Getting Transparent: How We Select Speakers for Our Conference

Got an email asking about how we find main speakers for MozCon. I’m going to answer here instead to help quickly address this in the future. I love programming a conference and other events where we select the speakers vs events where we take pitches. Community speakers are rad, but in small doses.

The truth is — I could program a decent to good online marketing conference in my sleep. But not a great one, and certainly not one people consider a tastemaker or a must-attend. Not to mention, decent/good conferences have problems like this:

Why women aren’t invited to conferences: the cycle

MozCon’s a hard conference to program. I struggle every year, and I’ve been specifically doing MozCon since 2012. The stage is big; the audience is particular and not afraid to tell you when you or a speaker gets it wrong; and other conferences poach our lineup, meaning we can change the industry. MozCon can make or break someone’s career, reputation, and self-esteem. I have great stories and dark stories from past speakers.

This is why I enlist the help of others in the decision making. The speaker selection committee itself is made of 6–10 Mozzers, depending on the year. Only three of us — myself, Rand Fishkin, and Jen Sable Lopez — have been on every single one since 2012, which is great for getting new perspectives and input. We all have different tastes and opinions on what makes a great speaker, and acknowledged or unconscious biases. Not to mention organizational rank and power! As a group, we go through ~80–50 speakers to fill ~22 slots.

The different needs of MozCon

Every talk must be actionable. Topically, MozCon started as an SEO training seminar, but Moz has expanded the educational topics we cover along with our product selection. This year, we focused even harder on balancing the topics between SEO, Content, Social, Local, and Other buckets. (Thanks, Kevin Smythe, for your spreadsheet help!)

MozCon must also balance new speakers with returning favorites. 2012–2015 at MozCon and MozCon Local, we’ve had 119 talks on stage with 84 different speakers. That’s a lot of speakers and a lot of relationships. The hardest emails I get are from industry friends of Moz wanting to know why they weren’t picked or weren’t picked again. “Because…committee” is often the best answer I can give.

Part of programming a great conference means also focusing on diversity of speaker backgrounds. This is something I’m extremely passionate about. MozCon gets praised for ~50/50 gender split (if everyone’s on the binary). This is the area I hold myself most responsible for improving. Notice responsible because it’s not good enough yet. We do not have enough consistent representation of any other kind of diversity.

I used to keep all my speaker notes in messy GDocs spreadsheets. But now I’m using Airtable with a speaker database of almost 500 speakers that I can slice and dice. It’s never “finished.” It’s not even useable enough for my purposes yet. I’m obsessed with finding great speakers in online marketing outside my rolodex for MozCon and all our other events. Most frequent speakers are in conference runners’ rolodexes.

The MozCon committee is often timid to program speakers who aren’t proven. EG, get recent video of yourself presenting online! This can directly conflict with finding new speakers and finding speakers of diverse backgrounds who are women and minorities or, heck, speakers who aren’t from the US. (Community speakers are a bit different as we do take more leaps. There’s another committee for that.)

I’m lucky at Moz because we have MozCon Local, Mozinars, and MozTalks where we can program speakers at a less high-profile stage and take more chances. But even those get backed up with the people I’d love to see what they can do. Poor Matt Roney had to put Mozinar programming on hold because we were booked out eight months for biweekly webinars.

How does the selection list get populated

When am I looking for speakers? The answer: when am I not?

The big list of speakers is populated based on an anticipation of needs, hot topics, the best speakers from last year, new people we don’t know, and looking at the rank, power, and biases on the committee itself.

Okay, what are some ways I find speakers for the committee to consider and if it’s low-high value:

  • Speaking at other Moz events, which we record (super high-value)
  • Moz internal suggestion form that I send to some external people (low-value, most speakers I already know)
  • Offhand, random recommendation emails from Rand (medium-value, often people we don’t know)
  • Stalking conversations on Twitter about great speakers in topics or when some dudebro says, “there aren’t any great woman SEO speakers” and we tell him better (medium-value, often people I don’t know don’t have videos, slides, etc., online)
  • Other online marketing conference lineups (medium-value, the closer they are as a MozCon “competitor” the less value they have as it’s either my rolodex or their own they program from)
  • Attending conferences (medium-value, super easy to tell if the person’s a good fit, but time intensive, and there’s always another “real” reason I’m going)
  • Conferences focusing on diversity in technology (low-value, often speakers aren’t going to be able to talk technical marketing or aren’t even marketers)
  • Good ole searching YouTube for videos from other conferences or on topics (low-value, most of it is crap)

