As I stood in front of the registration table waiting for my name tag to print, I looked at the two options for ribbons to attach: Presenter and First Time Attendee. It had been over a decade since I last attended this conference, which made me think I should probably grab the First Time Attendee tag. But I passed, and readied myself for the next few days at #EMA18. Little did I know that I was heading into a vibrant, diverse, and inspiring conference that would pleasantly surprise me and inspire me to come back to my school with new ideas and new strategies.
One of the best things about conferences is the opportunity to network with colleagues from other schools and organizations, and kicking off the conference poolside in San Diego did not disappoint. The view was absolutely gorgeous, but I forgot to snap a photo because I was connecting with so many people. Standing in line to get a drink, I met one of the conference speakers and found myself excited to attend a session that I had previously overlooked. Looking for a place sit, I met two admission people who came to schools from the corporate world and listened as they discussed their challenges and triumphs in this unique industry. And while attempting to leave, I ran into a number of beloved vendors and colleagues I already knew and found myself still there chatting an hour later.
The rooftop opening session was just the start of networking opportunities, though. Whether I was grabbing a bite to eat at the places right within the conference hotel, wandering around San Diego, or attending sessions and receptions, there was always someone to talk to, learn from, and share ideas with, big and small. Need another EMA connection? Add me on LinkedIn!
I’m definitely the type of conference goer that prefers to attend sessions that give me actionable takeaways over those that promise to inspire but often simply leave me questioning the state of the world (or my school). I always fear that I’ll pick a “drone” session with presenters who read from their slides in typical monotone voices, but it seems that Ben Stein took a “day off” (please tell me someone gets the Ferris Bueller reference). No matter what I attended, I found myself leaving with some takeaway that would serve me in the days, weeks and months to come. Even fire alarms and altered schedules couldn’t detract from the conference’s high-quality sessions.
Each day, we kicked off the schedule with opening speakers, a session that I sometimes skip. But, seeing as I hadn’t attended in a while, I made a point to attend everything I could fit in. As a data-driven marketer, I consume statistics regularly and was excited to see Heather Hoerle kick off the opening session with some incredible information that I knew I could put to use. Keynote Speaker Scott Stratten of Un-Marketing was not only a great presenter, but he was entertaining and engaging. I remember periodically glancing around the room and watching as attendees put down their phones and closed their laptops, giving Scott their full attention rather than multi-tasking like so many of us do. Rarely do I find myself completely enthralled by keynotes, opening sessions, and inspirational speakers, but I was amazed by the quality of presentations at #EMA18.
Diverse and High-Quality Offerings
Have you ever attended a conference and worried about what you’d attend because nothing sounds interesting? I had the opposite problem, with three or more presentations that caught my attention in every session.
The conference offered a variety of “tracks” that you could follow or mix and match, and I was intrigued by the variety. Tracks ranged from “Character” and “Financial Aid” to “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion,” “International” and “Senior Tracks,” there were ample paths to take, and ones you could forge yourself. When planning my schedule, I purposefully split my time between “my” sessions — the sessions that I assumed would directly pertain to my daily work as a marketer — and “other” sessions that I assumed would be outside of my wheelhouse.
I often embrace the conference mindset of “If you don’t like your seat, move your feet,” meaning if you’re not loving your session, move on to another one. As such, I tend to sit in the back of the room so as to exit quietly if necessary. But, I found myself always staying with the first session I picked each time, while also eating up the conversations happening on the app and on Twitter from the other sessions.
Hashtags and Hank
The conference app was one of my favorite components of the conference, as not only was it eco-friendly by eliminating printed schedules, it also served as a place for sharing ideas, friendly competition, and networking. I could create my own schedule, message other attendees and compete for great prizes in #GameofPhones. To encourage people to engage with the app, this game awards points to users who post photos and messages, like posts and respond to comments. You could even connect your posts to public social networks, helping the #EMA18 reach an even wider audience.
Now, I’ve seen this done at other conferences, and normally I wind up shaking my head at how the feeds are normally clogged up with just food and fun stuff. Yes, we did have food and fun photos, but I was elated to see the amount of educational content that also filled the Activity Feeds. Questions were asked and answered, quotes and awesome takeaways were shared, and photos of the best slides from presentations were posted for all to see. It was a great platform for sharing ideas, inspiring each other, and even for a little fun and campaigning.
One attendee managed to gain himself quite the following. If you were active on. the activity stream, you knew that #TeamHank and #HankforPres were both trending, and if you didn’t notice, it was announced at lunch so that we could all get on board. Hank Bramblet of McCallie School quickly emerged among the top posters on the leaderboards in the #GameofPhones. And while he didn’t take home the victory on Day 1, Hank emerged victorious on Day 2 and was the overall high scorer on the app at the end of the conference.
Curious to learn more about this Hank character, I scoped out his profile and discovered that on his bio, Hank shared that he has tried 68 varieties of Oreos. I didn’t know there were that many varieties of Oreos, and that was just the first fun “Hank” fact that I learned. I posted on the Activity Stream (because I was competing for top billing, too) and tagged Hank, asking how one goes about getting his own trending hashtag and groupies, and was met with the response from other conferences goers: “His voice,” “Have you heard his voice?” You’ll have to call Hank to hear his voice for yourself, or maybe EMA can get him on a podcast, soon.
So, if you’re looking to brush up on best practices, explore new strategies, or compete in #GameofPhones and take on Hank, you might want to add EMA’s next annual conference in Washington, D.C. to your list of #mustgo professional development opportunities in 2019.