Can competing panelists make panels less boring?

Mike Proulx, Margot Bloomstein, Drake Pusey, me and Eric Leist

More often than not, panel presentations disappoint. The panelists haven’t prepared. The moderator can’t maintain control. The answers come off as too repetitive. But last night I participated in a different kind of panel. A competitive faceoff in which panelists competed to remain on stage and the audience decided who offered the most useful content.

Boston University’s Digital Media Club and Maurice Rahmey drew big crowd to hear four of us – Hill Holliday’s chief digital strategist Mike Proulx, Arnold’s digital platform director Drake Pusey, content strategist Margot Bloomstein, and me – attempt to avoid elimination by offering better answers than our rivals.

There were three rounds. The first had five questions, the second four, and the third three. The first two sets of questions were shared with the participants in advance. The last three came from the audience.

Moderator Eric Leist served up the initial query to one person in particular, but after that it was a bit of a free for all as there were only three minutes allotted to the panel for each question. There was a clock staring us in the face. We knew how much time we’d used and how much time remained. To be fair the moderator did let anyone who got shut out of a topic give a 30-second response. But the format forced us to be opinionated, concise and even disagreeable. More importantly it called for us to avoid repeating earlier answers.

After each round the audience texted who they wanted to hear more from and the last place contestant exited the stage.

This is how to do a panel. If you’ve never organized one this way, give it a try. If you typically avoid doing these kinds of appearances, re-consider if you get offered this format. It’s fast, fun, intense and actually gets your pulse rate up.

On a different note, it was also impressive to see the questions that students came up with. I’ve listed some below along with a very condensed version of my answers.  I did not win, though I made it to the final faceoff where Mike Proulx kicked my ass with his knowledge of social TV.

First Round: Trending Topics (three minutes per question)

Two current digital media headlines are discussed. Panelists give detailed arguments and can offer rebuttals as well.

Q:  Will brands flock to integrate iPhone Passbook and pave the way for mainstream mobile commerce?

A:  Brands don’t flock to anything, at least not initially. Most marketers and retailers, despite the so-called instant success of Sephora, will wait until they see what consumers do. Brands like scale as we all know. As for paving the way to mainstream mobile commerce? That’s more likely to come from the credit card companiesIt’s important to remember that technology comes first. Early adopter consumers come second. Brands and marketers are always the last to the party.

Q: Are second and third screen experiences affecting the way voters make decisions during political campaigns? Why or why not?

A:  Not really. They are essential for access to content, they serve as a distribution channel and leverage social sharing of ads, videos, and candidates’ faux pas. But the technology alone is not affecting decisions. It may have played a bigger role last time around in the way Obama connected with younger, more digitally savvy voters, but less so this year.

Buy or Sell: A rapid-fire segment in which panelists are asked to “buy” or “sell” (be for or against) three different concepts (this time in terms of what audience needs to do to be better equipped for job market).

Concept 1: The interest graph is more useful to marketers than the social graph.

A: Yes. It’s always better to market to a consumer who’s raised his or her hand and expressed interest.  The trick is to learn to leverage Pinterest, Springpad and other platforms to both identify those interests and to inspire their expression.

Concept 2: Web 2.0 sites have shifted from banner ads to platform native advertising.  In the future, all content networks will adopt some form of native advertising. (Sponsored Tweets, Stories on Buzzfeed, Facebook Sponsored Stories, etc.)

A:  We all know that old-fashioned banner ads don’t work. But when is the future? All content networks? They should. And inevitably they will. But it will take some time, simply because of how inventory is sold and the legacy systems, processes and habits already in place. Students, however, should know how to conceive and execute native advertising ideas. It will make them more valuable to forward thinking employers.

Second Round: Controversial Topics (2 minutes per question)

Q: Should marketers care about pay-to-play (ie non-ad revenue supported) social networks like APP.NET?

A:  Certainly not yet. Though there is an underlying message. Social users don’t want ads and or a platform beholden to advertisers. Paid platforms may not take off, but smart marketers on the other platforms should take note enough to make sure their content and engagement is useful and welcome, not intrusive and self-serving.

Q: What non-payment mobile trend/tech is having the biggest impact on the retail industry for marketers?

A:  Images, Instagram and in-store innovations similar to what Burberry is doing in Dubai and London.

Q: The web has broken down the barriers between PR, advertising, and in-house marketers. Who is the ideal person to  create content on behalf of a brand?

A:  PR people are best equipped. Marketers are used to multiple layers between themselves and their consumers. Advertising practitioners know how to make messages. PR professionals, at least those who’ve learned social protocols, understand one-to-one and real-time engagement.

Q: At TechCrunch Disrupt, Mark Zuckerberg stated that mobile ads are more effective and will be more akin to television than the web. Is there a non-annoying future for mobile advertising?

A:  Yes. We just don’t know what it looks like yet.

Third Round: Questions from the Audience

Even these were quite good and challenging. One was on Facebook suggesting it would launch “wants,” and the potential impact on making it a better, more effective paid medium. (It’s a response to the interest graph.) A second was on the biggest disruptive challenge to agencies. (The need to compete with Silicon Valley for talent.) And the third, which killed me, was about Shazam and social TV. (I attempted to change the subject to the SuperPAC app.) But the audience was too smart to fall for that.

Got better answers to any of the questions? Please leave them below. Been on a panel like this? Please share your reactions. And thanks for stopping by.

Photo: Heather Goldin,  Daily Free Press



Hey now!   I saw  this post way back in September, and have been itching for a chance to implement at an event.  We're actually going to be doing one of  "steel cage match" panels on Tuesday January 8th at our event  I'm admittedly a little nervous heading into this, but I'll be adhering to the general rules stated above.  I want to keep things moving quickly and not lose momentum.  I've been watching a little extra 'Around The Horn" as inspiration on moderating.  Can I ask what text service was used to tally the votes?I really appreciated the post - I wouldn't be doing the UNpanel without it. Cheers! 


Great idea - thanks for sharing! We just reworked one of the sessions for our upcoming @centraldesktop user conference based on this idea and managed to recruit five agency customers for the panel. We'll let you know how the audience responds to this format!


 @lindasouza  Hey Linda, let me know if you need any advice on running the event or run into any trouble with logistics. I'd be happy to help!

edwardboches moderator

 @KevinMGreen That would be good. Let me know if you make it happen anywhere. Perhaps we can start a trend.


 @mrahmey Thank you, Maurice! We're pulling things together now and have some good ideas, but we'd love to hear your suggestions and lessons learned. I just followed you from the @centraldesktop account. DM us your contact info and we'll contact you.