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Events marketing and attendee experience have become one and the same. After all, the best way to market an event is by attendees sharing their positive experiences with friends and colleagues. If you ask most people who work in social media what the premier industry event is, they’re likely to answer Social Media Marketing World.

Phil Mershon is the head of events for Social Media Examiner, leading the annual Social Media Marketing World conference in San Diego.

Dan Gingiss: Phil Mershon:. How are you, my man?

Phil Mershon: I’m doing awesome. It’s great to be with you, brother.

Dan Gingiss: Why don’t you introduce yourself to the audience?

Phil Mershon: I’ve been involved with events one way or another, almost my entire career. It started with a total quality management session when I worked for Boeing Military back in the late 80s and I said, “I want to do that someday.” And then it led toward designing training programs for non-profits. I did corporate training for a large company called Koch Industries in the oil and gas industry. I designed worship and conference experiences for churches, and then I’ve been with Social Media Examiner since 2010. So that’s a quick tour of the timeline. But I love creating experiences and I love what you’re doing.

Dan Gingiss: Well, thank you. And Social Media Marketing World is one of those events that you look forward to every year because of the people, because of the activities going on, because of the general energy of the place. For those who haven’t been to the event, why don’t you tell us a little bit about Social Media Marketing World? And I want to start digging into the various pieces of what it takes to put on an event of that size and scope.

Phil Mershon: We have an event that hosts anywhere from two to five thousand people, depending on the year. People are coming to learn from the experts, but also from each other. How to do social media marketing better. And they’re coming literally from all over the world. We’ve had as many as 50 different countries represented, but primarily it’s people who are working for businesses and they are coming and wanting to learn from each other what’s actually working today in the space of social media.

They want to learn from experts sitting in sessions, taking notes, but they also want to have conversations. And so we designed the event all around that experience and that desire to network, to have deep conversations, then make that possible from as early as they want to get up to as late as they want to stay up. And literally, for a couple of days there, there’s probably 24 hours of activity happening every day.

Phil Mershon

Dan Gingiss: One of the things that I love about this event is that when you go year after year, you come back and it’s almost like you’re seeing family. There are people that I don’t ever see during the year, except I see them at Social Media Marketing World, and I’m super excited to see them. And I want to talk about how you develop that.

But first I want to tell you a quick story about the very first time that I came to Social Media Marketing World. I was speaking on a panel. This was during the very early days for me as a speaker. I probably had to beg my way onto a panel. And I remember going to a cocktail hour the night before for speakers. I walked into the room and I had this momentary out-of-body experience because I looked around the room and I realized I knew every person in the room and I had not met any one of them before. I just recognized them from their profile pictures, which was so weird. “Wait, there’s Jay Baer, there’s Mark Schaefer, there’s Ann Handley.” I knew everybody, but I had never met them. And was that fun to then go and actually meet people in real life.

One of the things you guys always promote during the event is sharing pictures and selfies. There are probably 10,000 selfies shared in that event every year. So it’s that kind of environment. What do you do to encourage that meet and greet and getting to know your fellow attendee?

Phil Mershon: Some of it is a dynamic that happens organically based on the kinds of people that we invite, so the speakers that we invite are those types of people that love connecting with the audience. So everyone that you just named and the 50-100+ speakers who come each year. They come because they love to connect with their fans. They know this is part of the industry. They want to be seen as leaders, yes, but they’re more driven by a desire to connect. And that’s true of those who have a great experience one year: they make deep connections with someone, and that’s what we focus on. I can’t fully cultivate that culture that you’re describing that feels like a family reunion, the best kind of family reunion, or summer camp, if you had a good summer camp experience. People use those kinds of phrases when that’s a positive memory.

I think the things that we focus on are the right kinds of people. Then we also focus on peak moments. You’ve probably read Chip and Dan Heath’s book, The Power of Moments, and we focus on specific moments within the event where we know we’re impacting a lot of people and trying to set the tone. So, we’re trying to catalyze conversations. We’re trying to make people feel safe. I think it’s really important when you go to an event where you don’t know anyone that you feel like, “I belong here, they’ve got my needs taken care of. I know where to go if I’m having problems, but I’m not going to worry because I can let my guard down because this feels like a safe place and these are my people.” So those are things that we try to do within the first few minutes that someone arrives, if it’s their very first time, and that that includes the speaker party for you. It communicates, “Hey, you’re one of us.” And by the way, you didn’t beg me, I begged you to come.

