Eric Enge Interviews Kevin Ryan About His First SES

Picture of Kevin Ryan

Kevin Ryan


One week after his first SES event, I caught up with Kevin Ryan to debrief him on how the event went. 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 share with me your general impressions on how SES Chicago went?

Kevin Ryan: Attendance was consistent with what we were expecting, and I think we were in the neighborhood of three thousand attendees. I am not the guy to ask about the exhibit hall, but I took a stroll through there, and it seemed to be that it seemed to be a quite a few people were working and doing some business.

Press feedback was also pretty solid. I saw a lot of positive feedback, and a lot constructive feedback, and then the occasional vacuous link bait.

Eric Enge: If there was no vacuous link bait, that might be a sign of a problem after all.

Kevin Ryan: Yes, if somebody is not orchestrating a series of captious criticisms that are driven by their own axe grinding agenda, we are missing something! We would not have reached out to an appropriate segment in the market place. With, anything that you do, you just have to expect it, but what I really appreciate overall is when there is a delegate or a conference attendee that has shelled out the money to come to the event that actually takes time to write some feedback, and those I absolutely always pay attention to and I always read everything sent in.

Eric Enge: Do you think the fact that it was running at the same time at WebmasterWorld had an impact at all?

Kevin Ryan: I am just a hundred percent focused on doing what I do, and looking forward as opposed to over my shoulder, so it’d probably be irresponsible for me to speculate that. I think they were like four conferences going on at once, it wasn’t just WebmasterWorld; and three of which I think were focused on search, so I am sure of that in some way, shape or form, they affect each other.

Eric Enge: Indeed, my own impression was that there was a strong turnout, so that’s a good thing.

Kevin Ryan: Yes, honestly I have never been to a PubCon or a WebmasterWorld, so I wouldn’t know what to you expect there, I just know the difference between Vegas and Chicago.

Eric Enge: Right, they’re totally different cities. I think I’ll agree to that. You made a lot of changes in the show. Can you talk about what you were trying to accomplish, and how all that went?

Kevin Ryan: There were a bunch of changes, there were quite a few new speakers, and some new topics. Almost all of it was either driven by delegate feedback, and there was an overwhelming feeling that it was the same information being presented over and over again. I really wanted to get away from that, and I also wanted to introduce a higher level of speaker, particularly in the keynote arena. I wanted to add some strategic thought, and step outside the industry to get some opinions as to where we are in the business, and provide some high level of thought process to layout the week’s tactical events.

That’s pretty much what we did with day-1, focused on strategy, focused on where is the business headed and what kind of changes we should be making at a higher level. I don’t think the attendees in the past got exposure to that. That’s where the bulk of the positive feedback came from, the Orion panels, and the keynotes, so we were, I am very happy that that was successful, and we are going to continue on with that theme.

Eric Enge: Right. When you introduced Seth Godin on the second day, you actually, at that time commented about the first day being more strategic, almost like there was a plan to start strategic and then move into more tactical stuff as you get deeper into the conference. Is that a fair summary?

Kevin Ryan: Yes. The high levels tactics usually don’t make a whole lot of sense without some kind of strategy; and ultimately, in the absence of a high level industry view, the rest of what we do often doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. We know why we were doing it, because there is an immediate need for it, but at the higher level, it’s always good to provide some level of guidance or some level of this is why we are here. And, I think that’s kind of reflected in the feedback that we got that it was very popular, Sasso7.18 is a great speakers as well.

In addition, Seth is a really hot topic right now, his brand of advice and research is very, very popular.

Eric Enge: Yes. In my blog post about his keynote, I started it with “watching Seth Godin was like watching a nightclub entertainer”.

Kevin Ryan: He is very good on stage, and everyday it gets more and more difficult to find people who can both inform and entertain, but don’t doubt it, they’re out there.

Eric Enge: You mentioned that you sought speaker from outside the industry, such as a Don Schultz, or a David Isenberg. How is it that you targeted those guys and would you bring them back or you are going to look for different outside the industry people for New York and San Jose and other events?

