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SEO Conferences and The Future of Live Search Events
6th July 2015 • Search and Social • Rainmaker.FM
00:00:00 00:31:03

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The SEO conference industry, launching a conference company in the current world of search and how making things a little different can help with industry disruption (such as an English company launching a conference series in Las Vegas).

In this episode Craig Rayner and I discuss:

  • SEO trends and how they differ in the UK vs the United States
  • The SEO Community in London and in Europe
  • The SEO conference landscape with tool companies holding their own conferences vs. the traditional conference companies
  • The way that SMX and Pubcon have both constantly and positively disrupted themselves and adapted to the market
  • The nuances of white hat vs. black hat SEO arguments and other organic search trends

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The Show Notes

The Transcript

SEO Conferences and The Future of Live Search Events

Voiceover: This is Rainmaker.FM, the digital marketing podcast network. It s built on the Rainmaker Platform, which empowers you to build your own digital marketing and sales platform. Start your free 14-day trial at

Loren Baker: Good afternoon. Welcome to another edition of Search & Deploy, brought to you by Foundation Digital and the team at Copyblogger’s Rainmaker.FM network.

This is Loren Baker, your host of Search & Deploy. I just got back from about a month and a half, or two months of travel from various conferences, ranging from Texas to California to London, England. Hence, is my excuse for not getting many podcasts up in the past few weeks.

To make up for that lapse in podcasting, with me today, I have the COO and co-founder of a new conference series, his name is Craig Rayner. Craig and his team have launched a conference called UnGagged. They were nice enough to have me speak and host a panel over in their second conference in London, England. I had spoken at their first event, which was held in Las Vegas.

These guys are crazy enough to launch their first conference ever in Ceasars Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada, then followed it up with one in London, and have another one planned for Las Vegas, I believe, later in the year. We ll talk to Craig about that.

The SEO Conference Landscape with Tool Companies Holding Their Own Conferences vs. the Traditional Conference Companies

Loren Baker: The reason why I invited him on the show today, in addition to him being nice enough to have me twice at his events, is because I thought it very curious as to seeing not only why a company would launch a conference series in today s environment where there are multiple different conferences going on in the world of SEO, not only the traditional ones like SMX. I think SES is still around. They do a couple shows, of course Pubcon.

You have the Copyblogger team just did their Authority Rainmaker Conference. You have multiple tool companies like Searchmetrics pairing up with Search Engine Journal to do the SEJ Summit. You have BrightEdge doing conferences, Conductor doing conferences.

It s really become a market where there s a lot going on. Not only that, conference companies are competing with online versions of conferences along with the amount of online video and audio information out there.

I really wanted to sit down with Craig. Myself, being a veteran of various search conferences and even trying my best to launch some in the past, wanted to get an idea of what these guys are thinking about, what their vision is with UnGagged. Really, what s going to make their conference series different from everything else out there?

The SEO Community in London and in Europe

Craig, welcome to Search & Deploy. It s great to have you.

Craig Rayner: Thank you, Loren. Welcome, everyone. Okay, so lucky enough to have met you a couple of times, Loren. Thank you very much for being one of our early supporters.

We re not trying to reinvent the wheel with UnGagged. That s something I should put out there straight away. We ve been in the industry, digital marketing industry as an agency, for quite some time. Because of that, we ve actually extensively traveled, been to quite a lot of conferences ourselves, within the search arena particularly.

That was actually the thing. If you, like us, have been to lots of the conferences that are out there, with out trying not to be insulting at all, but we just got really, really bored. We got bored of a variety of things. We didn t really feel that the speakers were certainly giving a fair time because conferences were selling cheap tickets, like networking passes. And everyone was just in the hallways meeting and greeting. It was just like a cattle market is how we saw it.

It didn t really seem to be any quality. You go to the speaker sessions because you ve actually paid for a higher ticket and nobody s in there. Now, we thought that was crying shame because the speakers were there to actually impart some wisdom.

Anyway, there are lots of conferences out there within the search arena. They’ve got a very similar format. They seem to churn out the same speakers time and time again. Those speakers, not their fault, if they re on the circuit and they re just constantly going around doing their thing, then they really are not really learning. They re not really knowing what s up today. They re not really getting the knowledge that they could impart, so they end up just saying the same thing just in a different town. It reminds me of a rock-and-roll band on tour. It becomes pretty faceless.

