Thursday, August 03, 2006

BlogHer, the recap: Or Perception = Reality

So, it's almost overwhelming to consider writing a post-BlogHer recap. And more than that, since my perspective is about many different aspects of the event, I'm thinking that some thoughts belong here on this blog...which is ostensibly about marketing and the business of blogging and social media...and some thoughts belong on my personal blog. So, two posts it may well have to be.

The introduction that is appropriate for both blogs, however, is that perception = reality for every individual, and I believe that to be a pretty universal truth in our personal and professional lives.

What that means is this:

Objectively, the conference was an unqualified success. We had a huge increase in attendance, a huge increase in sponsorship, a huge expansion of media coverage (and all coverage I saw was neutral or positive) and a huge expansion of topics and sessions. We were sold out on both days, and we received much positive feedback both on-site and subsequently in emails and in blog posts.

But nothing is ever perfect, and I have to say that I am regrettably one of those people who obsessively goes over everything that wasn't perfect...helped along by kindly blog posts, emails and complaints while at the conference too of course! So the reality of objective success is overshadowed by my perception of the aftermath.

What parts of that are relevant to this, my Worker Bees Blog? Let's talk about money, marketing and sponsorship.

-The concept of economic inclusiveness

The concept of the digital divide is an important one. Yes, I totally grant that if you are a) a blogger and b) even able to consider coming to a conference on blogging then you are probably not in a desperate financial situation. Still we acknowledge that many, perhaps the majority, of our attendees are not able to expense this trip to a company, nor consider it deductible from a tax perspective. So, yes, trying to accommodate as broad a number of people was top of mind when planning. Seriously, why do you think we picked a hotel in Silicon Valley that gave us a $75/night rate? What did it matter to us the organizers, right? We don't have to pay for attendees' hotel rooms. Could it be that we were thinking of our attendee's budgets? We certainly weren't thinking it was the best hotel in town. But we expected that our more well-heeled BlogHers would manage, so that a greater number of BlogHer could afford the trip.

I can also tell you that we took on providing meals and snacks and beverages throughout those two days precisely because that would mean that any woman who really *needed* to could avoid spending a single cent on food/drink for two days. So, sure, cap on the water sponsor, but that saved us thousands of dollars. Perhaps we won't do that again, because there were certainly many negative reactions to it, but believe you me, we were THRILLED when we found a water sponsor and wine sponsor...and we were pleasantly surprised when the hotel didn't charge us a fee to bring in outside water (although they will charge our wine sponsor corkage on the wine.)

I can also tell you that we talk to each speaker we invite about their financial needs and try to help wherever we can. Covering conference fees is a start, and many conferences do that for speakers. We also negotiate travel stipends. And I can tell you that most conferences do not do that. We pay no honoraria. No, Arianna did not get an honoraria. Nor did anyone else. I'd love to be in the position some day. Today's not that day. But why bother? Well, because it allows us to invite the starving artist-type or the single mom type or the young yet-to-be-well-established type to share their stories. It allows us to present 95 women speakers, 85% of whom did not speak last year, and some of whom would never really get to travel and tell their stories without some help. We spent tens of thousands of dollars on this. Not to mention the dozens of volunteers who were comp'ed. This is done expressly to improve economic inclusiveness.

I actually hope that this was all transparent to the majority of attendees. But for some people to complain in one post about the quality of accommodations and in the next about how elitist the conference is...well, the reality may not change the perception, but I wish it would.

-The issue of sponsorship in general, especially vs. registration fees

Yes we had sponsors. Many of them. And some of them did a better job connecting to our community than others.

My post on my personal blog is going to go into greater depth about the subject of the Tyranny of the Individual. I heard an inordinate amount of feedback that arose out of a seeming expectation that a conference trying to bring disparate interests and groups together in one place should also somehow be able to please each interest group (not to mention the fact that individuals within such groups aren't always monolithic in their tastes or opinions.)

