blogher founders

What makes BlogHer different

9 August 2011

I’ve been to three women-targeted conferences, and the first two – Maria Shriver’s Women’s Conference in 2007 and TEDWomen in 2010 – were so impressive I tempered my expectations for the third, a conference for women bloggers called BlogHer 2011. But BlogHer 2011, which took place last weekend in San Diego, was a special experience, and it was in many ways different from any other conference I’ve attended.

1. Energy – Excitement sparks the air at BlogHer. The overwhelmingly female attendees – many of them moms, most of them traveling long distances – struggle with the meaningful financial and family sacrifices involved in getting there. The anticipation and anxiety leading up to the conference can be intense, and when at last the attendees arrive they are motivated to make the most of the opportunity.

2. Inspiration – BlogHer is a trade conference – blogging being a trade in a very broad sense, for there are activists, artists, photographers, crafters, personal storytellers and niche experts of every kind. But whatever the subject matter, everyone is a writer, communicator and digital media geek to varying degrees. The conference did an admirable job covering the how-to of blogging, from design and platforms to marketing and monetizing. But what it did even better was to inspire its attendees to be better at whatever it is they do.

3. No strangers – After my only blogger friend dropped out, I made plans to room with someone I’d never met or interacted with before. But we weren’t strangers. She’d checked out my blog; I’d checked out hers. My husband thought the idea of rooming with a stranger was odd, but I had listened to my roommate’s voice through her blog, and in doing so I knew more about her than any of the moms I see every day at school.

4. Friends IRL – From the solitude of their computers, bloggers are always making friends online, reaching out through each others’ blogs and through social networks to find kindred spirits across the English-speaking world. Conferences are a rare opportunity to meet virtual friends in real life (IRL), to find out their real names (not just their Twitter handles) and to share a meal, a laugh, a hug.

5. Diversity – There are specialized conferences for parent bloggers, regional bloggers and all types of niche bloggers, but the annual BlogHer conference is for everyone. BlogHer celebrates the diversity of its membership in its annual Voices of the Year session, in which outstanding blog posts from the year, selected from over 1000 submissions, are read/presented by their creators. Many were riotously funny; others brought the crowd to tears. All were wonderful.

Each person I met at BlogHer had an interesting path, story, perspective – and as one person I met commented, “No one here is boring.”

This is the lovely Reem Abbas from Sudan, one of four winners of BlogHer’s International Activist Scholarships.

6. Female rules – Event planning in general is a largely female domain, but BlogHer takes female rule-making and attention to detail to another level. During the more intimate Pathfinder Day before the conference began, the round tables had chairs arranged so that everyone could see the speaker, eliminating the unlucky few that would have required listeners to have their backs to the action.

Health-conscious lunches during the conference included appetizing assortments of salads, with full vegan and gluten-free options, and in between sessions there were tables of fruits, veggies and portable plastic containers with lids. I was already impressed by the array of fresh produce, but when I saw the lids I had to take a picture.

Many attendees brought their young babies, and the most notable thing about their presence was what a non-issue it was to have babies in the crowd. Any mom brave enough to bring her baby proved herself entirely capable of managing the situation with no impact on others – except perhaps the distracting cuteness of their offspring.

I mean, really.

7. Community – The nature of the crowd certainly contributed to the strong feeling of collegiality at BlogHer: you don’t become a blogger if you’re not the sharing type, and BlogHer by definition is comprised of people driven by their desire to share their expertise or experience with others.

My roommate, the fantastic Ananda Leeke, calls this a digital sisterhood. We do the same thing but in uniquely different ways, and we all learn from one another. When bloggers help bloggers, we all win by helping our audience find engaging content.

The individual voice is the heart of blogging; everyone has a unique offering and a unique audience with whom that voice will resonate. But it is in the community that we find comfort and collective strength.

8. Safety – Despite its size (BlogHer has grown from 300 to 3600 attendees since 2005), BlogHer manages to provide an open, welcoming, noncompetitive environment. In online chatter prior to the conference, there was plenty of anxiety about what to wear and whether new attendees would feel left out. But at the conference, anything goes: old, young, jeans, dresses, flip flops, stilettos. What organizers – and, by example, attendees – care about is not how people look but what they have to say.

To me the most remarkable quality of BlogHer is how the organizers manage to maintain a feeling of emotional safety despite the numbers, creating a place where attendees feel comfortable not just in being themselves but in sharing their journeys, goals and fears with people they’ve just met.

Peanut gallery

I didn’t hear many grumbles during the conference, nor do I have many myself. BlogHer does an admirable job following its own advice to bloggers: know your audience. BlogHer filled needs I didn’t even know I had. I’m officially a fan.

Through the power of its collective, BlogHer has made an enormous impact in getting businesses to take seriously the influence of the female voice. As the impressive Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo, said during a packed lunchtime session when asked by interviewer Willow Bay why she chose to attend:

Women today represent 70 percent of all the buying decisions made around the world…with the maturation of blogging and Tweeting…[we have] given women power and an ability to influence the world from the confines of their home. Which means we have now taken this incredible force called women and empowered them to go off and change the world. When you see these two factors coming together, people like me would be crazy not to be here. I’m surprised more CEOs are not here.

Judging by the sponsors, BlogHer organizers have done an amazing job selling consumer businesses on the buying power of women and the influence of female bloggers.

It sounds comical, but I think there’s still progress to be made in female bloggers being taken seriously as technology geeks. It may be true that women are more interested in what technology can do than in the technology itself. But we are still interested in the technology. In addition to the small Geek Bar sessions, I would have loved to see more WordPress representation, given its influence as a popular blogging platform. It would have been nice to have a session at BlogHer highlighting the latest and greatest in the WordPress development community – perhaps a sampling of what’s being discussed at the WordPress conference being held in San Francisco this weekend.

On the geek front, I was tickled to get a demo of the aspiring Facebook slayer Google+ from the community manager of the project herself, Natalie Villalobos, who was there with a team from Google.

There are necessarily commercial elements to BlogHer – it is sponsors, after all, who subsidize the considerable cost of the event and substantially reduce the price of admission so that more can afford to attend. The Expo Hall, where sponsors have booths showcasing their products, is frenzied swag free-for-all that delights many attendees.

I was a conference nerd and focused on the sessions and meeting people, but I did enjoy the Golden Gate Bridge made of Twizzlers (there was also a Statue of Liberty and Space Needle) and the BlogHer sculpture made out of a giant block of Ivory soap.

The heart of the matter

The most profound lesson I retain from the conference goes beyond blogging: the importance in life of being open. In the session about imperfection, the excellent panel of Brene Brown, Shauna Ahern and Mr Lady discussed the critical role of vulnerability in developing a connection with readers. The same theme theme was later echoed by photographer Penny de los Santos, her message memorably illustrated through her beautifully moving photography.

Reaching out – removing barriers, making honest connections, sharing our core humanity – and allowing people to reach us back is what good photography is about, what good blogging is about, what a good life is about.

Certainly it’s what a good conference is about. Hats off to the BlogHer team, led by founders Elisa Camahort Page, Lisa Stone and Jory Des Jardins, for creating an experience that broadened, deepened and enriched the lives of 3600 people in three days. I am grateful to have been there.

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