A Newbie's Jumbled Thoughts On Hero Conf 2015

By Kirk Williams | @PPCKirk | Owner of ZATO

For the PPCer on Twitter, not much sucks more than staying back at work while all of your PPC friends tweet about the awesomeness they are having at a conference. During last year’s Hero Conf, I participated in this gang of glum and only managed to find a brief glimpse of happiness by tweeting the #HeroConf tag enough to appear embodied on the big screen at the front of the keynote sessions. Pathetic, yes.

This year, I was fortunate enough to attend and wanted to get my thoughts on paper before they had a chance to jumble their way into oblivion. Actually, I’m writing this on the plane from PDX to SLC so, like a wet cowpie, it is as fresh as it’s going to get!

I will include things I loved about the conference, random thoughts that struck me, and areas of improvement.

My Compliments to the Chef

This section is devoted to calling out those aspects of Hero Conference I took note of and thought were awesome.

Portland Was an Awesome Host City

My wife and I decided to go all out so we came a few days early and spent a mini-vacation downtown… well, by “mini-vacation” we still had our youngest with us. So, mini-half-vacation. It was still fun. Portland was an amazing host city- easy to get around, amazing restaurants, beer, coffee, food carts everywhere, and the people were so helpful and nice. Great pick on the host city!

portland rainbow

The Networking Wasn’t as Expected… It Was Better.

“These conferences are all about the networking, there’s value in the networking blah blah blah.” I’d been told this and was anticipatory as well as skeptical.

The networking was so enjoyable I was literally bummed out when I got back home. Questions about agency growth? Ask them in person to Pat East. Questions about a countdown customizer post he wrote? Ask Matt Umbro. Questions about his BOOK on PPC? Ask Brad Geddes (and when he talks, shut up and listen). Questions about international PPC? Ask Katy Tonkin. Questions about wine? Ask Steve Hammer. Seriously, the dude knows. His. Wine. Then ask him about scripts. 😉

ppcchat dinner hero conf

I would say one thing here though, my suggestion to you is to begin forming relationships with people before next HeroConf. I think I was able to connect on a deeper level with people because I had already interacted with them on Twitter. It was like we were good friends seeing each other again rather than meeting in real life for the first time.

Takeaway: If you want to get everything there is to get out of networking, begin building relationships before the conference.

Hero Conf Is Ridiculously Well-Run

Let’s be blatant here, a big part of “going to a conference” rather than reading blogposts is the experience. Hanapin knows how to throw an amazing experience and conference. Everything from transportation to the Bing Bar Takeover to the times built in for impromptu dinners to the location was organized and well-run. Hiccups? Sure, but when a bus doesn’t start it’s not really a planning issue… Props to Nate and Audrey of Hanapin for doing a good job.

I’ve not been to other Search Conferences so perhaps I’m just naive, but disorganization is difficult to hide and I noticed not a hint of that here once.

Takeaway: If you’re going to spend money on a conference, spend it on one that offers a great experience.

hero conf workshop

Hero Conf Is Top Notch SEM

There’s not much else to say here other than that the material presented is well-researched and accurate… and the dinner conversations are educational. Sure there are times a speaker says something you may not agree with 100%, but if you go ask them about it they will have an opinion and some level of defense. The presenters know their PPC and since this is, well, a PPC conference that fact should not go unnoticed. As far as I am aware, no doofuses presented at HeroConf (how’s that for a conference slogan?).

General Observations

This section is devoted to those aspects of Hero Conference of which I didn’t really have positive or negative emotions, but just things that interested me.

The Relative Absence of Technical Account Voodoo

Aaron Levy mentioned something about this (specifically related to keywords) in our live PPCChat video and it made me take more notice of it. He was right, there was far less account “step by step” sessions than I would have expected. Perhaps this had more to do with the level of the average PPCer there (no one really needs to be walked through how to add negatives to an account). On the other hand, I would find value in seeing, let’s say, how people actually mine SQRs in real life… or walking through an actual ad creation strategy in real-time. I could see value as a PPC Manager in seeing how other people dig into the account and make decisions.

Takeaway: Perhaps there could be value in more “here’s how I optimize this aspect of an account” sessions so managers could see in real-time how others do basic optimization/account builds.

The Significant Focus on CRO

Many observed this and I also noticed it. I was surprised how much talk and content there was on the Landing Page side of things. I think there was an aspect of this that is refreshing. It seems that the industry is becoming more aware of the role CRO (Conversion Rate Optimization) plays (specifically in regard to Landing Pages) so it’s not just account side that gets all the focus. On this hand, though, I thought Oli Gardner made a fabulous point in the closing Q&A time regarding the absence of Ad Copy sessions. A much needed aspect of PPC and hopefully we will see this in future conferences in at least 1 session.

Takeaway: CRO and Landing Pages are continuing to grow in awareness of the PPCer and client.

