The Now What Conferences

tags: blend-interactive, now-what, conference, sioux-falls

For six years, from 2013 to 2018, Blend Interactive produced an annual conference called “Now What?”

The idea was to discuss topics of ongoing importance to web managers, so the title meant, “You have a website…now what?”

I was heavily involved in the first three: 2013, 2014, and 2015.

Karla Santi – Blend’s current CEO, and the creative director at the time – did an amazing job of producing the events. She was deeply committed to making them as visually and experientially perfect as possible. And they were amazing – Karla kept the production values absurdly high. I’ve been to a lot of conferences, and the Now What events remain the best overall conferences I’ve ever attended (or spoken at).

Sam Otis did artwork for all the events. Each year (after the first two) had a theme that Sam carried through all the marketing, from digital to print. (See some of the website links below. You’ll be able to pick out the themes, from astronauts to mad scientists.)

Everyone who attended the conferences loved them. As you can see below, we consistently managed to assemble a roster of speakers that we just didn’t deserve to get for a 200-person conference in a smaller city. Both Corey Vilhauer and I called in a bunch of favors to get industry friends to come speak. Considered collectively over the six years, I believe we had one of the best conference speaker lineups in the content strategy space, second only to perhaps Confab.

(I had some brief moments of panic over the early years that we were just making a “mini-Confab,” but then I concluded this wasn’t a bad association. I mentioned this to Kristina Halvorson once, and she thought it was a great thing.)

The speakers loved the conference. We gave the red carpet treatment to all of them. We’d pick them up and drop them off everywhere they needed to go for two days (Karla would arrange to borrow luxury cars from the local dealer in exchange for a sponsorship), complete with Starbucks order in hand. We paid almost every speaker a competitive fee, and we covered all their travel expenses.

In some ways, the conference was about Sioux Falls as much as it was about content strategy. I would often refer to the conference as “Our love letter to Sioux Falls.” We were determined to bring the best possible level of talent to our city, and we were equally determined that they came away from the conference thinking Sioux Falls was an amazing place.

We held all the events at the Belbas Theater in the Washington Pavilion in Sioux Falls (except the final year of workshops, which was at Icon Lounge). We lost money on the early years (and if you count our labor, we lost a lot of money), but I think the final couple of years turned a small profit as we got better and more efficient at producing it.

(Blend has thankfully managed to retain every Now What website we created as archives of the events.)

Now What 2013

Our keynote for the first year was Lisa Welchman, which was a huge get for us. I had been a fan of hers since seeing her at a conference in Chicago five years prior. When we decided on the theme of the conference, which first struck me as governance and operations, she was the first name that popped into my head.

The rest of the speaker list were close industry friends of ours. We weren’t sure how the whole thing was going to go, so we were careful to invite mostly people we knew well, and who realized the event was very new and untested.

We produced a two-minute video of conference highlights to promote the next year.

Go to website

Now What 2014

For the second year, we book-ended the conference with the two biggest names in content strategy: Karen McGrane opened the conference (she returned in 2017), and Kristina Halvorson closed it. I remember Kristina was sick, and she missed the speaker dinner the night before. She drove down from Minneapolis the morning of the conference, and made it just in time.

We added a “workshop day” for this year, and quickly realized that was the most profitable and relaxed part of the event, by far.

We nicknamed this one “Jeffapalooza,” since we had three Jeffs on the roster (Cram, Eaton, and Sauer). This event was also notable for me personally because at the after-dinner, some of the speakers told me I should contact O’Reilly about writing a book. I did, they accepted, and I published my first book in 2016.

Go to website

Now What 2015

This one was packed. We got Jared Spool and Margot Bloomstein as opening and closing keynotes for this one, along with Ahava Liebtag (she would return in 2017 as well). I remember thinking after this conference that I really didn’t have anyone else to get for it. I couldn’t think of anyone else in the U.S. that I thought we should get for it.

We produced another two-minute video of conference highlights to promote the next year.

Go to website

After 2015, I became less involved. The conference was clearly more about content strategy, and I had tapped my list of contacts for it.

Corey took over as content curator from this point on.

I think I remained on as MC for 2016, and I gave a talk in 2017. For 2018, I wasn’t involved at all, and we only did two days of workshops.

Every conference has a lifecycle, and this one just naturally ended. Attendance was declining toward the end, and the production values of the conference were so high, that putting them on was an enormous effort. We had to start planning them six months in advance, and every time we scheduled that first production meeting, we would always think “Already?! Didn’t we just do this?”

I remain incredibly proud of the conference series overall. It was one of the neatest things I was involved in at Blend.


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