As many readers know, Search Engine Strategies New York starts next week. For those that are unaware, this is a search engine marketing conference put on by Incisive Media, the same people that operate Search Engine Watch.
Many SEW Experts and bloggers will be moderating or speaking on panels, including me. I will moderate a panel on creating compelling ads for pay-per-click campaigns on Monday, and then a contextual advertising panel on Tuesday. I'll also be speaking on a panel on Thursday regarding advanced link building strategies.
Having participated in search conferences since 2003, I can say that I have learned a lot about this industry as a result of my attendance. One of the reasons I have been able to get so much out of the sessions I attend is that I pay as much, if not closer, attention to the questions and answers afterward as I do to the actual presentations. Asking good questions that will get you actionable answers to use when you get back to work is one way to help get the most you can out of attending.
I have always lived by the mantra "ask and you shall receive." No, this does not mean that I expect to be given everything I ask for, but it's more along the lines of "you can't get an answer or a result without first asking for it." So my recommendation for when the microphone is passed to you is to be very specific in the way you form your questions.
For example, instead of asking "what is the best way to treat price points in paid search ad creative copy," one should instead ask the panelists to "please give specific examples of a situation where they have used price points or avoided them."
Many of the speakers will likely be unable to provide a client name, if on the agency side. But they should feel honor-bound to either provide a concrete example by industry, or honestly say they have never used price points. An in-house SEM may be more willing and able to elaborate on personal experience, since they are not bound by client confidentiality.
Being bold in your style of questioning will likely lead to much more useful answers from the panel. Naturally, the caveat here is that there comes a point when too much information is asked for. However, in the dozens of sessions I have appeared in or attended, I have never heard a speaker say they could not answer a question. There is wiggle room...use it!
If there is an angle that the speakers did not cover that you think of during the presentations or have considered prior to attending, ask the question! No one will think you are stupid; at least no one that really matters will. Chances are, your question will offer value to other attendees that had not considered the subject, or were afraid to ask the question themselves. In fact, I have sat on many panels that have led me to consider new strategies or research based on audience questions.
Instead of asking a speaker to clarify a point, or to provide their opinion on a potentially stale topic, raise the bar by forcing the panelists to think. If you see a smile coming across the face of a speaker or the moderator, chances are that they are legitimately happy to have heard your question.
The willingness of just one speaker to share advanced information or theory often becomes the catalyst for the other speakers to open up more. After all, who wants to get shown up? As a moderator, I sometimes have to bite my tongue on subjects that I would love to expand upon. If you feel that the moderator may have an opinion on something, there is no harm in asking them during the session – but remember that moderators too are available after the session (more on this later).
Be Persistent, Yet Mannerly
Unlike politicians, panelists should be held responsible for answering questions to the best of their ability without "giving away the farm." If you feel that the question gets danced around, there is no harm (in my opinion) in rewording the question or asking speakers to further clarify their positions.
Todd Malicoat, aka "Stuntdubl" recently wrote an excellent piece on things not to do at conferences. One of the things Todd focuses on is "not being a stalker." It is a valid point that you probably do not want to pester a speaker, however following up with them either directly after the panel or at a networking event is perfectly acceptable, in my book.
One should understand that many of the speakers have very busy schedules and they may not be able to spend a ton of time answering follow-up questions. However, most would likely feel honored to be share their expertise about a topic they spoke on. The key is to be professional.
As I mentioned previously, don't forget that the moderator is also available to answer questions after a panel. The role of the moderator is to facilitate the session and let the speakers be the stars, but most moderators are in that role due to their significant experience in the industry. Moderators are humans too, and the courtesy of a question from a conference attendee is also a compliment to them.
One caveat before kicking it over to my friend Frank for his crossfire: please do not ask insensitive or inappropriate questions. Also, if you arrive with ten minutes to go in the QA portion of the panel, you may want to wait until after the session to approach a speaker with a question, in order not to be "that guy" that asks the same question that was asked five minutes prior to your arrival.
Please feel free to reach out to me next week at SES! I look forward to learning from your questions. Also, if you have further advice on asking questions at SES, please share it at the Search Engine Watch Forums thread dedicated to this topic.
Frank Watson Responds
Come on Chris, you rarely have to ask for anything to receive...you are Mr. Boggs: ex-Marine, Search Wizard extraordinaire.
But jokes aside, I agree, you must listen during the Q&A and the keynotes. And think of what you would like to ask before you get there. Even if the presentations do not cover what you wanted, you know from the speakers credentials if they are likely to be able to answer your questions anyway.
And as far as Todd's "don't be a stalker" warning goes, if Matt Cutts can deal with 20 or more Cuttletts following him everywhere, the rest of us can help the odd – and I mean "odd" – person every now and again. I wonder what we would call your stalkers Chris...I'll leave that discussion for the bar at the Hilton.