Ever since I became a content marketer, I’ve been intrigued by HubSpot’s annual conference, INBOUND. It’s hard to resist the slick videos, the jaw-dropping slate of celebrity speakers, and the promise of cake.
In previous years, I chose to attend CMI’s Content Marketing World, which generally falls on the same days as INBOUND (I’ve always wondered about that. Why would two of the biggest content marketing events of the year be scheduled for the exact same dates? Seems a little suspicious to me…)
If you’re interested in reading my take on CMWorld, you can find my 2014 recap here and my 2015 recap here.
This year, I decided it was finally time to see what all the fuss was about and I grabbed a ticket to INBOUND.
CMWorld vs. INBOUND: What’s the difference?
Here’s my simple summary of the differences between CMWorld and INBOUND:
- The settings of Cleveland (CMWorld) and Boston (INBOUND) are obviously quite different. I generally consider Boston a more appealing destination (sorry, Cleveland!), though it’s further away from me and I had some serious sticker shock at the price of my very average hotel room.
- INBOUND is substantially larger, with around 26,000 attendees (compared to around 3,500 at CMWorld). As an introvert who generally only interacts with a handful of other humans on an average day, I found the size of INBOUND to be overwhelming. Logistically, it’s also hard to fit 26,000 people into one space with ease, so INBOUND involves a LOT of walking and waiting.
- When it comes to celebrities, social activities, and overall fun, INBOUND is the winner in my book. I loved the Studio where you could see quick, intimate conversations with the celebrity speakers like Katie Couric and Elizabeth Gilbert. The “night at the movies” fireside chat and movie screening with Crazy Rich Asians director John Chu was a definite highlight.
- Content-wise, both conferences are similar. They each have a few mainstage keynotes that draw the big crowds and multiple breakout sessions throughout the day where you can choose your own adventure. Logistically, I think CMWorld is a bit more flexible and allows you to switch sessions easily. At INBOUND you have to reserve sessions weeks in advance and everything seems to fill up quickly, though you have the possibility of waiting in standby for other sessions if you change your mind.
When it comes to celebrities, social activities, and overall fun, INBOUND is the winner in my book.
And now on to a few of my observations and reflections about the INBOUND experience.
Connecting with others in a crowd of 26,000 is HARD
INBOUND was definitely the largest conference I’ve ever attended, and it felt that way. I mentioned earlier about the walking and waiting that’s involved, but one of the most surprising things to me was just how lonely I felt.
Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by going to World Domination Summit, where attendee-led meetups are central to the experience. Maybe I was being overly sensitive. But I just found it really hard to connect with other attendees. Like, really hard. Pretty much any conversation I had with a fellow attendee was one I initiated. People would barely look up from their phones to say hi when I sat down next to them, and talking to others while you’re waiting in line didn’t really seem to be a thing.
I don’t know exactly why that is. Does the size of the event make people feel insignificant and anonymous? Probably. Are the majority of attendees sent by work and not looking to connect with other people? Possibly. Are the majority of people out there more introverted than I am? Doubtful.
I will say that when I started conversations with people, they were generally friendly, but getting over that initial hurdle was challenging.
If you’re planning to go and you WANT to connect with other people, I’d recommend coming up with some sort of strategy like connecting with people on social media beforehand or setting up your own coffee date or happy hour with people who have similar interests. If you’re just there to learn and you don’t really want to talk to strangers, you’ll feel right at home!
If you’re just there to learn and you don’t really want to talk to strangers, you’ll feel right at home!
Be prepared: breakout sessions are hit or miss
This is probably not earth-shattering news—anyone who’s been to a conference with breakout sessions knows that there will be variation in the quality of the sessions. Still, I was surprised by this. Some sessions felt very introductory in their treatment of a topic. Some sessions went way over my head. Some sessions were clearly intended for HubSpot customers. Some sessions were not. Some sessions were popular and every seat was taken. And some sessions were sparsely attended. I didn’t find it easy to discern this when I was booking my spot ahead of time, so I never knew what I was walking into when I joined a session.
I don’t know if this was my fault—did I fail to notice some sort of coding system?—or an oversight on HubSpot’s part. My friend had a similar complaint and we overheard some other attendees complaining about attending a session that was #basic, so I know I wasn’t the only one who felt a bit misled by the session titles or descriptions.
My advice to future attendees is to be prepared for this. If you’re attending a breakout session and you don’t know anything about the speaker, maybe grab a seat towards the back so you can duck out if it turns out not to meet your expectations. And check out the schedule and map so you know how to get to your second choice session.
Everything is Instagrammable
Club INBOUND, the main area where all the vendors are set up, is basically like a combination of the Color Factory and a Yayoi Kusama installation. There was a ball pit, a mirror hallway full of multi-colored LED lights, a swing set, and a gif-making photo booth.
I imagine this is very intentional on HubSpot’s part. Everything is highly shareable and helps generate some of the social buzz that made me want to attend INBOUND in the first place.
One of the recurring themes this year was the “flywheel” which is the idea of keeping customers engaged with delightful experiences, so Club INBOUND was essentially a real-life flywheel. These installations and experiences weren’t necessarily profound, but they were fun and engaging.
A few final thoughts, tips, & tricks
Overall, INBOUND was fun. I really enjoyed many of the mainstage speakers like Elizabeth Gilbert, Katie Couric, Janelle Monae, and Chip and Joanna Gaines. I loved Elizabeth’s keynote about creativity and putting in the hard work to live the life you want. It’s really inspiring to see so many different types of creative people who have “made it” and learn more about how they got there and what their approach to work is.
The experience fell short for me in terms of education and networking. Ideally, I would have had lots of engaging conversations with other people and felt like I walked away with several tactics I was going to try out right away. But that simply wasn’t the case.
I’m glad I went, but I don’t feel a strong need to go back again.
That said, I wanted to make note of a few tips and tricks in case you’re planning to go.
- Wear comfortable shoes. Don’t even bother with those cute sandals that are comfy-ish. With the amount of walking you have to do, just bring whatever shoes can withstand 10,000+ steps a day.
- Schedule breaks for yourself. If you sign up for every session, you’ll only ever have a 30-minute break, which makes it really hard to get from the room to food and to your next session on time. Just decide not to go to one of the mid-day sessions and take time to eat a leisurely lunch and enjoy some fresh air.
- As soon as you have the conference schedule and map, take a look at your agenda to see if you might want to make some adjustments. You might find it’s a better use of your time to wait in the standby line and get into a session that’s right next door rather than trying to trek all the way across the convention center.
- If you decide there’s a session you’d like to attend but the app says it’s full, just go wait in the standby line. There’s a very good chance you’ll get in. This is how I got to see several sessions in the studio, which was much more intimate and personable than the large conference hall.
I hope that helps! Let me know if you have any tips, tricks, or observations of your own. And if you’ve attended a content marketing event that you’d recommend, I’d love to hear about it.
Cover photo by Andrei Stratu on Unsplash