex than that, but that’s not even the issue. In the agenda, I called her session, “Ghost in the Machine”. That is being way too clever. Nobody had any idea what it was. And when we sent out our pre-event survey for breakouts, Brooke’s session was the least popular of her time. People saw this clever title and it didn’t mean anything to them.

The day of the event, people started coming up to the registration desk and asking John Paglio – one of my digital marketers at flyte new media – what the session was actually about. And he did an amazing job of explaining what the session was all about. And you know what the outcome of that was? Standing room only. Brooke’s session was completely packed. In fact, it got so hot in there she said she was about to pass out. Thankfully she didn’t, that would have been embarrassing, especially since we would have caught it all on video. But the bottom line is, being too clever crushed her opportunity of getting a good audience. That’s on me, that wasn’t on her. Once it was explained trying to be less clever and more helpful, suddenly she had a standing room only audience. Don’t be too clever.

Lesson #4, it takes a village to put on an event. A lot of people say, “Oh Rich, you put on such a great event, I don’t know how you do it.” Yeah, I don’t do it. I mean of course I’m involved with every aspect of it on some level, my DNA is in this event, it’s what I look forward to and stress about all year long. But I don’t put on this event. For years Lindsay Babayan, my Project Manager, has been the one who really handles all of the things. She’s in touch with the sponsors, she’s in touch with the vendors, she’s in touch with the University of Southern Maine where we have the event, and she’s in touch with the speakers. She deals with all the money, too. She only gets me involved when some of the speakers get busy or sponsors are non-responsive, because people tend to respond to me more quickly. But other than that, she runs everything and does day of.

Side note: I don’t know if I’ve told this story before. Years ago I told my team that the one thing I needed from them on the day of The Agents of Change was to not bring me any problems. Just deal with it and figure them out, I need to be the Master of Ceremonies, I need to be upbeat. Maybe that sounds selfish but it’s true. If I’m dealing with minutia I can’t be getting up on stage getting everybody excited about the event.

We discovered the hard way that you cannot have a buffet line for 400 people. If the lines are too long, it takes people literally the entire lunch hour just to get to be able to fill their plate. What we discovered is boxed lunches for our event is the way to go. Everybody grabs a boxed lunch, they disperse, they eat it, and everybody has plenty of time.

We explained this at least 5 different times to USM, and yet when the food came out that day, it came out buffet style. My team – under Lindsay – rallied and they got boxes and they basically created boxed lunches for everybody. It was an amazing feat and I didn’t hear about it until the end of the day. That’s just one example of the kind of things a good team will do for you.

In fact this year, because I’ve been so busy with other things, I told Liz Bell – my Director of Marketing – I need you to market this for me. I can no longer be in charge of marketing. I’ll be happy to write copy, I’ll be happy to record videos, use me however you need me, but I can’t run this. I can just be part of it. And she ran it, her first year, she had never even been to Agents of Change and she did a bang up job and we had good results based on that.

Again, it takes a village to put on an event. Yeah, if you’re doing 12 people in a room I’m sure you can run that by yourself. But get help. Get help from your team, hire somebody, whatever.

Lesson #5, don’t rest on your laurels. So this was the 8th year, as I mentioned, of The Agents of Change. And previously I put on three years of another conference called, Social Media FTW, which was a very similar footprint. So I have some experience doing this. And after experimenting with a number of different schedule/agenda types over the years – including a single track conference one year – we settled into a groove of 3 keynotes and 12 breakout sessions.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t take very long for a group to become a rut. And I think that’s what we found ourselves in this year. We’ve just kind of done it so many times that we’ve kind of worked out all the surprises in the day. So we’re actually taking a look now on what we can do for AOC 2020 to inject some surprises into it. So the people who have seen it over and over again will be surprised. There will be new stuff going on that should shock people’s brains, and that will help them remember more stuff. At least that’s my theory.

Another problem with falling into a rut – or even a groove – is that it’s comfortable, and you don’t always notice the changes that are going on around you. One of the things that I wasn’t 100% aware of is how much things have changed since we first started putting on these events. When I first started, we literally set up laptops at all different parts of the conference so that people could register for Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Most of the people, or a good portion who came to the first year, didn’t even have one or all of these social media platforms. Obviously it’s a much different time now. So the content we were delivering 8-10 years ago is significantly different than what we need to deliver today.

The other thing that I’ve noticed is how many people are doing free, local events around one specific topic. The other day I was speaking for the Chamber of Commerce and I wanted to go get some descriptions and times off of their website. So I went to their website and saw my event, and I saw that there was another event that day that was all about Instagram. And it was a free, hour-long session on Instagram. At another time that day there was one on Facebook ads, for free.

Now it’s hard to compete with an event that ranges from $179-$349, depending on when you buy your tickets, and takes up an entire day of your life, a workday. That’s a big difference from a free “lunch and learn”. And for a lot of people they won’t pay $350 and lose a whole workday when they can just go down to the local Chamber, or the SCORE offices, or some person’s house, and learn about this for free in a half hour. So this is what a lot of us are competing with these days, is free. How do you compete against free when you have a product or service that you need to charge for?

