An Interview With Incisive Media's Kevin Ryan

Published: September 4, 2007

Kevin Ryan

Recently I spoke to Kevin Ryan, the person at Incisive Media that has taken over responsibility for the Search Engine Strategies shows. Here is his bio for his career prior to Incisive:

Search Editor, iMedia Communications; CEO, Kinetic Results; VP, Interactive, Wahlstrom Interactive. Kevin Ryan' s current and former client roster reads like a “who´s who” in big brands; Rolex Watch, USA, State Farm Insurance, Farmers Insurance, Minolta Corporation, Samsung Electronics America, Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Panasonic Services, and the Hilton Hotels brands, to name a few.

Ryan believes in sound guidance, creative thought, accountable actions and collaborative execution as applied to search, or any form of marketing. His principled approach and staunch commitment to the industry have made him one of the most sought-after personalities in online marketing. Ryan volunteers his time with the Interactive Advertising Bureau, Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization, and more.

Interview Transcript

Eric Enge: Can you provide us with a little bit of your background?

Kevin Ryan: Most of my career has been spent in ad agencies. I started at a very small agency in Rochester, New York. From there I went to a midsized agency which was around ten million in sales. The next agency was about sixty million and I was there for about four years or five years. Then, I went to a very large agency that was ultimately owned by Interpublic Group. The first couple of years of my career I was in traditional media. And then, when the Interactive world started to pop, I moved into Interactive.

When I was in business school, we had computers, but when I got out of school all of a sudden the world was in this Windows environment. Then, they had this Internet thing coming along and pretty much since day one I've been fighting with the old guard about embracing what we referred to at the time as new media.

I got into search about eight years or ten years ago. It just seemed like one of the disciplines that nobody was paying any attention to. This was the way it was, until it started to make money and it saved the world of Internet advertising. All of a sudden it seemed to make a lot of sense to a lot of people. I guess I always approached it from a marketing or advertising perspective as opposed to a pure play technological perspective.

But, I've lived in both worlds and understand both worlds, and the whole thing is pretty interesting to me. So, after a career with agencies, when I left the big agency I had bouts of entrepreneurialism, which ultimately led to starting my own shop. Within a year we were named a top twenty-third shop by Advertising Age, which is kind of nice.

Ultimately I took a break from that, and the Incisive people approached me. It sounded like a very interesting, very unique challenge, so I decided to take it on.

Eric Enge: So tell the readers about the responsibilities you have at Incisive.

Kevin Ryan: I have the longest title in the history of titles, which is the Vice President, Global Content Director for Search Engine Strategies and Search Engine Watch. I am responsible for programming and maintaining the relationships we have with our regional chairs for SES along with assisting and facilitating the role of the regional or the vertical chairs that we have in helping them program, and ultimately making sure the content is top level content.

Eric Enge: You mentioned Search Engine Watch, so you are actually overseeing Search Engine Watch as well.

Kevin Ryan: The management team here believes it's very important to have the sites, at least Search Engine Strategies and Search Engine Watch, together under one uniform leadership. To be perfectly candid, however, I wanted nothing to do with the day to day editorial responsibilities, so that still falls under Rebecca Lieb.

Eric Enge: Can you begin to summarize your role in terms of how you are looking at Search Engine Strategies and the pieces that you are going to get more involved in versus those which you are going to delegate?

Kevin Ryan: The show has existed as a standalone entity for a very long time. There seems to be very little competition in this space, and as the market place starts to get into its adolescence, there are more people doing shows. There is going to be a much greater demand for the speaker channels and the content channels. Guiding the higher level strategic direction is basically my primary role, but I also spend a great deal of time talking to the speakers and talking to audience members when I go to the shows.

At this point in the job, I am spending a lot of time talking to the attendees, and to the delegates. I am spending a lot of time talking to the people who are out there in the industry and doing it everyday. It's kind of an interesting thing for me after being a doer for so long, I get to take a step back and be a watcher for a while. I am finding this entertaining, because I am basically free to make the types of assessments I have always made without some of the obligations that I had as an agency owner or an agency personality.

Eric Enge: You can step back a little bit.

Kevin Ryan: Yes. So, I am reorganizing the content teams here and the structure internally. This is basically a position that didn't exist before, so I have a lot of latitude in terms of what that looks like. The global aspects of my job are very specific. There are lots of new markets that we are heading into, and there are lots of old markets that we've kind of been dwelling on for a while, and it's time to get it done.

Eric Enge: Are you looking to have more shows?

