At BlogWorld

I spent the last two days at BlogWorld Expo, here in Las Vegas. It was pretty cool, though I spent a lot more time on the exhibition hall floor than in sessions. First of all because my schedule is so hectic, and second of all because the sessions — at least the ones I was in — weren’t all that interesting (or, rather, weren’t that interesting to me).

Thursday I had class until 2:00, then dashed over to the Expo only a few blocks from the university. Parking was $10.00! On the other hand, there was plenty of parking, which isn’t always the case at the LV Convention Center. A sign of how small BlogWorld was — the parking attendant told me attendance was only about 3,000, when I asked if I’d have any trouble getting parking on Friday. Compare that with the 200,000 that come for CES or the 50-100,000 that come for a lot of trade shows at the convention center.

Once I registered and got my pass, I headed over to my first session, called something like “Building Community on the Web”, but it wasn’t about that really, it was about comments, and most of the questions people seemed to want answered were about dealing with negative comments. I was hoping for something more along the lines of how to write to inspire discussion, or more generally, how to create a sense of community around your site. I mean, you enable comments and put up a forum or wiki; then what?

So I left that session pretty early and hit the exhibition hall. I talked to a lot of people about their products, services, and sites. The ad stuff doesn’t impress me, although I’ve nothing against ads per se. Half of the industry seems to be focusing on ways to sneak ad content in front of web users in the guise of “services”, while the other half features a proliferation of ever-smaller affiliate and performance marketing companies doing the same thing as all the other ones. Frankly, what we need aren’t more ad sources but help understanding how to use and place ads — and how to promote their sales with our sites without losing our editorial independence.

I thought this would be picked up more in my Friday session on affiliate marketing, but it wasn’t, and I blame this on the panel make-up. While the speakers were really interesting and engaging, they spoke as industry insiders, and I really would have liked to see a panel with a range of bloggers — small niche bloggers, A-list bloggers, maybe someone from a blog network — talking about their strategies for making affiliate ads work. The presenters did give one example, a site that posts video reviews of products they have affiliate relationships with, which is fine, but that’s a whole site built around their advertising. I want to know how to better fit advertising in a site where the editorial content is *not* ad-based.

Friday morning was Leo Laporte’s keynote, which was fantastic — of course, I already knew Leo was a engaging speaker. (I didn’t expect him to wear such ugly pants, though!) His talk was on new media and basically said that bloggers should be doing text, audio, and video to reach our audiences on three different levels: the cerebral (written word), the intimate and personal (audio), and the “monkey mind”, the part that goes “look, pretty pictures!” (video). Maybe we could call that the gratification-oriented level. I kind of disagree with him about the innate intimacy of audio, though — while I have no doubts that Leo’s radio and podcast listeners find him very approachable and see him as an “old friend” rather than as a “celebrity”, that’s a persona that Leo has spent a long time developing an perfecting. I don’t think that other radio hosts — say Rush Limbaugh –have the same personal relationship with their fans. I could be wrong, of course.

I had wanted to meet Leo, but after the keynote he was swarmed, and I had to go try to change my session, since as it happened I wasn’t going to be at the conference for my early afternoon session. I wanted to cancel my 1:30 session and replace it with a 10:15 am session, but the computer wouldn’t let me, and I had to talk to a half-dozen staffers in four different places before someone told me that my registration status didn’t allow me to attend the Friday morning sessions.

As it happened, I finished right about the time Leo was heading from the keynote hall to his next session, and passed not 5 feet from me, and I froze. I’m not really good at approaching people, and in the context of a random hallway encounter, I couldn’t think of anything to say fast enough to get his attention. Stupid me.

So I went back to the exhibition hall and ended up talking for a long time with a woman from BlogTalkRadio. They have an amazing system that allows you to create live audio webcasts, with integrated chats and callers, all in the browser. There’s no special download to record or listen to the show, and the player can be embedded anywhere. It’s really slick and they’re really nice. I’m going to be thinking of ways to use this for all my web projects.

At 11:00, I had to leave for a field trip at a local museum, that I had scheduled without realizing I had the conference that day. The field trip went really well — 15 students showed up (out of something like 33 in the class) and brought 4 friends, so we were a really large group. The Barrick Museum at UNLV has an amazing collection of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican art, from the collection of Mannetta Braunstein who has volunteered to lead my anthropology students through the galleries for the last three semesters now. If you’re in Vegas, you should definitely check out the Barrick!

With the field trip over, I headed back to the conference, hit the late afternoon session I talked about above, and then headed to Mark Cuban’s closing keynote. I have to admit, I didn’t really care much about Cuban — aside from making a huge business deal with a company that had no idea what it was doing (his billion-dollar sale of broadcast.com to Yahoo), what did he have to do with any off this? Why was he worth listening to? And for the first 15 minutes or so, I kept thinking this. “Be honest,” he said. It didn’t take a billion dollars to qualify him to say that — every blogger in the room knows that. “Be careful about ads.” Again, we know — many of us are attending sessions about ads precisely because we want to figure out how to deal with the pressures of advertising on our independent editorial voices. And so on — there was nothing that a Blogging 101 class wouldn’t cover in the first session.

But I enjoyed the keynote, and ended up staying even when it went over time, because a) as it happens, Cuban is a pretty engaging speaker, and b) it’s a different perspective. So many of us were there because of our passion for writing and a desire to make at least part of a living doing what we love, but Cuban isn’t really a writer, he’s someone in the public eye who found he had some things he needed to say. I think a lot of bloggers are in the same boat — they don’t care about writing, they care about telling their stories, and blogging, podcasting, making videos and uploading them to YouTube, Twittering, and all these other social media we’ve invented in the last few years offer them ways to do that. In the past, even someone with the clout of Mark Cuban would have had to, say, issue a press release or hold a press conference if he had something to say, and hope the media covered it fairly, if at all. Blogging gives Cuban some degree of control over how his stories are told — and some degree of feedback.

And along the way, I think he’s discovered, it’s fun, too.

So that was BlogWorld. I have a stack of business cards I need to go through and sites I need to look at and evaluate and see if they’re useful to me. I got some pretty good schwag, most of which has been distributed among my step-children already. I didn’t network too much, which is a shame — I’m not particularly good at it, but I’d hoped to meet at least a few fellow-minded bloggers. It’s a funny thing, though — I could have sat next to my favorite bloggers in the world and not known it, since I don’t know their faces and my eyes aren’t good enough to make out their names and sites on their badges without being painfully obvious. They oughtta print the site name HUGE so it can be seen quickly when people walk by! One other thing I noticed is that the conference was strongly conservative. There was a sub-conference of religious bloggers and another of milbloggers, which definitely shaped the overall feel of the event. In any case, I had fun and learned some things, and I’m looking forward to next year’s Expo.

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