Dan Gingiss: Just to give you a sense of the types of relationships that are built: In my new book, The Experience Maker, at the top of the book cover you’ll see that it says, “Foreword by Ann Handley, Wall Street Journal best-selling author.” And Phil, you know this, but I met Ann Handley where? At Social Media Marketing World. One of the reasons I picked her was that I remembered one of her speeches at Social Media Marketing World and I realized about her: Ann is actually a customer experience person dressed up as a marketer. Because what she talks about on stage is about listening to your customer in order to decide what to write about. And she’s very customer-centric in everything that she does. And she wrote such an amazing foreword that was all about an experience that she had at a restaurant, and she wrote about it in the way that only Ann Handley can write.

Dan Gingiss speaks at Social Media Marketing World

Phil Mershon: That’s awesome. Yeah, I think great marketers know that it’s about the experience. There’s a part of the events industry that’s called event marketing, and what they say about themselves is they’re trying to create great experiences at events so that people will be more predisposed to buy whatever that product is. And whether you’ve got a product to sell or an idea that you’re trying to sell, I think you have to create experiences for people. Otherwise, why are they going to travel? Why are they going to get on a plane or get in the car or train or boat, or however they’re getting there, if you’re not creating an experience they can’t have at home?

We’ve learned in the two years that there’s a lot you can do… You get behind the camera and, people don’t really enjoy this, but there is a lot of learning that can happen this way that doesn’t require traveling, and companies are not spending the same way they used to. Events have to create experiences that are going to enhance learning, are going to create those connections that lead to that kind of opportunity with Ann, that there are all kinds of opportunities I bet you could recount, to say, “I know this person because of Social Media Marketing World, and that led to this which led to this and this.” And this is not just “I know these famous people,” but it actually has made your life better.

Dan Gingiss: For sure, I can tell you three-quarters of the people that were talking about my book launch on social media, were people that I met at Social Media Marketing World and relationships that I built there.

I would also imagine, though, as you create an experience for people, that it’s not just about them buying more from you, but it’s also about them bringing other people into the community and telling them, “you’ve got to come to this event next year because this is the can’t-miss event.” Is this something that you guys look at and track how many new people you get every year because of referrals?

Phil Mershon: Probably more indirectly. You know, our marketing team is getting a lot more sophisticated now. This is our 9th conference. In the early years, we were just happy to see people show up, and we more tracked the people that we’re alumni than those who came because of a referral or recommendation. My job is to create the experience. And we know that if I create a great experience, the next year’s conference will sell. If I do a bad job, next year’s conference won’t sell as well.

We are not a perfect event. No event is perfect. And there will always be someone that leaves that had a bad experience in some way, form, or fashion. We try to solve those and turn them into wins. But sometimes you can’t. For me, it’s not about just making sure it’s a good experience. I want to create a great experience. And I want to create an experience, whether you ever come back or not, you look back on Social Media Marketing World and say, that is where this happened, and it’s deeply imprinted in your brain. You remember when you met Ann Handley and the conversation you had. And there are others like that. You and I will never forget the first time we took a “bald guy selfie” [#bgs].

Dan Gingiss: You invented the term, in fact.

Phil Mershon: I think we got maybe 18 guys who we knew in the industry who were bald and were guys. Now it’s not such a big deal, but back then it was.

Dan Gingiss: For those who weren’t there, the funny thing about this is, I’m sitting in the audience and Phil’s up on stage, and he comes up with this brilliant idea that he hasn’t told anybody about. That we should do a “bald guy selfie” because he had noticed that a bunch of the speakers happened to be bald. And so he, first of all, asks everybody in the audience to take a selfie with somebody bald in the audience. So all of a sudden everybody’s coming up to me asking to take a picture. And then he invited all of us on stage and we did an 18-person bald guy selfie complete with the hashtag “#bgs,” which was awesome and fun. And that’s the kind of stuff that happens spontaneously at an event like this.

The great @Phil_Mershon suggests #BGS – Bald Guy Selfies – with one of these fine dudes. #SMMW14

— Dan Gingiss – The Experience Maker™ (@dgingiss) March 27, 2014

So I know, Phil, that you are looking beyond Social Media Marketing World because you are using your expertise in event planning and marketing to start creating more content that others might be able to benefit from. Can you tell us a little bit about what you’ve been up to?