The Presence of Bing and the Absence of Google

I realize that Google is not necessarily loved around much of PPC on Twitter, although curiously enough the Social team does a fantastic job on Twitter and I have seen many people thank Bil & Ivana personally for help. However, I found Google’s absence significant. I suspect there are few conferences where rubbing shoulders with PPCers in the account daily can help foster conversations about usability and other things. Bing must be given props here. Let’s be honest, they get it dished out to them as well (#MacEditorGate anyone?) but they still show up and answer questions and interact with attendees. In fact, they don’t just show up to Network, I often saw the Bing team in workshops taking notes. I’ll let you do whatever you want with this information. I have my own opinions and thoughts, but I did think it was interesting to see the difference in philosophy between the two businesses.

Takeaway: Bing was there chatting about anything and everything with its users. Google… they presented in the first keynote.

erin sagan wordstream ppc cat

The Absence of any Facebook Ad Rep

Along these same lines, I found it interesting that Facebook had no one there whatsoever. Facebook is trying to go up against a bastion of digital marketing (Search) and reinvent marketing by adding a social element. If anyone will talk clients into participating it will be the PPC Managers at Hero Conference. Because of that, I was surprised there was no one there whatsoever. I think it would have been a great way for them to get from the trenches feedback to help make their offering better.

Takeaway: If Facebook wants to keep perfecting their ad platform, it may be wise to attend conferences like Hero Conference to rub shoulders with the advertisers using their platform.


This section is devoted to those aspects of Hero Conference of which I thought there could be room for improvement, with my own suggestions.

Add (Friendly) Public Discussion and Debate

Learning tends to be stifled when one is alone because then one is limited by one’s own knowledge. Others (whether through blogs, books, videos, twitter, or conversation) help foster learning. I think the workshop settings at Hero Conference need to go slightly beyond the Q&A time for truly engendering learning.

I see two ways this could happen purposefully in a public setting.

(1) Public Debate on Hot Button Issues

Hero Conference speakers are friends. This is an awesome aspect of PPC (of which I think is due in large part to #PPCChat), but the one concern I have with this is that there can be a temptation to back away from disagreement among friends.

Disagreement, done well, is actually a remarkably powerful instrument for growth. Actually, there is a Proverb that says it better than me: “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” (Prov 27:17).

Here’s why disagreement is so important in PPC. Because, “it depends.” Seriously, that’s why.

There are PPC accounts in which Conversion Optimizer actually works. There are those in which it doesn’t.

There are PPC accounts in which Phrase Match is dead. There are those in which it lives well and free.

There are PPC accounts where Match Type Segmentation is best. There are those where it will destroy conversions. There are those where it will work sometimes.

The problem is, when we only present one side, we are denying the other a place at the table. We are communicating “There is only one way, my way, and it is always right.” Of course, this is so rarely the case in PPC that not including “both” sides of the discussion can be extremely unhelpful for those whose accounts are actually in “that other side.”

Suggestion: I’d love to see friendly debates as workshops. Not debates with a goal of “winning” but of presenting one side, well articulated, thought out, and willing to get scrappy to ensure the “other side” is being logical. I think it’s important these are seen as discussions and not debates so everyone realizes the goal here is to learn from each other and not “win.”

hero conf discussion

(2) Roundtable Discussion of PPC Pros

This is actually what (kind of) happens in the final Q&A session. It’s fascinating at times to catch knowledgeable people when their feet are up and they’re just chatting. I had the privilege of going out to dinner one of the nights with some top-notch pros and I couldn’t stop learning. It was the off-handed comments, the cracks, the questions, that really got past “normal” presentations. Admittedly, this can be difficult to create in a public setting, but I bet a “roundtable” on certain topics would be fascinating (it’s possible HeroConf has done this in the past, if so I apologize for the repeat idea!).

2 Initial Suggestions:
– Experts in a specific area discuss that specific area in an open mic setting (say for instance, Ad Rotation).
– 15+ Year veterans sit down and jaw about what they’ve learned in PPC, trends they see, concerns, etc.

Ditch the Channel Reps as Keynote Speakers

I mean no disrespect to Ad Channel Reps (Gagnon, you know I love you), but it is basically impossible to have a keynote session by a channel rep that is not a touting of said channel’s strengths. Often it is used to reinforce information already widely known if a small amount of research is done. Now, I don’t fault them for this, I mean… their job is to represent the ad channel. However, I would prefer the keynotes to consist of those professionals head and shoulders above the rest in insight, data, and presentation skills.

I think the point of the conference where this hit home was the infamous workshop session: Geddes vs. Gagnon vs. Goward vs. Haleua (note, Gagnon is an agency rep here but I do have to admit that I still learned a lot about voice search from his preso 😉 ). It was a bummer to have to choose when any of these could have been a great keynote, and when the Google/Twitter keynotes could have easily been blogposts (note, I’m glad Twitter was there!).

workshop of doom hero conference

Suggestion: Require uber-interesting, fascinating general search insights from channel reps and disallow them from advertising their platform… if that’s too hard, move away from channel reps as keynote speakers and keep those spots reserved for the best of the best in the non-channel industry.

Phew, that got longer than I expected!! So in the end, you may ask “Kirk, will you attend next year’s Hero Conference? As an independent PPCer paying your own way, will you be going again?”

In a heartbeat.

See you in Philly 2016!

What about you? Anything you particularly enjoyed about Portland 2015?

hero conf over sunset