For us, that was the thing. Also, you go to conferences, you don t get any food, or if you do, it s not that great at all. You ve been lucky to get a free drink. It just didn t seem to be friendly. It didn t seem to be conducive to networking, to making friends, to sharing wisdom and knowledge. We just wanted to do something different to actually allow all of those things to happen in one space.

Loren Baker: Yeah. It s really cool, too, because not only are there a lot of different conferences going on and you guys doing something different, but it seems like the existing conference companies that are actually taking their time to disrupt themselves are doing better. It did get to a point where, when I went to a search conference, I felt like I was going to a book fair.

Craig Rayner: Yeah.

Loren Baker: I d go in and see the same presentations. This is why, back in the day, we did the Search & Social Spring Summit and stuff like that. We did want to change things up a little bit as speakers and as agency people. You did see the same presentations. Then you get pitched with a book, and then the speaker is out there signing books in the conference hall.

I like the rock-band-on-tour analogy as well because you do hear about how boring the road can be because it is the same thing. It s monotonous, over and over again.

Craig Rayner: Exactly.

Loren Baker: And there are a lot of company evangelists out there that do the same things, but I always have wondered, when you see someone consistently on the road, are they the person actually doing the work?

Craig Rayner: Yeah, that s true. That s right. You touched on something there also which was something we were completely against. I don t know if it is because we re British, I must say. We found that it was very uncomfortable if you paid not so much for a ticket, then, often, the quality drastically drops. I m not saying always, but often. Some of those conferences, you were just being pitched to the whole time. We just got uncomfortable. It just wasn t us. We just did not like that.

I m not saying that people don t have the opportunity at UnGagged to talk about their product or their service. That s not it. But we certainly don t allow a pitch first. That s really against where we re trying to go with UnGagged.

The Way That SMX and Pubcon Have Both Constantly and Positively Disrupted Themselves and Adapted to the Market

Loren Baker: I really appreciate that, too. What I was getting at with the disruption, too, when I look at search conferences, I never want to talk about anyone specifically in a bad tone. I will talk about a couple of companies that have done well.

It does seem like SMX has taken the proactive approach of disrupting themselves and not necessarily going down the same route as their ‘predecessor’ did, being owned by a larger conference company and going down the copy-and-paste, boilerplate route of one moderator, three speakers, three book pitches, and then let s get everyone in the expo hall.

Pubcon’s been doing some interesting things, launching some smaller events. Those guys are like you too, Craig. I think you said once, you ve always been a Rolling Stone and never a Beatle, right? You pick Vegas. Those guys do Vegas, and they do New Orleans. I don t know which town you can get more trouble in. New Orleans you might leave with a curse on you or something like that. Those guys are doing the smaller thing, too. It s refreshing to see because, for a while there, I felt like you said, it was monotonous.

Craig Rayner: Yeah.

Loren Baker: Playing on the Stones thing. The Stones just did a surprise show down near me actually, in Solana Beach, down there between La Jolla and San Diego in Southern California. They surprised a bar that held 400 people, and they played a 90-minute set.

Craig Rayner: Wow.

Loren Baker: As a speaker, even if I m using the same deck, I try to change that deck up, right?

Craig Rayner: Yeah.

Loren Baker: What happened to me once was — and I’ll own this — I was at a Pubcon, and I used a deck that I had used in a previous conference. I thought I changed everything up, and on one of the slides, I had the other conference s logo.

Craig Rayner: Okay.

Loren Baker: I heard a chuckle from the audience, and I m like, “What? I didn t tell a joke.” I looked at it. I was like, “Oh my God, I can t believe I did that.” Really, that was kind of a wakeup call to me to make sure things were a little bit more put-together and original. I didn t want to become what I was sick of, which was the same kind of monotonous things.

At UnGagged, besides really focusing on not as many pitches and not the same decks over and over again, what else have guys done that kind of differentiate yourself from the pack?

The UnGagged Experience

Craig Rayner: One of the things that we think is very powerful is that we re just a very small group, but we re very passionate. We don t really think that our vision’s easily going to be infiltrated or diluted. What I mean by that is that you go to a lot of conferences where you know that the sponsors wouldn t allow certain things.

This was one of the key things. It was UnGagged that got its name from literally from ripping the gag off. Letting the speaker say exactly what they want to say, so no one can literally say to them, “Hey! You can t say that because that might upset Google,” or whoever, you know? We’ve got no place for that.
We strongly believe in freedom of speech. We want to give people the platform to have open discussions and to share information.

