Experiences from Hong Kong

Hong Kong skyline from ICC Tower
Hong Kong’s historical Victoria Harbour from ICC Tower (480 m, 1500 ft)

Asian SEM. New learning. Beautiful sights. Exotic food. Meeting old and new acquaintances. Getting quoted on Forbes.com. Experiencing a typhoon.

Apparently it’s possible to have all these mixed into one conference trip.

But first, as Juha pointed out in his blog article (in Finnish), we recently attended the Search Engine Strategies conference in Hong Kong. I wanted to share some highlights from there, thoughts on the conference itself, and how we squeeze value out of the conferences we attend.

Highlights from SES HK

Some the most interesting presentations were by Marcelo Wesseler (Singapore Post), Brian Hui (Amazon China), Crispin Sheridan (SAP) and Ming Soong Tham (National University of Singapore).

Marcelo Wesseler, Senior Vice-president, E-commerce, Singapore Post
Marcelo Wesseler, Senior Vice-president, E-commerce, Singapore Post

Marcelo Wesseler’s presentation was a breath of fresh air and a reality check for e-commerce managers. Rather than just talk about the usual proxy indicators like conversion rates or my pet peeve CPA, Marcelo talked about real success indicators like EBIT, net margins, or alternatively gross margins after logistics and marketing spend. Conversion rates might be looking great, but is your net margin negative after logistics and marketing? Your business is not scalable, you’re dying.

He even noted how your supply chain logic will impact the duties and taxes you need to pay. Tax optimization can be just as important, or even more important than marketing optimization.

The importance of understanding CLV, customer lifetime value, cannot be overstated. But do you understand how CLV differs between channels or geographies? One finding was that the most valuable online shoppers tend to come from more rural areas. And interestingly, CLV had been a bit higher for customers originating from Facebook than Google. Factoring in this kind of understanding helps you make smarter bidding and budget decisions and grow your business profitably.

Some of Marcelo’s top tips for e-commerce managers:

  • CLV should determine your budgets
  • Don’t use last click attribution
  • Enjoy analytics for breakfast
  • Keep it simple & focus on basics
Brian Hui, Head of Marketing, Amazon China
Brian Hui, Head of Marketing, Amazon China

In his presentation, Brian Hui pointed out how Amazon leverages automation and machine learning in virtually all of their marketing activities. What does this mean to them?

  • They have only one manager responsible for their paid search program for the whole huge Chinese market. This manager has a couple of engineers to help him unleash the potential of automation. When asking about any possible quality score problems that could arise when much is done automatically, Brian assured me this was not an issue for them
  • When it comes to SEO, they have over 100 ranking factors built into their own machine which can give a ranking factor analysis and a ranking score for a given keyword. Changes in rankings are detected fast, helping them to simulate algorithm updates by search engines
  • Amazon knows the power of recommendation. Recommendations are naturally based on your shopping cart information and when it overlaps with other people’s shopping behavior (people who bought this also bought that), browsing and search history, but also based on predictions that take into account your friend connections. This brings to mind Jim Rohn’s famous quote ’You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with’

Interesting. You can only imagine how much more we would’ve wanted to hear during Q&A but Brian kept his cool and in his own humorous way declined to answer in detail.

The best presenters clearly highlighted the need to not just be a marketing expert, but a business expert. A clear takeaway would be that if you are a SEM manager following vanity metrics you will be eaten alive, you can be replaced by algorithms that do a better job than you.

I would have loved to include more of the slides from the event, but sadly I couldn’t access the presentations. This brings me to the next point, the pros and cons of SES HK.

SES HK Pros and Cons

There were a number of things that were just right, but others, well, not quite right in my opinion. Here are my top 3 pros and cons.

+ Structure of presentations. Most of the sessions were given by just one presenter, meaning that they didn’t need to run through a slide deck in 15 minutes, which is the case in many similar conferences, like SMX. There was enough time to go a bit deeper into the subject

(Some of the) content. Most presentations were delivered by practitioners, which kept the content quite practical

+ The venue. The Mira Hotel was a great pick. On top of good service, delicious food and snack it offered a very elegant and professional environment for networking

– Tardiness and disorganization. This was a big surprise, especially when knowing how much punctuality is appreciated in the territory. Many of the presentations started late, some went overtime, leaving very little or no time for Q&A. The second day started off over half an hour late without any explanation or even apology. This gave the conference a slightly awkward, unprofessional feel. Another thing is the time it took to publish the speaker presentations. At SMX conferences you’d usually have access to the presentations within one or two days. With SES HK it took over two weeks to get an e-mail that gave a promise of them, but in reality we still can’t access them

– 1990’s Internet connection. Yes, you’d think that Wi-Fi would be a top priority for a SEM conference, but I’ve disturbingly often found this to be a problem, and unfortunately SES HK was no exception. The Wi-Fi was on and off and even when it was on, for the most part it was painfully slow

– AC on steroids. It’s understandable to enjoy cool air when it’s +35° C outside, but setting the AC to freeze and keeping it there even after requests for warmer temperature makes no sense. Some of the conference rooms actually got so cold it was hard to focus on the presentations instead of fighting the impending hypothermia

Was it Worth it?

With all the airfare, hotel expenses and seminar fees – was it really worth the investment? If it were only for the content of the conference, I’d have to say no, even with the few great presentations. For someone who’s just starting out as a practitioner, perhaps the agenda might suffice.

But factoring in the exceptionally bright individuals we connected with, the interesting discussions with them and the fact that we were able to work side-by-side with our clients in HK, I’d say it sure tips the scale in the other direction.

So the bottom line is this: whether a conference proves to be valuable or not depends a lot on your own activity – do you just sit through the conference with your eyes glued to your Facebook newsfeed, or do you plan which sessions to attend, take brief notes, participate in the Q&A and approach the speakers and other practitioners, talk about current trends, share experiences and so on. And afterward of course apply and share any new learning. Yes, it takes deliberate effort.

One outcome of this activity (and, okay okay, keeping an eye on tweets with the conference hashtag #SESHK) was getting mentioned in this excellent Forbes article by Joshua Steimle, where he covers some of the conference content. The PR8 link was a sweet cherry on the top. :)

Then there was the interesting experience of seeing the super typhoon Usagi pass near Hong Kong. Being crazy Finns with our client Ville ’E-Ville’ Majanen we couldn’t resist the temptation so we jumped into our swimming shorts and headed out. Sure, some companies take clients fine dining, but storm chasing can be a great way to bond, too. ;)

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