Kevin Ryan: Probably, but it's hard to say at this point what new shows we might do. I think we are refining the content in the existing shows. There will be some new shows, but I believe we've reached max capacity with the Hub shows in terms of the number of people that can actually attend these larger events. People now have to make choices between attending events that they've never had to make before.

At the same time, there are still large numbers of people that, for one reason or another just don't know the basics about search, and they need to ramp up pretty quickly. The primary focus is giving people access to the early adopter information, as well as keeping them up to speed on changes in the space. I think an area of that that the SES show hasn't necessarily touched on much in the past that we are going to spend some more time with, is all of the areas that touch search.

Eric Enge: What are examples of some of the areas that touch search that could potentially become part of the shows?

Kevin Ryan: What is search's relationship with video? What is search's relationship with traditional advertising? What is search's relationship with some of the longer standing formats in online advertising?

What is the impact of widgets that are starting to change the marketing universe? All the things that touch on universal search, and all the things that are trying to come together. What do those look like, and what's that relationship? I don't think anybody has really started to explore that yet.

Eric Enge: You did mention that the major Hubs are pretty much at max capacity, so do you see the potential for new shows in more localized markets?

Kevin Ryan: By max capacity I should probably clarify. I mean that the amount of information that could be passed along to the existing group of people is probably at its peak. This also relates to the number of people that have to choose between the shows they attend. You obviously want them to choose your show or your event, because it's the best one, or because it has the most broad representation of the market place.

In order to do that, we have created an SES Advisory Board, which has been completed and will be announced just prior to SES Jose.

Eric Enge: What will the duties of the board be?

Kevin Ryan: Their role will be to provide insights as to what we should be looking at in terms of content, what's important to them, what types of things we are missing. That's basically the function of an Advisory Board and essentially creating what I would refer to as a unified approach to developing content, as opposed to an individual representing an entire industry which I don't think serves the industry well.

Eric Enge: Basically the board is going to provide some top down external view analysis like the boards typically do for companies. They will help to see the holes in the plan, and new opportunities that are coming up, and these sorts of things.

Kevin Ryan: Absolutely.

Eric Enge: So, undoubtedly you'd pick people from a wide variety of places in the industry to help facilitate all that.

Kevin Ryan: Absolutely. From major household brands to small SEO shops.

Eric Enge: Do you anticipate any short term changes in SES?

Kevin Ryan: Probably not. There are some changes that will occur with Chicago, which will be the first show that I am programming exclusively. The first month I was on board, all I did was respond to emails of people that want a change in SES. I've been getting a lot of data, a lot of feedback from the attendees, as well as the existing speakers.

Over time you'll see a lot more changes, changes that the constituencies have been asking for. When you look at the communication that I've had over the last thirty days, there are definitely some resounding themes that start to occur.

Eric Enge: Yes. One of those that you alluded to in your interview with Rand Fishkin, and I think you've been six days on the job, that was just the challenge of keeping content fresh and changing.

Kevin Ryan: It is becoming increasingly difficult and hard to manage on this grand a scale. But, I am confident in the team that we have in place now and the people that are basically behind this show.

Eric Enge: Are you going to do some things to increase the level of fresh content?

Kevin Ryan: I have communicated on a very large scale with the speaker database and made it very clear that if you are going to be presenting information at SES, don't present that presentation anywhere else. It's pretty simple, I don't want to see content that's been at another show. I have seen some pretty wild things in my time just attending these events and been involved with more than one company in the space that helps rate shows, and they are producing really amazing content.

Obviously, you can't control everyone and there is always going to be the random person that thinks they are above the rules. But for the most part, when people say look, you've got to give fresh content; you can't get up there and sell yourself, and explain that in detail why it has to be that way, they are usually pretty receptive. Speakers who for one reason or another can't go along with that just won't be invited back.

Eric Enge: What's the best way for someone to become a speaker?

Kevin Ryan: When we open up the content for upcoming shows, there is always a link where you can submit a speaker proposal. That's the best way to do it. Contacting the sales department is not a way to become a speaker. You can be investing millions of dollars in sponsorships and unfortunately that has absolutely no influence over my decision to put a speaker on the docket.

Eric Enge: You have to protect product quality and you have those walls up to keep your on obtaining the best content.

Kevin Ryan: Yes. It's increasingly shocking to me that there are great events where speakers stand up there and self promote their own products.

Eric Enge: The speaker should not use their presentation to sell themselves, because the fact that they are standing there already does that for them.

