Thursday, December 8 saw the Engage Web team make a short trip to Manchester to attend the annual SAScon Beta. This is the scaled-down, single-day version of the main SAScon event that takes place every summer and sees experts from the world of search and social analytics gather to share their pearls of wisdom in a high-tech but relaxed environment.
While many might see Beta as the little upstart cousin only there to bridge the gap between one SAScon proper and the next, having been to a few of each variety, I’m starting to prefer the wee underdog of the SAScon world.
Is this just another one of my ludicrous hipster arguments, like ‘In Utero’ being the best Nirvana album and non-league football being better than the Premier League? Don’t get me wrong, I’ve really enjoyed every SAScon event I’ve been to, big and small, but there’s definitely something about this bitesize one I prefer.
Here are my five reasons why:
1. Shorter talks
It might sound a bit facetious to attend a conference and say that I appreciated the fact that people didn’t talk for as long, but sometimes less is more, and I liked the punchy, fast-paced nature of the half-hour talks given at the Beta event.
With the summer SAScon talks varying from 45 minutes to an hour and often overrunning, some of them can drag a little, especially when Euro 2016 was being televised just outside the conference room! Obviously, some speakers will always do a better job of filling their timeslot than others, but there was honestly no talk during the day where I found myself glancing at my watch and my empty coffee cup/pint glass.
To me, half an hour from each talker makes the talks a pleasure to sit through, and the information in them easy to digest.
2. More intimate
With the main SAScon event taking place across several rooms at Manchester Metropolitan University, it has something of a segregated and academic vibe, although it’s always friendly and welcoming. In the dimly lit, pub-like environment of The Comedy Store, it feels a little more jokey, pally and in keeping with the idea of ‘friends chatting over a few pints’ from which I sense SAScon originated.
I found it easier to mingle, and kept recognising the same faces. The speakers felt more like part of the attendance than people who were there to do their bit and then move on. Questions seemed to flow a little more easily at the end of talks as well, perhaps helped by Simon Wharton from PushON and his ‘where will the microphone land?’ routine. He was encouraging everybody to have a question to ask in case they were the ones selected and, though a bit intimidating, it was a good idea as it probably milked more ‘voluntary’ questions out of us.
The intimacy even extended to yours truly being dragged on stage by Dream Agility’s Elizabeth Clarke. Together with former Engage Web Project Manager Mark Black (now Managing Director of Black Phoenix Media), we displayed an alarmingly poor and uncomfortable use of a smartphone calculator and a piece of A1 paper.
— Darren Jamieson (@MisterDaz) December 8, 2016
3. All in one room
In perhaps another example of how less is more, I actually rather liked the all-encompassing nature of the event. At the main SAScon, there’s always a choice of talks to attend, leaving you either annoyed that two good ‘uns have clashed, or weighing up which of the two is less irrelevant to you.
At Beta, there’s still a choice, but it’s ‘take it or leave it’, meaning that all talks attract a healthy crowd. It also encourages you to take in some talks that you would normally have swerved. In my case, the three talks on programmatic were something not familiar to me in my role as Content Editor here, but I still went along and enjoyed the speakers’ enthusiasm.
4. Excellent speakers
Whether it’s because they had less time to waffle, or just because the schedule was a strong one, I thought the talks were some of the best I’ve seen at SAScon. I admired the bullishness of Online Ventures Group’s Neil Walker, and the wit of Tealium’s Andy White. Meanwhile, the presentations from Branded3’s Laura Crimmons and Tecmark’s Hana Bednarova seemed well targeted towards those working with a typical SME budget.
Klevu’s Nilay Oza was an interesting gent too, coming up with some fantastic neologisms like ‘phygital’ and ‘feedforward’.
Talks were generally lively and well-delivered, with that old bugbear of simply reading text off a PowerPoint presentation kept to a minimum.
5. Free beer!
I’m not going to lie – the drinks tokens are always very welcome at SAScon events. Some sponsors did their best to introduce a boozy element at the June event by handing out bottles of lager, but there’s something special about being able to hand a voucher over to the bar staff in exchange for the beverage of your choice. My tip – go for the Coast to Coast IPA if you ever find yourself at The Comedy Store.
I haven’t even mentioned yet that I won a nice bottle of red for my entry into The Candidate’s joke competition!
— The Candidate (@thecandidateuk) December 8, 2016
My joke, if you can read my writing and have about 20 minutes to spare, is below:
— The Candidate (@thecandidateuk) December 8, 2016
To top things off, my joke even got a ‘like’ from awesome comedian Milton Jones, helped by some gentle prompting from Engage Web.
So, I think this is minority viewpoint, but it’s a resounding ‘Beta is better’ from me. If you went, I’d be interested to know whether you think I’m on to something, or whether I need to get back to my niches of DIY alternative music, Scrabble clubs and Chester FC.
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