Phil Mershon: Yeah, I’m working on a book right now, and it’s going to basically lay out some of the things that I’ve learned through 30-plus years of creating different kinds of events. I’m also a musician, by the way. So I’ve come at the lens of creating experiences not only from an event planning and event strategy perspective but also as a musician and artist. And I believe there’s an intersection there that creates something awesome. That’s kind of the path that I’m on, and eventually, there will be a podcast and all the things. But right now, the focus is on the book.

Dan Gingiss: That’s awesome. Yeah, when you say you’re a musician, we often talk about, in the speaking world, the speech being a performance. I started thinking about it in all of the things that go into a really good keynote, which is not just the content, but it’s the delivery, and it’s the staging, and the choreography, and where you stand, and how you walk. We’ve all watched speakers that are pacing the entire time and you get dizzy. Or we’ve watched speakers who have slides with a thousand words and you’re squinting at the slides instead of looking at the speaker. That’s all part of the performance. A great speech includes audio-visual elements and other things to kind of keep your attention.

And the whole event is a performance. I think what you guys have always done well is you’ve added these performance aspects to it that are sort of “surprise and delights” for the audience. There’s always a musical number that you’ve put together with some of the speakers or some of the guests. And there’s a live band playing between presentations. There’s always something going on, and it really feels like there’s always this energy in the room.

Obviously, the events world has changed quite a bit in the last two years. Talk to me about where you guys are right now and how planning is similar or different from previous years.

Phil Mershon: There’s a couple of ways that stand out. Our event will be hybrid, like many events. So we’ll have a streaming component. We’ve always had recordings, but we’re enhancing the recordings this year because we know many people won’t be able to travel, whether it’s because their country won’t let them travel or their company won’t let them travel, or they’re just not comfortable. So that’s one part of it. How do you create a great experience for both audiences? That’s something that most event planners have not had to worry about in the past.

But then there is the second component of being compliant with how people are going to feel safe, but also following local regulations. We have to plan for the fact that there will be people who will want to wear masks. There will be people who don’t care to wear a mask. There will be people who want social distancing. So literally yesterday we’re doing the calculus saying, we need to have more seats in the room than we might normally because there are going to be people who put stuff on both chairs next to them because they don’t want anyone sitting next to them. And then there’s going to be others who aren’t going to care and they’re going to be hugging. So we’ve got to be prepared for a different reality.

Dan Gingiss: Yeah, I have been talking a lot about how safety is going to continue to be a theme in customer experience across industries, even post-pandemic. No one is going to do business with you if they don’t feel safe. No one is going to go work for your company if they don’t feel safe as an employee.

So I think you’re spot on that our audience, your audience, anyone’s customer base, it takes all kinds. And there are going to be different people and different levels of comfort. So you might be a person that says, “Hey, I’m vaccinated, I’m bulletproof, I feel good. Let’s go have a party.” Or you may be a person that says either “I’m not vaccinated” or even “I am vaccinated, and I’m still worried and I want to play this a little bit more conservative,” and as an event planner, you’ve got to be ready for both those types of people, and there’s nothing wrong with either one of them. You just have to be aware of the fact that both of them are going to be there. And you make it work for everybody.

Related: Why Customer Experience is Critical in a Time of Crisis

How much are you thinking about this idea that businesses now, and in the last two years, haven’t been spending as much on travel and events, and maybe they get used to that and they don’t want to spend it going forward. So, do you think that either a hybrid option or a virtual option is something that may continue even post-pandemic simply because the budget isn’t there anymore?

Phil Mershon: I think it’s going to be an event-by-event decision. I’ve heard people talking that there are events out there that are shutting off the hybrid because they want to drive people to the in-person experience, and they know that that’s really the only way you can get the experience that they’re trying to create. And then I think something like our event where the knowledge is super helpful to a marketer… I think in a knowledge-based event, you’re going to still see the hybrid experience taking place.

Dan Gingiss: Some of the best experiences I’ve had at any event are not in the plenary session listening to a speaker. They are at the bar afterward, having a conversation with a person or people and creating those connections. You can get a lot out of the material if you’re just watching the sessions, but there’s a part of it that is intangible that’s really hard to recreate.

Follow Phil Mershon on LinkedIn and TwitterThis interview has been edited for length and clarity. Watch the full video interview below. For more CX interviews, visit The Experience Maker Live Show homepage.