Kevin Ryan: It's just common sense. There is always an element of yes, I need to tell people what I am doing and who I am and where I am from, but that's ultimately the job of the moderator of the session. Selling the content for an event to get the speaker's role is one thing, but getting up there and selling yourself is entirely another. Your role is to be the expert - you don't even have to mention your company. Half the time when I was speaking at events, I would completely forget to mention which company I was with. If you are that good people will find you.

Eric Enge: What advice can you give about the best way to write a compelling application to become a speaker?

Kevin Ryan: The best way to write a compelling application is to be very topical and be very, very focused on providing a broad scope of what you offer. The most successful people who do this are actually offering to bring a broad perspective of the subject that they are recommending as opposed to trying to sell the person as an expert. They will actually suggest panels, they will actually suggest content, and help advise speakers and then help track them down, which is always a very difficult thing to do. A good example of this is that there is a session that we have in San Jose on the ClickZ track, I won't say which one, but they had actually approached me with hey this is the subject that we are looking for, this is the topic in the area, and these are the speakers we are suggesting, and they happen to be competitive.

When you are talking about a case study or something that has been a success, people want to hear from the client. Getting to meeting with the vendor or a provider is easy and it's usually free, but getting somebody to sit down a brand owner and actually talk about their experience and validate the content is much harder. It's far more difficult and it's far more interesting to the audience.

The last thing I would say is to be brief. I think the most common mistake that I see is overly long emails, sometimes 4 and 5 pages long. No one has time to read that.

Eric Enge: To summarize: (1) sell your topic; (2) don't spend too much time selling yourself, and: (3) be brief and to the point. Ideally if you can bring more to the table, that's great, such as here's how the panel would be put together.

Kevin Ryan: Yes.

Eric Enge: Do you plan to have people operate independently as conference chairs?

Kevin Ryan: In some of the international shows we are doing that, where they would actually be co-chairs with me. We don't want to create what basically amounts to a single point of failure for the brand of the shows. For example, we just announced that Mike Grehan will be co-chairing in London, and there would be upcoming announcements about other areas as well.

Eric Enge: With foreign shows, there are just enough additional issues that it's good to have someone local.

Kevin Ryan: Yes. At the same time Incisive is a global company. They have offices all over the world. So, we do have resources and feet on the street in China. I've spent a lot of time in China, and it's a burgeoning marketplace. It's really exciting but I am not sure what to do yet.

We are looking for very specific types of market places that will actually draw the people in and build the model that we've built here in the US, of quality content.

Eric Enge: Can you talk about just the overall vision for Search Engine Strategies at this point and where you see it going in the longer term?

Kevin Ryan: It's becoming much more diverse. There is a large element of search that is becoming more and more marketing and or advertising focused. It seems to me that the optimization of types of search are becoming more and more standardized, but I still believe that there is a large group of people out there who just don't understand it and probably never will, but, they should at least prepare themselves. The industry is becoming much more educated on the subject of search, of search engine marketing, search engine optimization and search engine advertising. The face of search is starting to change.

It's becoming a much more integrated vehicle for communication, for marketing, advertising and access to public information. I think that the SES and SEW brands should change with it, and become more diverse. I think it should be open to a much larger group of people. For such a long time it was a private joke and no one else was invited to participate. And, when new people do try to approach it, they are often treated like outsiders and I don't think that's the way search should be treated. I think it should be treated as a vehicle for everyone to understand. Everyone should feel welcome in coming to an SES or coming to Search Engine Watch to learn about it.

Eric Enge: Is there going to be more and more overlap and integration with other Incisive events, or more commonality in formats and merging of the thinking with the other Incisive shows?

Kevin Ryan: I've been spending a lot of time actually attending some of those shows and some of the other events. We are also doing a lot of vertically specific shows and I have actually been attending those. I went to the video event here in Manhattan a couple of weeks ago and I found it absolutely fascinating. There is a lot that we can do to improve SES by learning from these shows, and vice versa.

Eric Enge: Excellent. Well, I really appreciate you taking your time.

Kevin Ryan: Yes, thank you as well!

Other Recent Interviews

  1. Market Motive's John Marshall - August 15, 2007
  2. Danny Sullivan - August 13, 2007
  3. Clickz's Rebecca Lieb - August 6, 2007
  4. Robert Scoble - July 23, 2007
  5. Unica's Rand Schulman - July 16, 2007
  6. Google VP Search Quality Udi Manber - July 9, 2007
  7. Google's Vanessa Fox - July 2, 2007
  8. Seth Godin - June 20, 2007

About the Author

Eric Enge is the Founder and President of Stone Temple Consulting (STC). STC offers Internet marketing optimization services, including SEO, Social Media and PPC optimization, and its web site can be found at: http://www.stonetemple.com.

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