But I think we can agree that once you have sponsors you give up the idea that every single attendee will approve of every single sponsor. And I doubt a single person there was enamored of every single sponsor, nor was a single sponsor loved by every attendee. GM is being widely praised for their smart, savvy sponsorship model. I happen to agree and had a wonderful brief test drive of the adorable little Saturn Sky. But I have heard at least two attendees who were offended by their presence.

Or there's Weight Watchers. I've used Weight Watchers. In fact 16 years ago in NYC I made my living as a Weight Watchers leader. I admire that company, and I admire their messaging around making permanent healthy lifestyle changes. And lots and lots of women are trying to make those changes. Those women picked up information, and even felt gratified to see WW there supporting the community. Are the feelings of those attendees about said sponsor irrelevant? Are they simply brainwashed, self-loathing victims? I have been really disturbed by what I see as some patronization within our own community that if some of us are *not* offended by something we need to be educated or spoken up for. Maybe some of us just disagree.

Same goes for schwag for that matter. I have gone to many many conferences. I don't need another tee-shirt, another tote-bag, another sqwushy stress-relief ball etc. etc. My usual M.O. is to rifle through the tote bag, pull out the few items I care to keep and chuck the rest. Everyone probably does the same thing, and everyone probably keeps a different combo of schwagalicious items. There were those who loved the schwag, and those who hated it. So, see above.

But back to sponsorship, and why we have it.

Bottom line: registration fees don't pay for the conference. They just don't. Registration probably covered the food bill.

So the very real, non-snarky question (which will go on our attendee survey) is : how much more would you pay to have a sponsor-free conference? And would you be OK if that increased fee kept others less financially equipped than you away, so that you could have an experience unencumbered by seeing the vendor tables?

You think I'm laying guilt on you? Well, maybe. But it's the reality. There are trade-offs. We want the annual conference to be inexpensive to attend. We want to enable a mix of attendees to come. We think it's important. We take many organizational steps to try to make that happen. The reality may not change the perception, but I wish it would.

-The issue of sponsor "commercials" before keynotes.

Oh, yes, we realize there's big controversy here. And lots of decisions on how to handle in future.

Now, this was actually not entirely new to BlogHer. Sponsors spoke briefly before both the lunch and final sessions at BlogHer '05. Last year Caterina Fake was supposed to introduce our final session on behalf of Yahoo, the cocktail party sponsor. She had an emergency and danah boyd stepped in last minute. Our attendees may have been totally oblivious to it, given danah's blogging cred.

This year we had three such general session speaking opportunities, rather than two. plus we had a sponsor announce a contest winner in another breakout. That's four our of a total of 29 sessions. For each we gave guidelines on what the session was about, and a time limit of <10 minutes before we would get up and take the mic back.

Now, here's the rub: how do you balance control vs. ownership? Here's what I mean. We did not want to identify sponsor presentations as conference programming. We wanted to be able to get up there and give attendees a warning in each welcome session that there would be these 10 minute introductions. We didn't want to list their speakers and themes in our conference schedule like it was programming. We had this idea of creating that old editorial vs. sponsor/advertiser wall.

But, and here's the interesting ethical question: if you want to be hands off and not have ownership of their content, can you still ask to control it? We felt we could give them our advice and guidelines, but could not exert editorial control. We felt that crossed a line. Were we wrong on that? I'm interested in what those with experience in event management think. Perhaps we were applying a journalistic approach to the sessions, and the standard for events are totally different? Would love to get input from those who have expertise in that area!

But, all it would have taken to find out if we "green-lit" a specific presentation or message was to ask the question. The reality may not change the perception, but I wish it would.

