The Conference "Pay-to-Play" Mentality: Is it in Your Best Interest?

By David Metter

I want to start here. This may be my Jerry McGuire moment. Maybe I should end here…but this has been eating at me for a while. 

I’ve been in this industry for over 25 years. I started out selling cars at a Chrysler Dealership in Dayton, Ohio. Somehow, I have navigated my career through all facets of the dealership including an executive marketing position for a large dealer group. I have also had the opportunity to work on the vendor side with a start up CRM company in the early days of CRM. My latest startup venture, AutoHook (the artist formally known as HookLogic) was acquired by Urban Science this past year. Along the way, I have had the fortune of building great products, growing businesses, and speaking at events all around the globe. I don’t tell you all of this to stroke my ego, only to frame my position. 

As a dealer, especially as a CMO, it felt like I was asked to speak at EVERY event. Because we were first in with a number of digital marketing initiatives, I had a lot to share, both success and failures. I would often feel like I was on tour. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed sharing my experiences with other progressive dealers. I love my industry and want more people to have success. Dealers who can speak can be in demand at conferences but I have noticed a trend lately. There are less and less dealers speaking, with those spots filled with more vendors. Why is this? Have all of the progressive dealers gone away? Are they afraid to speak? 

On the flip side, I have noticed that the majority of the speaking spots are somehow tied to a sponsorship package. I remember a day when you submitted a topic and content that was relevant to the participants, wasn’t a sales pitch, and you were picked to speak, regardless of your checkbook. Yet, lately, when it comes to many of the conferences our industry has hosted, there is a strong emphasis surrounding the “pay-to-play” mentality. Vendors and auto companies can only present if they pay thousands of dollars to do so. Is this really the best way to educate our dealer audience with the information that is most beneficial to them and their business?

All too often the companies who spend the most money on conferences, that secure the biggest and best booth space or a prime speaking position are not in line with the companies that have the most useful story to tell. I don’t say this because I am envious of these companies or I don’t have the budget to compete. I say it because it’s the truth. It’s gotten so bad, that at one of the largest conferences this past fall, many of the speaking halls were near-empty because the content and speakers were practically the same as previous years…and yes, you guessed right - they were from the same main sponsors.

Even if the content or a speaker is chosen for a spot, it might not get the prime speaking position. At another conference this fall, there was a panel discussion that had “heavyweights.” The session was highly rated by the conference attendees and every seat was taken with people standing in the back of the room. However, they were relegated to a “breakout” because the larger sponsors occupied the larger, main auditorium sessions - and you guessed it, those sessions were not as full. 

It seems that more often than not, my experience, my name, and my brand are simply not enough to secure a speaking position at a conference. It’s sad to say, but as an industry, we need to be better than that. We need to share our wealth of knowledge in order to help others and to inspire our audience rather than just share from those that spend the most to host these events.

I am not alone in my thoughts on this topic. Many vendors have expressed the same sentiment, and attendance at a lot of conferences is dwindling. Are we losing sight of the entire purpose of these networking and educational events? Are the messages being delivered merely the ones backed by the biggest budget, or the best content? Are we providing these audiences with the knowledge they need to truly take their business to the next level?

Personally, I’ve questioned the offers to present at conferences if they are directly tied to a speaking spot. I want to be picked because I have a compelling message and the conference is confident that I won’t sound like an infomercial. Arguably, I am a better presenter than I was 10 years ago. I am WAY more mature and have more successes and a ton more failures to share with the attendees. When I am asked to present, I go above and beyond because my first priority is to make the content worthwhile for the audience, as they are paying good money to be there and learn. Let’s be clear, this is not me taking the opportunity to bash the large conferences as they do have a lot to offer dealerships. However, I strongly encourage you to take a step back and be discerning about who you choose to listen to and which sessions you choose to attend.

So, what do I endorse? I see a higher quality of knowledge being shared at smaller, local events that keep the vendor space equal. I see better content being shared in dealer 20 groups that allow presenters to share valuable insights without having to sponsor the event to do so. Dealers share their “best idea” with their non-competing peers. I also see content being shared on the industry blogs, in free (not paid) webinars, and in whitepapers (again free). And I am going to put our money where my mouth is. We are going to be very selective of where we present and make all of our content open to our industry.

Our first example of this will be a mobile marketing strategy whitepaper that is filled with great information from industry experts. It is not an AutoHook sales and marketing document. It will help those dealers who are searching for a mobile marketing strategy. Instead of forming panels at conferences, we will set up webinar panels and open it up to more people; especially those who can’t convince their ownership to attend the conferences.

I want this topic to be out in the open as it is reflective upon everyone involved in the automotive industry, including myself, and you – if you’ve made it this far. We need to consistently represent the values and principals that we’re proud of and that define us.

How do you feel about the exponential rise of the “pay-to-play” mentality?   

5 Digital Trends Sticking Around for 2016

By David Metter

As 2015 comes to a close, it’s time to examine trends in digital marketing and predict what dealers should be prepared to consider and focus on in the upcoming year. 2015 has seen so much innovation and change, there’s no doubt 2016 will see even more. However, which trends in 2015 will stick around for the year to come? 

Experts say these five are here to stay:

1.    Mobile – It wasn’t that long ago that marketers thought of mobile as a secondary access point for consumers. However, in 2015 mobile usage overtook desktop computers for accessing Internet information, and that trend is certain to continue. Consumers want information on demand, and increasingly they are out and about and not tethered to their computer. Mobile is much more convenient for today’s on-the-go consumer. Businesses will be forced to shift their focus and provide an excellent mobile experience in order to remain relevant. Those that do not will find customers seeking and finding that information from their competition and ultimately lose business.  

2.    Apps – Not only is the mobile experience itself becoming more important, we’re also seeing an increase in the importance of apps. When using smartphones, consumers spend upwards of 85% of that time within apps. Apps offer multiple marketing advantages including location-based marketing, push notifications, loyalty program integration, as well as dynamic and personalized offers and coupons. In addition, with its mobile-friendly algorithm change in April, Google introduced app indexing. If you’re not familiar with app indexing, in a nutshell it means that Google is now indexing content within apps and integrating that content into organic search results. This will become increasingly important for businesses’ SEO efforts.

3.    Personalization – Businesses will continue to migrate away from mass messages and better utilize their customer data to send more relevant and personalized messages. Segmentation, cookies, and retargeting, mixed with the massive amounts of consumer information now available, allows marketers to further refine messages. By doing so, businesses will see increased response rates and conversions as customers start receiving relevant messages at more opportune times.

4.    Content – Businesses are starting to realize that content is the new advertising. Pressure is being applied from all directions – search, social and consumers – and they all demand unique and relevant content as the price of admission. If you want to be noticed, it is important to understand that consumers respond much better to content that solves a problem, tells a story, or answers a question. By producing this content, you will be rewarded by increased web traffic through consumer search, and also by higher page rankings from search engines.  

5.    Video – If there’s any form of content that is exponentially exploding, it's video. Every platform in existence is making a push for video content and rewards businesses that produce it. With the new explosion and popularity of live streaming apps such as Periscope, Blab and Meerkat, along with live-streaming to all users that Facebook is rolling out, businesses who find innovative ways to integrate live streaming into their digital marketing efforts will see increased exposure and engagement.

While significant, these are just a few of the countless ways digital marketing is changing. Chances are that 2016 will see more innovative ways for businesses to market to and interact with customers. Paying attention to and adopting these five trends will certainly help your business gain a competitive advantage and position it for digital marketing success in 2016.