Facebook and the accidental rise of KahenaCon

As an advertising platform, Facebook allowed KahenaCon to sell out attendance to conference.

May 28, 2013 22:49
3 minute read.
Israel’s digital-marketing community participate in the second annual KahenaCon conference.

KahenaCon conference 370. (photo credit: Niv Elis)

It seems only right that Kahena, a small, Israeli digital- marketing company, would harness the power of the Internet to promote its second annual KahenaCon conference.

But not even the company expected that a stealth advertising campaign through Facebook would increase its attendance from the previous year fivefold.

“It was mind-blowing,” said Ari Nahmani, the CEO of Kahena (pronounced kah- HEE-nah). The first conference produced good word of mouth, he said, based on intimate sessions that provided useful technical advice for the industry crowd. When it came time for round two, Kahena marketed it as an “intimate, collegiate” event, expecting only moderately higher numbers.

“I thought we were going to have 125 people, but we were sold out a week before the event,” Nahmani said, adding that he had to start running new ads with a “sold out” banner and eventually pulled all the advertising.

An early adopter, Nahmani had worked with Facebook ads since college and figured that social promotion would be perfect for the tight-knit community he wanted at the conference.

The advantage of Facebook as an advertising platform is that it can target highly specific audiences and add a social element, reaching out to people whose Facebook friends also interact with the product.

When a Facebook user indicated that she was attending KahenaCon, an ad would show up in her friends’ news feeds. As more people clicked over time, the ads would reappear saying “4 of your friends” or “7 of your friends” were planning on going, giving users the repeated impression that KahenaCon was the hot ticket in town.

The “secret sauce,” Nahmani said, was that the communities he wanted to attract already existed. Israel is already pretty small and interwoven, but the English-speaking and the digital- marketing communities are even more intertwined.

“I think when you have a hyper-local market and a natural community, whether they physically meet or just naturally exists, it can be extremely potent,” Nahmani said.

An informal survey of the crowd at the conference reaffirmed his observations.

“I saw on Facebook that one of my friends was coming,” said attendee Golan Caspi, who heads the digital-marketing company K/Logic. His colleague, who was next in the chain, said, “I saw on my feed that [Caspi] was going there, and then I looked and saw that a friend of mine was speaking, so that made me want to come.”

When asked how he first heard about the conference, Dan Perach, a manager at PPCPROZ, said, “It must’ve been Facebook.”

The unexpected response, which ended up attracting nearly 250 people, required the organizers to rethink the venue and add special times for networking and breakout sessions to maintain the “intimate, collegiate” vibes that made the first year’s conference so successful.

“That ‘fear of missing out’ factor is so strong, that I knew we would get the right people if we advertised socially,” Nahmani said. Reinforcing the social ads with Google ads targeted at people who had already visited the Web page made the conference appear ubiquitous. Only people who would care about issues like “search engine optimization” and expected changes in Google’s algorithm were subjected to the ads.

The sudden rise of KahenaCon mirrors the growth of SMX Israel, a competing conference for Internet marketers that has grown from just over 100 to about 600 participants over the past five years. But it had advantages Kahena lacked. Tied to a well-known international brand, SMX (Search Market Expo) gained steam through posts by its founder Barry Schwartz, whose Search Engine Roundtable blog already had a devoted following. Without the use of specific online ads, the conference gained traction through the years as its participants posted about it on social media “the old-fashioned” way, Schwartz said.

“Other people are going because their friends are going; they don’t want to miss out on it,” he said, adding that SMX Israel goes to great lengths to try and make the event personable despite its size.

With a flourishing IT crowd in Israel, it seems there is enough demand for both conferences.

As one returning KahenaCon participant said, the gathering filled a niche.

While the social advertising proved that the community existed, she said, it still hungered for forums in which it could get together, interact and exchange professional ideas.

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