Kevin Ryan: I really enjoyed, Don. Don is one of the brightest people in the business, and when I had originally spoken to him, I asked him, very sheepishly I guess to take a look at the industry and to take a look at the search industry specifically and offer some insight just to where he thought it was and where it needed to be. And hence, he spoke about the Rodney Dangerfield School of Search Engine Marketing.

For a lot of, traditional search guys that was pretty hard to hear, and there was some feedback that hey, if you knew this several years ago and you could have said it then. It’s different when Don Schultz says it, that’s just a fact of where we are in the business. As far as continuing along with that theme going forward, sure, I would love to have Don back, but it’s very difficult to get him, because his schedule is very demanding, but we will definitely do more with thought leaders in the keynote arena.

Eric Enge: My own take on Don’s presentation is that as an industry, because it is growing, it feel like it’s the be all and end all of everything, but as he rightly pointed out, it’s such a tiny portion of the marketing budgets of large corporations, that you can’t even attract the CEO’s attention. So what if it offers five times higher ROI, if you can only spend two/tenths of a percent of your budget on it, it just doesn’t really impact the business. That sort of mindset was refreshing to see. I would probably debate some aspects of his presentation with him, but that essential point was really well made.

Kevin Ryan: I think it was important for somebody to say it, and to deliver it in such a coherent manner is actually kind of rare, so I was very happy to have him.

Going down the road, we would definitely want to have more industry outsiders giving us perspective. As an example, I will give you a bit of a sneak peak at London and New York. There is a new book coming out very shortly by Nick Clarke that focuses on how Google changed the world, and you know the people have taken a look at it preliminarily are already calling it the next John Batelle book, which is pretty high praise.

He will be speaking at London, and I am bringing him back for New York as well as a follow-up, but there will be more of those types of speakers. In addition, there were a lot of follow-up emails from delegates that said why, can’t we have an Orion session everyday, and I am looking into that.

Obviously, we wanted to keep everybody moving and excited, so it’s a possibility that we might do a morning keynote followed by a Orion session, so going forward we will take a look at that.

Eric Enge: There was really quite a different set of speakers at the event. How do you feel that did overall, and how will that impact the speaker selection at London and in New York?

Kevin Ryan: I have a great conference chair in London with Mike Grehan. We, at Search Engine Strategies are still programming those events, but it’s very helpful to have somebody like Mike involved in the process. Anytime you do an event in a different geography, you have to be geographically sensitive as to who is speaking there. So, for example, Chicago is going to have a very different theme. Don Schultz, that’s his home in Chicago.

In New York I want to bring in some media folks, some New York folks. Next year’s San Jose is the tenth anniversary of SES and Search Engine Watch, so we are adding some additional things there. But as far as the speakers go, we are trying to do away with some of the cartoony speaker evaluations that we have seen in the past, and just taking a little bit more of a stronger focus on assessing those speakers based on their ratings as provided by the delegates.

I guess it’s kind of a vague answer, but as we move forward, we will be going to be looking at delegate feedback, and taking a very strong look at some of the new folks that are coming in, and at the same trying to embrace some of the old, more traditional speakers of SES.

Eric Enge: A mix of the old and new is the thinking.

Kevin Ryan: Yes, absolutely. You definitely want to target the audience because you want to have an event that resonates with the local folks. With exception of the die hard folks who are at every event, every SES, the delegate base is specific to each geography, so why not roll out a theme for those events.

Eric Enge: Well, so in New York, you have a bit more of media orientation for example, but then in San Jose, you have a bit more of a developer or a technical orientation.

Kevin Ryan: Sure, absolutely. That’s not to say that in New York we will eliminate all of the technical sessions, but, we definitely want to embrace the local culture as it were.

We also have a lot of delegate feedback that many would love to come to all of the SES events, which of course is what we absolutely love to hear. But in order to accommodate that, we need to the change up the content quite a bit. One primary focus for me since day one was getting some new content in there, and even if we are having some old speakers, we wanted them to bring their stuff up-to-date, and most of the speakers I saw honored that that request. I was very happy to see that.

Eric Enge: When will the SES New York agenda be visible to people?

