What Every Conference Can Learn From Digital DNA

I’m finally getting around to blogging my experience at last week’s Digital DNA conference after a short weekend interval to celebrate the wedding of good friends…

And what a conference it was! If we can even call it a conference anymore. I mean it is a conference, in the sense that it’s an annual gathering of people who ‘confer’ on a particular topic, which is the official definition.

But compared to my previous experiences of this event, and many others in the digital and marketing industries, 2016’s Digital DNA gathering just had so many highlights and takeaways that I have to share them - to share the learning for those who couldn’t attend and also in the hope that other event organisers will follow their example.

How To Stage a Great Conference

When I arrived and registered the first thing I did, like the excited geek that I am, was do a whistle-stop tour of the space.

The venue had changed this year to be held in St. George’s Market Belfast, rather than in the traditional main-stage-with-workshop-rooms corporate venues of old.

As a regular visitor to the market at weekends it was initially unimaginable to me how they would transform the space to allow for a packed itinerary that included main stage speakers every half an hour, with simultaneous workshops across 3 studios as well as exhibitor spaces and a start-up competition pitch stage running throughout the day.

But transform it they did.

A quick walk around highlighted the dynamism that this space had added to the event; with people mingling and working around various hubs, meeting points, coffee docks and hangouts while a seated audience at the back listened to impressive guest speakers on the main stage - like our very own Sinead O’Sullivan from Armagh who is trailblazing in the field of Aerospace Engineering where she’s worked on projects like the Mars Mission for NASA, no less.

I know, fangirl moment.

At the same time, local digital agency Loud Mouth Media (who went on to win “Business of the Year” at the awards that evening) were delivering their PPC workshop while their industry peers The Tomorrow Lab were equally enthralling their audience on all things content marketing.

I attended both of these sessions at last year’s event and I learned so much from them. That’s the real value of the learning that you can take away from this conference that I simply don’t find elsewhere.

How To Choose Conference Speakers

The new schedule design of free-flowing talks and workshops to dip in and out of meant so much more choice of quality speakers and workshops that it was actually difficult to choose at times (cloning machine anyone?)

A highlight for me from the main Helix Stage was Kieran Harte from Uber Ireland who had the dual assets of being both a great orator but also occupying an interesting role from which he could provide insights and learning from a fascinating global digital company.

Kieran talked us through the history of Uber, an app-based service borne from a genuine frustration and how the company is expanding their solutions into other realms such as courier services (UberRUSH) and food delivery (UberEATS).

With 200+ drivers and over 300,000 app downloads in Belfast already in the six months post-launch here, the learning he shared from the success of their viral marketing strategy that almost completely eradicates the need for traditional advertising was very interesting.

  1. Their biggest (and most successful) digital campaign is their free referral guide, encouraging recommendations and sign-ups through discounts and offers
  2. Partnerships with organisations such as the Society for the Protection of Animals has led to innovative campaigns like the kitten delivery service on National Cat Day; showing that risk-taking and encouraging employee idea creation can pay off
  3. They leverage social media sharing and traditional media publicity through fun, colourful initiatives such as the annual July UberICECREAM day to deliver ice cream anywhere, in any city.

Kieran’s takeaway messages were strong and helpful too: recognise that the way people buy and sell goods is changing rapidly with technological innovation.

Ask yourself how is that very tech both challenging your business environment and what opportunities could it hold for you?

Unlike at other conferences, I noted most of the speakers including Kieran hung around afterwards answering further question and chatting to attendees, even posing for selfies! There was a real feeling of collaboration and a festival-like spirit about the whole thing.

How To Make a Conference Worth The Money

Let’s not beat around the bush here. Digital DNA is an expensive ticket. Especially for freelance workers or small businesses. And it’s a full day out of your working week.

Like all conferences, the value of the investment of time and money has to be evaluated.

For me, personally, the event was always useful in that I always learned something (usually more than one thing) but the changes that were made this year have really propelled the benefits forward.

Firstly, there was the ability to dip in and out of things, allowing people to take work calls, send emails using the wifi or meet up with people for a chat in one of the many coffee/desk spaces.

I did this myself with a business woman I knew only from #Belfasthour on Twitter. She messaged me as I arrived to ask for a quick chat as she’d noticed I was in the same venue.

I will now be delivering a piece of strategy work for her.

That’s a real business benefit to my bottom line if nothing else.

Secondly, the agenda was packed. Over-packed. This meant that there was always something to see or do, whether it was watching a start-up pitch, learning about an exhibitor’s technology, listening to a guest speaker or asking questions at a workshop.

And that’s before people even begin networking…

How To Network at a Conference

For me, the session by the Irish International Business Network was the epitome of what a conference workshop should be, because it taught a skill that is so vital to getting the most out of these events in terms of business benefits (and yet a skill so many of us have never fully tried to learn); networking.