Side note: Were there other women from sponsors on panels. Yup, sure. We had Yahoo!, SixApart and Microsoft, among others, as sponsors. I, for one, wasn't willing to say that Mena, who came simply as an attendee last year, was disallowed from speaking because her company donated the tote bags. She is a veritable blogging rock star...and a successful women entrepreneur. Same goes for Caterina Fake. And should I not have Heather's Goddess-at-large before she went to work for about photography if she's willing to be inclusive of other tools? I don't think so; I really don't. There are other examples, and they all had expertise that fit the particular panel they were on. It was not a speaking slot that arose from a sponsorship agreement. Again, can I hear a shout-out for the 95 women speakers on hand, 85% of whom did not speak last year?

-Money, money, money

I have a whole other post in me about money and attitudes toward it. It's not exclusively a BlogHer issue, though, it's also about my activism within the Democratic Party and the messaging I see at party events that drives me batty. I've got to think that one through more, and it will likely go on my personal blog, not this one. Sorry for the teaser.

I must emphasize again: I totally get that perception is reality. I can, for example, present data to "prove" that the ad network did not unduly influence either our session content, nor our speaker roster. That other groups were, in fact, better represented in those areas than our ad network members or sponsors.

But it wouldn't matter, would it, to people who have a different perception? Past perception is almost impossible to change, isn't it? If we care about the *future perception*, then we have to deal with it, right?

Look, we state our mission to be "to create opportunities for education, exposure, community and economic empowerment for women bloggers." Attendees are holding us responsible for every aspect of their BlogHer 06 experience, from the educational to the social...and while I can whine that it's not fair, we sort of asked for it, didn't we? I get that.

The reality may not change the perception, but I wish it would.

And mostly I'd like to get my perception out there, because I think it counts too.

PS-Oh, and yes, I suck because somewhere there are literally dozens and dozens of posts that inspired this post. They're all collected in my tag, and I just went and looked and got completely overwhelmed, and I'm not doing it, at least now. I guess I'm just trying my best to inspire Shelley to write a post: "Elisa doesn't link" :) Really, I'm sorry.

Eh, the posts that inspired you are sooooo easy to find. Trust me, I know because I'm sure I've read them all.

Two words: brava, chica!
I'll wager that a lot of folks wouldn't be so anti- the 10 minute commercials from sponsers if the commercials weren't so off-the-mark for the audience. Like I said in one of my rambles (I think), you folks aren't to blame for that. I'm sure you shared every bit of information you could about all of us, and they just didn't execute well _at all_.

And I pretty much agree with what you've written here, on other topics.
We did share information and guidelines. The question is whether we could have exerted editorial *control*. I still tend to think no.

I also think that the generally extremely positive response GM got will give us lots of ammunition for future conferences to guide sponsors to the kinds of engagement that goes over well.

Thanks JM.
Elisa doesn't link, lolol. Excellent ending. I liked it. I have a ton of things to say about this but I don't have another Blogher post in me. I do, however, have an email in me that I'll pull together eventually.
It had to be hard after all your work and that amazing, and overwhelming, and successful weekend, to do a summary! Wow!
But it's so thoughtful, and definitely interesting to see things from the insider point of view. So thanks!
(And yes, you DID say, "let the men pee, ladies." : )
Elisa, another great post, and it's given me a lot to think about. I'll keep mulling it all over, as I am sure this discussion will go on for awhile. Thanks for all your hard work and the obvious consideration you put into all of these questions beforehand.
Denise: I look forward to the email :)

Kris: Oh, yeah, I definitely said "let the men pee!"

Arse: Thanks :)
I'm with Denise in that I've got an email inside me as well. It's a small one, though. ;)

Advertisers didn't bother me one bit. If it was a product that I didn't like/need/agree with, I moved on. No pain. Different strokes for different folks. There is always going to be something I don't like, and something else to move on ahead to see.
Without the student price there is no way I would have even considered attending this year. Offering scaled registration fees shows BlogHer is aware that many of us are struggling for resources. Thank you!

I remember hearing a lot more discussion about 'blogherships' to get women to blogher05 but maybe I just missed hearing about it this year. I don't know if there was as much community fundraising this year as there was last year either. Was it just that people either decided "go/not go" and then got on with it?

