This was my second BlogHer conference; BlogHer’12 (New York City) was my first, and BlogHer’14 (San Jose) was my chance to be the veteran, swagger in full effect. Well, what passes for swagger. It mostly translated to “I’m not putting on tons of makeup for this.” With the location for BlogHer’15 still unannounced, here’s my take on what to consider before making travel reservations for 2015. For those who haven’t seen a “plus/delta” before, plus represents things that worked well and delta is for things that need improving (delta being a symbol for change).
I met my soulmate. I was introduced to Slap Dash Mom by a mutual friend, and we were on the same wavelength from the first minute. Sadie knocked me over with her awesomeness. We were some kind of stupid chick flick on the afternoon we left San Jose, when she was due to board her flight at the same time JetBlue would finally open their counter to let me check my bag, effectively circumventing our last shot at ONE FINAL HUG. Luckily, her flight got delayed – and the line at security was short – so we managed to get one last little visit in. It was some serious Hollywood material. Truly: call us. We’ll help write the script, guys. Have your people call my people.
My path is MUCH clearer. My aforementioned soulmate is a highly accomplished blogger and, during our first evening together, she gave me a “Come to Sadie” talking-to that I really needed. It clicked: I understood that, in the choice between running an online journal and running a blog, I preferred to have a blog. I realized that what she was talking about – running self-hosted on my own domain, finding ways to engage with brands where money or goods may be offered but my morals aren’t for sale, etc. – was the direction I really wanted to go. THIS is why I came to BlogHer: to find my path.
I made new brand connections! This trip, I talked with brands I hadn’t met before and satisfied my curiosity about products I didn’t know very well. In some cases, this meant I got information and set up relationships that will lead to “work” together; in other cases, it helped me quickly cross things off my list. Bloggers, especially newbies, may assume that any brand that shows interest is one that you should do work with; depending upon your specific goals, that may – or may not – be the case.
I learned some best practices. I heard about optimizing WordPress, using visuals to improve your blog, and key elements for creative non-fiction. I’m planning to channel these lessons into improvements I’m rolling out over the next couple of months, and having face-to-face connections with these subject matter experts was really helpful.
I made a bunch of new friends! I met bloggers at a variety of experience levels, and so many people were nice, funny, kind, and cool people. It’s lovely to fly 3,000 miles and meet people who you’d love to see every day. Jana of Merlot Mommy, Christy of Giveaway Train, Carol of All Mommy Wants, and Melanie of She’s Write are just some of the fabulous people I met.
When I joked that San Jose wasn’t the desert, I didn’t expect them to hide the water. For some reason, water was exceptionally hard to find at BlogHer’14. In fact, as we wandered the Expo Hall on opening night, bartenders explained champagne was free but water was $2/bottle. Wat. If we’re going to support health, let’s start with hydration, please. Since cups seemed to be the most popular swag choice for BlogHer’14 sponsors, it would’ve been nice if one was included in the conference tote bags, along with a map for hydration stations.
Brands are running away from BlogHer conferences. According to current exhibitors, it’s obvious that the costs of BlogHer participation are becoming – or have become – too high. Whether it’s the five-figure sponsor fees or the tight restrictions on events/giveaways and badges, BlogHer is getting a reputation as being brand-unfriendly. This clearly contributed to the founding of Blogger Bash, a brand-oriented event held in New York City the weekend prior to BlogHer’14. Apparently, outboarding events – timed to coincide with the conference but without the sponsorship $$$ heading to BlogHer – got out of control at BlogHer’13, but the pendulum swung too far in the other direction for 2014. Note: Outboarding events still occurred, but they were greatly diminished in number.
Which brings us to swag…or the lack thereof. I’m no swagwhore, but the distinct lack of quality swag was fairly depressing. Fab swag kudos go to the teams at official sponsors Chuck E. Cheese (board games and tokens), Baskin Robbins (ice cream!), Bridgestone/Firestone (tote bags and those amazing tire cake pops), and Skype (power stations, rain jackets, and the ever-present cups). That’s not to say that other folks didn’t have great swag, but the majority of the offerings were minimal. Even “room drops” – items delivered to your room when you stay in an official conference block room – were minimal to non-existent. My roommate and I only got stickers from The Mrs. (tune to enoughsong.com to hear their tune); others got stickers and cupcakes. The consistent theme was, “No, you’re actually in a desert and just didn’t know it”. Perhaps if BlogHer lowered their sponsor fees, sponsors might be more inclined to dangle better swag and increase booth traffic.
Trust in the BlogHer team is diminishing. There were several “official” events (breakfasts, talks, etc.) with a limited sign-up window and, “in the interest of fairness”, random selection of bloggers rather than first-come, first-served. One look at who got the first batches of confirmations suggests that “random” was a creative term. Bloggers with well-established brand relationships coincidentally landed spots at these exclusive events, shutting out new folks. Any attempt to swap or otherwise open space up was greeted with iron fists and disinvites. If the brands or BlogHer want to fill events with bloggers that have pre-established relationships, they should be honest about it. Disclosing “pre-existing relationships will increase your likelihood of getting chosen” will at least give people a sense of whether they should get their hopes up. That said, I would prefer first-come, first-served: let those with the fastest fingers win. Or let people apply and the brand picks who they want. Transparency is better than opacity that’s pretty damn easy to see through.
Session diversity and organization needs to improve. The most common complaint was that sessions were too high-level or aimed at newbies. Experienced, well-established bloggers are looking for more connections (with each other and/or brands) and to take their blogs to the next level. General sessions, where material lacks depth, don’t really serve that need. To that end, I’d recommend that BlogHer do two very important things.
- Set up specific tracks, i.e. “Beginner, Experienced, Advanced”, and then build content in each track to support the needs of those different bloggers. Of course, you let people roam in case they’re newer to one thing than another, but having categories and developing content for each unique need is vital to re-establishing BlogHer’s place as THE conference for bloggers.
- Put screens at each Geek Bar table. A distinct lack of A/V support hampered some of the sessions, and that’s not supportive of the speakers that are taking the time to develop and conduct presentations/sessions.
Verdict: Ultimately, ANY conference is what you make of it. There will always be sessions that don’t quite grab you, food that’s not 100% fantastic, and people that turn their nose up rather than say “Hi” to a stranger. On the flip side, there is always at least one nugget of wisdom, there’s always a restaurant or SOMEWHERE nearby for better food, and there’s always at least one nice person who’d love to be your friend. I had a blast at BlogHer’14, neither in spite of it nor because of it. I hung out with friends both new and old, I learned a lot, and I soaked up plenty of sun. I can make a party anywhere. So, before you go to BlogHer’15 – or any other conference – the question for you is: Can you say the same?