What Makes An Awesome Blog Conference...And Some Thoughts About Mom Blogger Discontent
I recently returned from Altitude Design Summit and it was a truly remarkable experience. Words such as "supportive" and "inspiring" and "transparent" were common descriptors, and the attendees (save one woman who grilled me on metrics and money within about 20 seconds of introducing herself to me…total buzz kill by the way, lady…) were incredible -- positive, humble, talented, heartfelt. And while I reveled in all of this awesomeness, I also couldn't help but wonder what set this conference apart from others I have attended. More specifically, as I have documented on this blog, I have had really wonderful experiences at BlogHer, Blissdom, and Mom 2.0, but there always ultimately seemed to be something to tarnish the happiness -- whether I experienced it directly or heard about it later -- and the discontent usually involved mom bloggers.
Not surprisingly, I have some thoughts on what made Alt so awesome, how other conferences could follow suit, and what it is about the mom blogger space that may breed discontent. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on any or all of these hypotheses:
Size matters. I believe Alt was around 400 people, which was big enough to have plenty of opportunity to meet people and small enough to bump into people you knew regularly. I hope the conference doesn't get bigger than that. As much as I loved BlogHer in New York City last year (which I believe had an attendance of ~2,500), I think a large part of my happiness was due to the fact that I was reconnecting with a lot of people I already knew. If I was a newbie and didn't have a buddy system in place it probably would have been completely overwhelming. In contrast, at Alt I met people who had started blogs or design businesses within the last couple of months (in one case, one woman had started her blog just two weeks prior...kudos to her!) and the size of the conference allowed these newbies to connect with others in a reasonable way. I tried my best to keep an eye out for anyone who looked adrift and needed an opening into a conversation and didn't see anyone.
Tasteful sponsorship. Not surprisingly, since the organizational team (those unstoppably creative Kirtsy chicks) overlapped with Mom 2.0 (a conference that also handled sponsorship beautifully), sponsorship was tasteful and meaningful. Less was more. Attendees weren't overly saturated and sponsors received due spotlight. Well done. (Also notable? I didn't see a single blogger pushing sponsorship flyers/coupons in irrelevant/irreverent ways... not sure if that was because no one was attending sponsored or because those who were sponsored were representing their sponsors in a tasteful manner.)
Focus on content. One thing that struck me was how passionate attendees were about content first. At blogging conferences, I typically am first asked, "How do you make money off your blog?" At Alt, people first asked me what I write about and/or what I design. And in the closing keynote, it was so refreshing to hear Tina Roth Eisenberg say that if you're thinking about starting a blog to make money (vs. being passionate about content first), don't start a blog. I totally agree.
Bring together talented professionals. When I talked with Liz about why Alt was so different from other conferences, she made the astute point that Alt seemed to be a gathering of attendees who clearly identified as professionals (whether they were designers, photographers, or other creatives), and I think this made a big difference. Specifically, people who are already working in an industry -- compared to those who may be feeling insecure and competitive in the blogging sphere because they are trying to figure out how to make money off their blog as their livelihood -- are inherently going to be more confident and willing to share because they know that amazing things can come from collaboration and sharing.
Tell it like it is. The above point is not to say that I think conferences should solely include established professionals; in contrast, it is wonderful and necessary to welcome newcomers to the field. Thus, I think it's critical to negate the insecurity and competition and nastiness that, in my opinion, stems at least in part from uncertainty and the unspoken, by including conference programming where people share specifics about creating content, building community, metrics, money, etc. There was a lot of this candor going on at Alt, both via panels and offline conversations; indeed, in my panel on making the leap to full time creative, I had many people share how grateful they were that Chelsea, Lisa, Christine, and I shared specifics about everything from rates, to how long it took to make money, to how to gain clients, to what health insurance costs. (Not surprisingly, everyone was horrified by how much it costs for out of pocket insurance in Massachusetts...good thing we opted for the good insurance before I unexpectedly got pregnant...)
Mom blogger hypothesis #1: Identity. Though it may get me in a little bit of trouble, I need to be honest and share that one thing I was wondering was whether the diluted mom blogger factor contributed to the lack of drama at this conference. But it occurred to me that it wasn't that simple -- there were, in fact, tons of moms there (not to mention a startling number of pregnant women...I totally wasn’t special!). So I started wondering about the potential impact of general mom identity/playground clique factors on the mom blogger space. Simply put, I imagine all moms can relate to the notion that being a mom can be a stupidly loaded experience at times. Even if you don't want to be involved in it, there's always baggage/judgment swirling about whether you're doing X, Y, or Z a certain way, and I think it's very possible that this general mom baggage contributes to the feeding frenzy associated with monetizing or "running a successful blog" in the mom blogger space. In contrast, Alt attendees generally identified as designers or design bloggers first. And in a profession such as design, there is the natural expectation that people will have different styles, aesthetics, and ways about going about things. And that these differences are a good and necessary thing. And that collaboration based on these differences yields really good stuff.
Mom blogger hypothesis #2: Approach. I talked with Jon about the above hypothesis the other night and he made an excellent and related point about blogging approach that aligned well with Tina’s comment that she felt that life was too short to not be surrounded by, and share, beautiful things. I suspect that -- barring intentionally comical editorial -- most design blogs share that vision; the focus is on beauty, coolness, innovation, and awesomeness, and the voice thus is positive. In contrast, there’s a lot more positive/negative variability in the mom blog space; indeed, many mom blogs have gained their traction by focusing on the negative aspects of parenthood. If you think about it statistically (because I can’t help doing that), if you have, say, 90% of design bloggers who focus on positive sharing, you're going to have a high likelihood for positive mojo at a design conference. Whereas if you have, say, a 50/50 split on mom bloggers who write positive or negative (or somewhere in the middle), you simply increase the probability for discontent and drama at a conference based on your starting numbers. (Then add to that the discontent about monetization or "A-list status" or whatever and the numbers get worse.)
So, what do you do if you're a blogger who can't stand drama?
The last two points above are not to say that I think mom bloggers should be banned from conferences; with all that I do at Boston Mamas, I am certainly identified as part of this tribe -- though at Alt I referred to that part of my identity as being a parenting/lifestyle writer. And so I am left with two thoughts: First, if you feel that you're essentially wrestling with playground politics in the mom blogger space, a honing and re-framing of identity may help. For example, if you’re identified as a mom blogger but your primary passion is food, perhaps shift to think of yourself as a food blogger. Or if you're all about telling personal history as it relates to being a parent, think of yourself as a memoir writer or storyteller first instead of as a mom blogger. Basically, internal perception matters. Do whatever you can to unhinge general mom baggage from your identity as a writer.
And second: I obviously cannot control (and have no interest in controlling) what percentage of bloggers write with a positive or negative voice. I mean, whether or not we choose to share it, all of us -- whether we're parents or designers or whatever -- have hard days. But this experience at Alt really made me think about how important it is to pick and choose what space to walk into. I'm certainly not writing off parent-oriented conferences altogether (in fact, I'm still hoping I can make a last minute trip with Roll down to Mom 2.0 because I loved this conference so much last year), but as someone who strives to be in a happy and peaceful place, if the odds are better that I can find positive energy and inspiration at conference A over conference B, then hell yes, I’ll allocate my resources to conference A.