Internet Summit 16

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While day one of the Internet Summit in Raleigh may have started off slow, a strong group of speakers and their openness in engaging with attendees more than made up for a groggy morning. 

Panels began around 8 o'clock for the 2016 Raleigh Internet Summit, but besides some jet lagged attendees milling around the Raleigh Convention Center, it was quiet. 

The real crowd appeared around noon. The place was lively, packed in a way not seen during daytime events last year. 

The morning keynote, and real festivities, began as LaShawn Merritt, olympic gold medalist, took the stage and lit the bright orange and white Internet Summit sign with an imitation torch. 

His unorthodox appearance was followed by a more canonical choice, Al Madrigal took the stage after Merritt’s short sign-lighting ceremony. Madrigal, veteran Daily Show Correspondent and comedian, brought the focus back to the digital world with a blistering half-hour monologue about the absurdity of Yelp reviews. He took particular offense to a certain reviewer, Steve L, whose review of the Tornado Room in Madison Wisconsin provided a backdrop for the comedian to comment on the wealth of terrible content now available on the internet. 

"This didn't need to be written, there is no reason for this to exist", he shouted. Content and stories on the whole should strive to be productive and honest and important, not useless self-aggrandizing fluff, he says. 

The rest of the day seemed to follow the theme Madrigal set up: if it’s published, it should have some redeeming value. 

Rand Fishkin of Moz continued the keynote with a speech on rethinking content marketing. He explained that for smart content marketers success isn’t the next viral video. The job is to meet goals that help the company. If marketers aren’t producing quality content that drives action, they’re just dumping trash onto the existing pile, he says. 

Hassan Ali, head of creative marketing at The Onion, also spoke about cutting B.S. in millennial marketing. 

“Millennials love advertising. They wake up in the morning thinking about advertising. They’re having dinner with their family and friends and stop to ask them what their favorite ads are,” he says in a tone dripping with sarcasm. 

Internet Summit 2016 Hassan
Hassan Ali of The Onion discusses Facebook comments and audience engagement. photo credit: author.

His personal passion is smartly branded sponsored content. He laid out a series of takeaways with bullets like “truth + entertainment = :)”. To write excellent sponsored content, he urged the audience to imagine sharing that content as a Facebook status. Some of his favorite creations are an ad for Scotts lawn products, and chatbots that respond like Drake. It’s farcical, but that’s what Onion readers want, and that’s what gets millennials to digest ads, he says. 

The afternoon keynote was delivered by Ann Handley of MarketingProfs. She shared three rules for branding with a series of case studies, again focusing on authenticity and aptness of brand voice. 

“If you cover up your logo, would you recognize your brand?” she asks. Content marketers need to focus more on individualizing themselves than just producing content that makes the company look good, she explains. 

Internet Summit 2016 Ann Handley
Ann Handley delves into marketing, memes, and brand identity during the ISUM16 afternoon keynote. photo credit: author.
While many of the panels were packed and the audience seems pleased, the most noticeable difference this year was evident at the afterparty. It wasn't the local beer and wine or cheese platters that made the night special, though they were appreciatively consumed quickly and copiously. What made this Internet Summit distinctive was that the speakers stuck around. 

If they wanted to hold Merritt’s Olympic medals, attendees could walk up and say hi. He might politely ask someone to grab him a glass of wine, but he was there to meet people. 

I found Hassan Ali standing around late in the evening, and he graciously took the time to step outside and chat for a half hour about how he landed at The Onion. No second guessing, no excuses to step back inside. 

The real value here was that the talent was just accessible as anyone else. 

This was not the case last year, and the change was noticeable. In a room of marketers, I can always find someone to talk my ear off with havarti-and-IPA-breath. What made the first night of Internet Summit 2016 special was that the people munching crackers and making fun of Buzzfeed with attendees weren’t people you see every day, they were notables in the marketing industry.