I'm heartened to see how the organizers are already using the feedback to plan for next year. That's part of what makes this a community. I really believe that if any one of us did send you an email with ideas and suggestions that it would be considered. I don't get that feeling in many other places.

Cheers ~

I had no problem with the conference being sponsored nor with the particular companies who were there as sponsors. Politics and preferences aside, the reality is that a conference costs money. Rather than put the burden on the attendees, I think you did the right thing by bringing in sponsors. Those who suggest otherwise are being naive. Kudos and thank you. You did an amazing job!

Candace: I totally forgot to mention our Student rate, tanks :)

We did have many blogherships this year too and a few calls for such folks on the site...most notably we were constantly on the look-out for audio volunteers.

(For those of you who don't know: we call it a bloghership when someone gets their conference pass comped in exchange for some live-blogging. We try to use Foundation Sponsorship donation to fund those blogherships, but if we don't get enough in those kind of donations we just cover them out of general funds. )

We did have a lot of people emailing asking to be a live-blogging bloghership recipients from very early on. We have done these things on a first-come, first-served basis until now. When I think about it, though, it does give a bit of an edge to people who already know about the program. So maybe we change up how we do it in future. Will have to think it over.

And thanks Jan & Carmen.
Elisa: You will never please everybody.

I just want you to know that I definitely noticed the pains you took to keep the conference affordable and appreciate them. I know I had some logistical gripes about the internet access, but I chalk it up to growing pains. Big deal. I loved that you had so many sponsors -- and did not take offense at any of the swag (and for the record - even though I am a heterosexual mom, I have no use for the bib or condoms - SO WHAT?)

You, Lisa and Jory are my rock stars. (And please, please, let me live blog again! I enjoy it...)
I am just flabbergasted that attendees are complaining that the totebag didn't contain items tailored specifically to them. Are people really that selfish or greedy? I don't need a condom, nor can I wear a size Small t-shirt, but I don't hate Elexa for putting them in the totebag.

I'm writing my own post about this today, because I can't keep quiet about it. When I come to Chicago next year, I will listen to the sponsor's session introductions, I will gratefully accept a bag of sponsor's products, and if GM wants to bring cars again, I won't be too chicken to drive one! See you in Chicago, Elisa. I'll make sure to personally thank you for all your hard work.
Thanks Donna and Elizabeth. Elizabeth I look forward to your post.

To be fair, although there are some folks for whom even the existence of an item they don't like is reason enough to hurl scorn, I think there are also rational voices talking about what they feel is the preponderance of items targeting one group or another.

But this returns to my point about perception.

I could lay out all the items (in fact I think several people posted pictures like that.) We could do a count. We could calculate how many items were gender-oriented vs. not, mommy-oriented vs. not, tech-oriented vs. not, weight-loss-oriented vs. not, etc. etc.

But every individual would have a different reaction and a different boundary for what bugs them or doesn't.

If nothing else all of this feedback is excellent information for the sponsors when they're dreaming up what they want to put in a tote bag or use as their sales pitch. So, in fact it will be very helpful for us to illustrate the diversity and sensitivities of the community.
I'm a fan of sponsorship, personally. The people who were morally offended by it are impractical and not living in the real world. I think overall you all did a fantastic job with such a huge undertaking, and said so much on surfette today.

From an ad professional perspective though, you are absolutely within your bounds to give a few guidelines to your sponsors. You don't have to dictate content, but you can certainly inform, say, J&J that it's not exclusively a conference full of mothers. I think they'd be pleased to have the information. All a marketer really wants to do is connect with their audience in the least polarizing way possible.
Thanks Mom101 for the professional opinion. I appreciate it.

Hi Melba: Sounds like you're planning a really interesting event! You certainly can't please everyone, usually, but perhaps you could have a small, diverse advisory group to run ideas by for a sanity check. We have such an advisory board for the BlogHer conference, and it was helpful...particularly before our first event. you can also blog any real question you have and see what the community has to say in response.
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