SES Chicago: The View from a Booth

    December 11, 2006

Working a booth at a trade show is surely the worst possible way to assess the direction and state of an industry.

First, because you are generally in no condition to be a neutral observer. Booth minders tend to be either impassioned optimists (“gosh, wasn’t that that last conversation wonderful!”) or hopelessly depressed (“if I have to hear myself say one more word that isn’t ‘a beer please’ I’m going to throw up”). And second because the group of people you’re talking to is neither truly random nor intelligently selected. It’s a kind of odd combination of people who seek you out, who were interested by your sign, who caught your eye and felt guilty sidling away and those who are simply talking to everyone.

So it would be a mistake – a classic data analysis faux pas – to read too much into a set of anecdotal and heavily guided conversations at a trade show. But there were some things that, to me, seemed like interesting take-aways from my many conversations at SES Chicago (I’ll eliminate anything said after alcohol was being poured).

I’ll begin with a confession. Between the impassioned optimists and the hopelessly depressed, I fall squarely into the latter camp. For me, working a booth feels kind of like a “Groundhog Day” where you are helpless to change the outcome – because you have to say the same words over and over and over. It makes me more sympathetic to politicians – no wonder they always sound so bored, rehearsed and facile. Clearly, they have to talk way too much!

But the biggest surprise for me was how much I was saying about web analytics.

Since SEMphonic markets an inexpensive tool for doing PPC Reporting and competitive tracking (CampaignTracker) – I fully expected the vast majority of conversations we had to concern the tool. It is, after all, right in the sweet spot for a show like SES. And we did plenty of demos for CampaignTracker. But nearly every conversation I had ultimately turned out to be more about analytics.

It was especially surprising because I wasn’t expecting droves of our traditional web analytics clients (Fortune 1000 companies) to be stalking the aisles looking for web analytics advice. And I wasn’t wrong about that. There weren’t that many enterprise heavy-hitters. But what had changed – pleasantly – from previous show conversations, was the number of mid-size companies doing serious SEM and deeply interested in analytics.

Though these companies were smaller than our traditional web analytics clients, they were deeply engaged in Search Engine Marketing and were often managing PPC budgets that are comparable to some of our biggest clients. In the past, most of the conversation I had with people like this revolved around finding a good bid management tool or understanding bidding strategies. Those conversations are still around (especially the former) – but the interest in web analytics tools and usage was broader and much more serious than I remember from years past.

I suppose that’s reflected in the very heavy presence of web analytics vendors. WebSideStory, Unica, WebTrends and Clicktracks were all there (mostly with pretty big footprints) – as, of course – was Google. Only Omniture of the big hitters was absent on the floor.

For most of these mid-sized companies, it seemed clear that Search Engine Marketing was driving the need for analytics. Many were spending tens-of-thousands of dollars a month (or more) on PPC, and living with the basic reporting they were getting from the Search Engines or their agency. If you’re spending 50K a month on PPC, the upside to analytics is quite large. Large enough so that any of the analytics solutions are affordable. There is, after all, nothing quite as expensive as ignorance!

Since I’ve written extensively about the complexities of picking a web analytics tool, it was sometimes frustrating to deal with the inevitable question about which tool to buy – in a booth, your answers need be as crisp and decisive as 30 second political attack ad. Lots of people are looking (not unreasonably) for a simple answer – pick a vendor, any vendor. But it just isn’t that easy. Most of the solutions out there are pretty darn good. Deciding on the best takes some real understanding of your needs and culture – and a careful matching of that to the right tool.

Probably the most amusing aspect of my conversations revolved around hiring or firing PPC Agencies. SEMphonic isn’t a PPC buyer (or an SEO agency for that matter) so this topic came up often since we are a kind of neutral third party specializing in measurement and best practices. Just about everyone I talked to who is doing PPC with an agency is thinking about bringing it in house. That would seem like terrible news for the PPC guys.

Except that nearly everyone I talked to who was doing PPC in-house was thinking about getting an agency! Go figure. It would be interesting to talk to the same people in a year and see if anyone actually switched. On the whole, it’s probably just the usual grousing about whatever situation you actually happen to be in.

And a few of the most annoying specimens from years past have largely disappeared. The garrulous SEO iconoclast “I been doin SEO since you before you was born, sonny, and all my words are number one!” has largely vanished. Replaced, thank god, by a far more respectable and disciplined breed of practitioner.

Indeed, I didn’t hear much at all of the old “PPC” vs. “SEO” culture wars. The great SEO and PPC divide seems to have resolved itself, amicably and reasonably, into a widespread recognition that good placement in organic listings is great and that PPC advertising can work pretty darn well too. There was quite of bit interest too – especially by larger players – in understanding the relationship between organic and paid listings. That’s an area we’ve studied extensively and it’s almost a pleasure to talk about!

Finally, I noticed that while some of the people I talked to seemed to have little more idea of web analytics or SEM best-practices than of ancient Greek, they were more keenly aware than in years past of their lack of knowledge. That may actually be a pretty encouraging sign that our industry is beginning to grow up.

Socrates famously observed that he was the wisest man in Athens because he was the only one who realized that he didn’t really know anything. We all know a good deal less than we claim to – and even a good deal less than we probably think we do. And I’m betting that of the people I talked to who weren’t bona-fide experts (and there were some who really were experts), it’s the ones who were smart enough to know how much they don’t know who will thrive.

I’ll be back to content hierarchies next time!

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Gary Angel is the author of the “SEMAngel blog – Web Analytics and Search Engine Marketing practices and perspectives from a 10-year experienced guru.