Their panel talk entitled “Do you want to grow your global network?” was expertly chaired by local startup stalwart Mary McKenna and featured a long line of impressive names.

The whole panel was a powerhouse of business know-how, but Susan Hayes AKA The Positive Economist was a highlight for me, so much so that I rushed home to purchase her book “The Savvy Guide to Making More Money.” She literally had so many tips there was smoke coming out of my pen, including:

  • Spend more time following-up contacts than you do at the event and personalise each follow-up email, offering something useful to that person be it an article you’ve written or a useful contact you could offer to introduce them to
  • Go to conferences abroad. Look into the possibility of getting funding to attend from local business investment projects or chambers of trade and commerce, for example
  • Reach out to your own diaspora and get involved in trade missions or research with your embassy abroad to tap into their networks. Embassies are some of the most connected organisations in the world
  • Tell people you’re going. Communicate out to your networks on places like LinkedIn and give others the opportunity to give advice, connect you with their networks in that area or meet you while you’re there
  • Don’t expect big business deals to happen the first time you meet people. Book follow-up trips and recognise that trust takes time and effort to build
  • Operate the Pay It Forward mentality. Open conversations with “What can I do for you?” and genuinely mean it. People will reciprocate this positive attitude and networks will naturally build and grow.

I had a question for the panel following up on their tips by asking about those who emigrate abroad and therefore may feel that they don’t bring as much value to the networking table, how can they fully harness those conversations?

Again, Susan had three great pieces of advice:

  1. Garner your links back to the UK for those you meet who may want to expand there, your connections and knowledge are invaluable
  2. Recognise your empathy for those who may be isolated or have also started afresh - empathy is a uniting emotion that helps to build relationships
  3. Utilise the flexibility that digital technology brings to modern business and stay confident that you can continue to work and network online as you have always done, merely in a different place.

My Own Takeaways from Digital DNA

I learned so much from this event personally (19 notebook pages-full!)

I think networking was probably the most effective personal outcome of all this year, unlike previous years, thanks in part to the rise in attendance (double that of 2015) and partly because of the transient nature of attendees that allowed for free-flow between spaces and talks.

I was able to catch up with industry peers I haven’t seen in a while such as blogger Gemma-Louise Bond of That Belfast Girl as well as very helpfully bumping into people I used to work with like Matt Hamilton, only to find that he is now a HR Consultant with a company that specialises in helping startups to grow their workforce called Think People. Now he will be a handy guy to know!

On top of that, the festival-like nature of the space meant that in the afternoon I was able to briefly swap parenting duties with my husband so that he could grab a quick coffee with old rugby colleague Tom Court (who was over from London as a guest on the IIBN panel) while I took my son around some of the more engaging stands.


For an hour he delighted himself with 3D printing and a virtual reality headset thanks to Deloitte Digital, before heading over to the Google Labs to quiz YouTube EMEA’s Graham Barry on who the best Irish gaming vloggers are and if he can make a viable career out of videos (thanks for telling him how much commission they make, Graham!)

He now thinks mum has a really cool job. And I was ironically reminded of the importance of the message behind my last session of the day…

Lean In Belfast

I had recently joined the local circle of Sheryl Sandberg’s global movement Lean In on the recommendation of a friend.

Their theme of “The Sticky Floor: what is really holding women back in leadership?” was pretty apt for me that afternoon.

The piece was well managed by Sarah Travers and it was great to hear from two men on the panel, particularly local PR leader Joris Minne who truthfully relayed his experience of re-entering the workforce after a period as a stay-at-home-father.

So much of what the panel had to say both resonated sadly with me and inspired me positively, in equal measure.

Nicola McCarthy, one of few female leading figures in the Premier League, had really sound practical ideas about helping women return to work after maternity leave while Elizabeth Filippouli, a former CNN/Al Jazeera English journalist spoke candidly about the need for women to support and not shame each other based on our personal decisions to parent, or not, and how we parent while we work.

The outcomes of the discussion touched at the core for me in terms of my experience juggling childcare that very day, as well as my journey from agency work into freelance life the previous year:

  • Women can be some of the most productive workers because they are adept at multi-tasking, organising their time and pulling all they can get from every hour that they have
  • It isn’t an issue about women-versus-men; in fact more women now recognise their success when it is in part thanks to the partnership of a supportive husband
  • Yes companies should mandate for flexibility and autonomy in working practices, but likewise women must become more confident and start to demand it.

And in the words of Nicola McCarthy: your life will change beyond measure when you become a mother. That’s OK. It would happen even if you decided not to have children.

Embrace it.

Thank you Digital DNA for another year of learning, networking and personal growth.

And for allowing me the flexibility of bringing my son to work for an hour, ultimately allowing me to embrace it!

Oh, and for choosing me to feature in the programme. The full article is available on Digital DNA’s blog here.