You know what I never get any value from? Random pitches in my inbox! Especially if they’re from PR professionals as they’re typically badly targeted and don’t fit our audiences. We don’t do inspirational talks. You can’t sell your product or book from the stage. You can’t give your stump speech or rehash your TED talk. And we don’t cater to entrepreneurs, startups, or CEOs. So many pitches are “here’s how my speaker is awesome,” but what I actually need is help solving my programming problems. The very worst unsolicited pitch I ever got: a PR professional was like “my speaker is perfect,” and in the same email, asked me to tell them what topic the conference covered and who our demographic was. Tell me again how your speaker is perfect?

MozCon has only ever programmed two speakers who pitched to us. Both were already in our rolodex! They were both community members we knew, who’d been on our blogs, in our Q&A forum, and attended past MozCons. One had already been chosen to speak at MozCon, and he beat us to the email by hours. And the second one — she waited until she was ready, had everything we needed, and knew our audience like the back of her hand. But she still had to go before the committee — who had no knowledge that she pitched to me — to get selected.

For me to find a speaker, who I don’t know, who’s relevant for MozCon and MozCon quality, with enough info to present to the committee, takes me an average of six hours. This is my golden goose.

Jen, Roger, and I are happy at MozCon

Other random reasons someone hasn’t spoken on the MozCon stage

When people ask me, “why hasn’t X ever spoke on your stage,” usually I hesitate to give a fully transparent answer. It’s hella awkward when a third party is asking this. Not to mention, the principle that what others actually think about you is none of your business.

Common “why” themes include: they aren’t ready; they aren’t TAGFEE, are known harassers, and/or are a beyond royal pain-in-rear*; or they charge a lot of money. There are speakers I watch grow because I know one day they will be ready and I want them on my list then.

(*Like Kayne tweet meltdown bad because stress and pressure can bring out the worst in otherwise decent people, which conference runners recognize and we’re not always great ourselves.)

But the most common is: No MozCon committee member has ever seen them on stage and they don’t have videos or decks online (or they only have bad old ones). Real comment from a committee member: “Hard to tell from a 2-year-old video. She may have improved quite a bit. Possibly worth looking into more.”

And sometimes, we’ve asked that speaker and they’ve said no. (Typically, the noes we get have to do with scheduling, not because they aren’t interested. But we get a couple of those too.)

Then there’s selection committee fuzziness and balance. Having too many SEO speakers is just as big of an unbalanced program as an over-representation of men. Committee members are fickle or forget things, ie we’re people. Hot topics fade. We may have 10 great speakers for 1 slot.

It’s even sometimes hard to get speakers who say “no” due to schedules one year to be back on the list for next year. It took three years for Kristina Halvorson to be on our stage due to scheduling conflicts, and every year, attendees wanted to know why she hadn’t spoken at MozCon yet.

It’s never because “Erica [or any other committee member] doesn’t like me.” Since so many conferences program from their rolodexes, I get a ton of new “friends” when it’s selection season. People assume if they’re my friend, then I’ll program them. This is not true. There are only a handful of speakers I’ve worked with (out of well over 100) that I’d consider friends, or even industry friends. I’ve even worked with speakers who, while I admire their brains, I wouldn’t hang out with outside work. Nope. We really didn’t have anything in common except a shared industry, which SEO is not my focus in my off-hours. Since I’m well beyond middle school, fake friends aren’t wanted.

Likewise, lobbying on social media isn’t going to work. It’s cool that you got your friends to want to see you on stage too. But it’s awkward for us and sometimes this slightly-embarrassing social faux pas comes out more like a fart than an endorsement. (And if you email Rand, he just forwards you onto me, so…)

We also never program a speaker because their company is a MozCon partner. Our partnership program (also invite-only) is 100% decoupled from our speaker committee. Bribing also doesn’t work.

So…

I speak at conferences too, and I pitch and get rejected all the time. It sucks. I try not to take it personally because I know how conference programming goes. (Yes, even when I know other conferences program their “friends.”) I’ve been in the room where we take a list of 50 incredible speakers, all worthy of the stage, and cut it down.

An annoying comic book editor once pointed out that you were more likely to play professional US football than work full-time as a writer for either Marvel or DC comics because there were simply not as many jobs. This is kind of what the MozCon stage can be. There are way more potentials than spots on the stage.

Now to go back to hammering the “Exceptional” into TAGFEE in MozCon programming.