Kevin Ryan: We are expecting to have that the first or second week of January.

Eric Enge: Are you taking suggestions for sessions now?

Kevin Ryan: Absolutely, yes.

Eric Enge: I also heard that the moderators were all asked to go through training. One aspect was making sure that the questions that were fielded by panels drew on the unique aspects and capabilities of each of the speakers which doesn’t always happen naturally.

Kevin Ryan: I think that the moderator role over the last few years at SES was somewhat marginalized. To me, that’s one of the most important roles at the events. You saw a lot of Kevin Heisler, who is Search Engine Watch’s executive editor. I put him on the lot of panels, and he is a great moderator. Anne Kennedy is a great moderator, and Jeffrey Rohrs is a great moderator. That role can mean a successful panel, or a bad one.

So prior to Chicago we did a little bit of moderator training, to make sure that everybody was on the same page. It was very difficult to orchestrate on a large scale, but certainly critically important.

Eric Enge: How active were the advisory boards in terms of helping shape the Chicago event?

Kevin Ryan: They actually had a lot of input in terms of what should the content look like. The board represents a very diverse group of people from SEO practioners, to marketers on a large scale. I am very demanding in terms of what I expect from them, but also for a few of them that was actually their first SES. For example, for Carol Cruise from Coca-Cola, this was her first Search Engine Strategies event.

I asked people like her to take a look at the content, take a look at the structure, and provide some feedback as to what they think would be most appropriate going forward, and what were some of the issues that they face; and bring them to the front of the stage so to speak. The advisory board meets quarterly and like any other advisory board; there are folks that are more active, spend more time in it and there are folks where the demands on their time are incredibly great, so they don’t quite have as much time as some of the others.

For example, James Lamberti from comScore is doing some customized research that’s specific to SES that you won’t be able to get anywhere else, and that’s predicated upon a series of questions that I had asked about monitoring blended search activity. People spend a lot of time trying to understand it, and with that research we can get some unique insights. We are going to follow-up with a new blended search, universal search panel in New York, as an Orion panel. We will be releasing research that’s specific to blended search and how people are using it and the impact it’s having on both natural search and paid search.

That’s the kind of thing that I want to keep doing going forward. It’s nice that we have an exclusive relationship with that information, but it’s also great for the delegates to be able to see some of that information first hand, and James’s information, was literally prepared a couple of days before the event.

Eric Enge: Right, that’s great. What about a key lesson form Chicago and how that will impact future events?

Kevin Ryan: We got some constructive feedback which I really appreciate. The idea for reducing the number of speakers, and shortening some of the speaker presentations was one piece of feedback, and to give more time for Q&A. Beginning with London and New York we will be separating out the very tactical workshops from the panel discussions and making sure there is a clear line between how those presentations are prepared, and ultimately what’s shared in the sessions.

One of the things that came out at Chicago is that we have, for several years done a series of clinics which are very popular. This is where the delegates can come in and have their sites reviewed, and basically have the experts just critique what they are doing with their landing pages and site architecture.

I did some polling of people who had their site review to follow up on what happens after those recommendations are made. So one of the things that we are going to do in New York, is have a few sessions on some case studies of what happened to sites that were reviewed in the previous SES clinics.

Eric Enge: Figuring out who it was that got reviewed and contacting them is non-trivial, I would imagine.

Kevin Ryan: It is, and then following up timelines of when the changes are made and what they had money to do, was also very difficult so we are going to be showing a series of case studies is in New York that came out of prior SES clinics.

Eric Enge: That sounds very interesting. T wrap up, can you talk a bit about the new magazine, SES magazine?

Kevin Ryan: SES Magazine was brand new, and we got a lot of positive feedback on that as well. There was definitely some constructive feedback that a couple of folks found it difficult to take notes, because they didn’t have a notebook. We are going to address that with New York and going forward, but the SES Magazine itself isn’t going away. We plan to take it up a notch in terms of content, and will take it up a notch in terms of presence.

Eric Enge: Thanks Kevin!

Kevin Ryan: My pleasure, thank you!

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