Touching on a few things there. One, we re a speaker-led conference because we believe in education. We believe in imparting our wisdom. Because stuff like that, we tend to attract, luckily, some of the best speakers on the planet pretty much that are going to come speak about stuff that they perhaps wouldn t be able to say at other conferences because we let them say exactly what they want to say. It is a behind-closed-doors policy. There is no recording.

Basically, it s for the audiences ears and eyes only. What does that do? That sparks interest. It sparks conversations. It sparks all sorts of things going on in people s brain cells. You can see people thinking constantly on UnGagged. Thereafter, we try to ensure that speakers make themselves very available to all of the attendees. It s a three-day conference. The speakers are going to say stuff behind closed doors that no one should ve heard anywhere else.

The concept is meant to be completely unique. The people can just take that and run with it. It s immediately actionable. Because it s a friendly atmosphere, it s a great environment, the people that are there are intermediary to technically advanced. The conversation doesn t have to pander to the newbie, with respect to newbies, but it doesn t have to. It’s straight in there from a very high level. We facilitate that.

We put on an event, whereas the actual surroundings are nice. We do things in a very nice and friendly and warm way. It s got a lovely intimate feel to the environment. Because of that, things actually happen. People do get a genuine return on investment. People do make fantastic leads, etc., etc. Loren, you’ve been to a couple. You know the feeling. You know what I m trying to say there. We keep it intimate so that everyone benefits.

Loren Baker: What I loved about not only London, but also Vegas, was I ended sitting down at the table with some people that I ve never met before, but I didn t realize that I had met them in various forums and on Twitter. A good number of them did not use their real names on forums and in Twitter, nor their photos. But we got to be talking, and I’m like, “Oh my god, we know each other,” type thing. That s pretty cool. But also touching upon a freedom of speech thing. UnGagged in the tradition of the name of the conference, you do have a policy against Tweeting or covering most of the sessions, correct?

Craig Rayner: Yeah, that s right. It’s off-putting to the speakers. We want people to fully embrace what is being shared with them. It’s good enough for the speakers to be saying things they wouldn’t normally say and to share stuff and information that people aren’t going to get elsewhere. As I said to one person very recently when they were talking about a particular speaker. It was 55 minutes. All of our sessions are 55 minutes to keep things fair. They said, “Well, how much you think it would be to have X come and be a consultant for an hour?” I said, “Well, probably, you know, you’re looking at 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, $10,000 just for an hour of their time.”

There you’ve got people of the same caliber for three days. The value of it is fantastic. We just try to keep that level very high. We want the next generation of thought leaders to say, in five years’ time or whatever, “I was inspired when I was at UnGagged. I was inspired because I met speaker X or whatever.”

The Nuances of White Hat vs. Black Hat SEO Arguments, and Other Organic Search Trends

Craig Rayner: The other thing that I think we should touch on, certainly from the first Vegas conference back in November last year, one of our sponsors was BlackHatWorld. Now, BlackHatWorld, where are they going to go get sponsorship? Where is BlackHatWorld going to go where they re going to meet people that are likeminded. That was it. Again, we wanted to give this platform of freedom. To us, UnGagged, it doesn’t matter whether you’re white hat, black hat, gray hat, whatever. It doesn’t make any difference. It’s not about that. It’s all of our futures online. If you get there and if you’ve been naughty, then, hey, you have to live with that — whatever.

That’s how we look at it. If you want to put a color on certain Internet marketing, a lot of people who do have fantastic companies now, brilliantly working on brands as clients — and they’re as white as white can be but they cut their teeth back in the day with black hat methodologies.

Loren Baker: Absolutely.

Craig Rayner: That’s the truth of it. At UnGagged, they can say that, and they almost feel that they re amongst friends. A lot of the people that go there are the pioneers of the Internet. These guys are in internet marketing. They’ve been doing it since the mid-1990s.

Loren Baker: Yeah.

Craig Rayner: They’re free to talk about whatever the hell they want to talk about. That, for us, is incredibly important.

Loren Baker: Which is great. I do love that component because nine out of 10 SEOs over the age of 30 are going to have some kind of skeleton in their closet, right? They were involved with link spamming in the day because it wasn’t really link spamming back then. It was online