So one of the things that we’re going to need to do for AOC 2020 is to show people that there’s a real difference between a free one-hour event that’s really just a lead generation tool, and putting on a big conference where we bring in speakers from around the country who are at the top of their game to share some of their best stuff, and there is no sale to be made at the end of the day. It’s going to be difficult, but we need to show people that this ain’t no lunch and learn!

Side note: so most of our audience does come from Maine and New England. Mainers don’t care about brand names. I mean I know this is an overgeneralization, but especially when it comes to speakers. Most people who saw Jay Baer when he keynoted here, they had no idea who Jay Baer was. Most of the people who saw Mark Schaefer had never heard of Mark Schaefer before. Now if you’re listening to this podcast you may be wondering how is that even possible.

But I’m telling you, this just isn’t what people care about. They care about the topics, they care about the content, and they care about their customers, their vendors, and their employees. But they don’t care about the name of the person. When I got John Jantsch to show up and I was super excited about it and started telling everybody, a lot of people said, “Who’s John Jantsch?” Now once they saw John Jantsch his reviews were off the chart.

But this is just an issue that I deal with here in Maine that if you’re putting on an event somewhere else you may not have to deal with. But people are not drawn to the big names. I can just talk about these are very well-known, experienced people who can bring content to you.

And the other aspect that I really need to market is the networking aspect. Because when you do a lunch and learn you might meet a few people around the table, but we do a really good job – between the breakouts and lunch and the networking event afterwards with free pizza and open bar – people are having a great time, they’re taking pictures, they’re dressing up in the social circle, which is basically a selfie are that we set up. It’s a great event and we need to really show people that this is what you get when you come to an event like this, compared to a lunch and learn that you’re really not going to learn much at all.

Ok, bonus lesson: you’ve got to stand out. And I learned this lesson actually after the event. It was not the networking event, and not the after party that we had at Glass Lounge at the Hyatt. But the after, after party when a number of us speakers and attendees ended up going out to Bubba’s Sulky Lounge, which is a dancehall we have here in Portland, Maine with a light up disco floor, and Friday night is 80’s night.

Everyone was really excited to go dancing – even me, I don’t dance much – but we’re all excited and we call an Uber and it shows up and it’s got disco music cranking out of the window, not one but two disco balls, disco lights, and dual microphones so people can do singalongs on the ride. There were like 5 or 6 of us in the car, and I would say 4 or 5 of us did video recordings and shared them to our social accounts. Because of course not every day do you get dueling disco balls and dueling microphones when you call an Uber. That cab – the “retro cab” – stands out in a crowded marketplace.

And luckily for him he 5 social media influencers all in that cab, all sharing their experience and talking about it and getting people to laugh and join and comment and share on platforms like Instagram and Facebook. So he did something that was different, that really broke the mold of what our expectations were, and it got us talking about that.

And there’s definitely an important lesson to be learned there. This is something I keep coming back to, that search engine optimization is something that almost every business participates in. And Facebook ads is something that almost anybody can run. These tools that we’re talking about are important, but they’re the table stakes. And if you really want to stand out in a crowded marketplace, you have to be remarkable. And that may mean being a retro cab, or that may mean something completely different.

Go back and listen to the episode where I interview Pat Lemieux on what he did with his aerotech repair company that he works for, in terms of coming up with really creative marketing ideas. So again, make sure you stand out. Otherwise it doesn’t make a difference how optimized your Facebook ads are or how optimized your website is for conversations.  

Ok, that’s it. Those are my five plus one bonus, six takeaways from The Agents of Change 2019. I hope you enjoyed them. I hope some of them resonated with you and you’ll take them into your own marketing.

If you want a full transcript of today’s episode, one is coming, if it’s not there already. You can find that at theagentsofchange.com/315. Hey, while you’re at the website, why don’t you go ahead – if you haven’t yet – go ahead and subscribe to the podcast. Absolutely free, you can put it on a number of different platforms, you can do it at Apple Podcast, and you can do it at Stitcher Radio, at Spotify, on Google. There’s a whole bunch of places. Or you can just talk to your smart speaker – unless it’s Alexa, Alexa is a little crazy – but Google you can just say to your Google Assistant, “Hey Google. Play the Agents of Change Podcast”. There’s all these ways that you can get this information automatically and for free, so that you can continually improve your own digital marketing.

And while you’re at one of these sites, there’s a site like Apple Podcast that allow for reviews, please go ahead and leave me a review and let me know what you think, I’d love to hear from you.

And if you have any ideas about new topics you’d like us to cover, or new guests that you’d like us to interview, be sure you let me know. You can find me on every social media platform, I am @therichbrooks, or you can go to The Agents of Change website and fill out the contact form. I’d really be interested in what you have to say. And I appreciate all of you for being Agents of Change. 

Show notes:

Rich Brooks is the President of flyte new media, a web design & digital marketing agency in Portland, Maine, and founder of the Agents of Change. He’s passionate about helping small businesses grow online and has put his 20+ years of experience into the book, The Lead Machine: The Small Business Guide to Digital Marketing