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Making User Conferences Work for You

August 28, 2017

Talk about a dangerous game of telephone; in a world that now features a growing number of social networking communities and Web sites, a dissatisfied customer’s issue can quickly morph into a wave of negativity against an organization. And unlike the children’s version of the game which has no winners and losers, your organization can lose in a big way if you don’t catch it before it runs out of control.

A proactive way for organizations to keep the finger on the pulse of their customers – and by doing so to understand and manage any type of dissatisfaction – is to create a series of user events that formalize the dialogue between company and audience. In this issue, we will discuss the range of user events available to b-to-b executives, and discuss best practices for operating user conferences.

User Events Defined

There are many types of user events, all of which give users the opportunity to meet and exchange experiences with others, but only some of which are formally sanctioned by the vendor organization in question. SiriusDecisions has identified three core categories of user events, including:

  • User groups (little/no vendor control). User groups started as informal gatherings of users of a particular technology or application, and typically grew without the involvement of the vendors that were being discussed. User groups are most commonly created around very large technology companies (e.g. IBM, Microsoft and Oracle) or open-source technologies (e.g. Linux) that rely on end-user adoption for proliferation. These groups were the precursors to today’s blogs and online community forums, and now often exist as strictly online entities.
  • User forums (limited/moderate vendor control). User forums are a natural outgrowth of user groups, in fact, they are a vendor’s attempt to rein in and use such groups to its advantage. User forums tend to have a regional or industry focus, and are typically promoted by what SiriusDecisions classifies as Band Four organizations (revenue greater than $1 billion) that have large enough user bases to make a series of these events both practical and feasible. User forums often clearly show their user group roots, as they tend to be coordinated and created with strong involvement from user volunteers who have significant pull in getting local/regional users to attend an event that is perceived to be “company sanctioned.” We even now see the concept of “unconferences” popping up, regional events with no formal agenda that allow attendees to come in and present case studies to wide audiences or even small workgroups.
  • User conferences (full vendor control). User conferences are highly structured gatherings where customers and a select group of prospects can share best practices and network over a period of days. Unlike user forums that may be held quarterly, the user conference tends to be an annual event. As the proliferation of online community forums and groups have lessened the need in some cases for live regional gatherings, the user conference has gained importance as a primary vehicle for creating and empowering a more formalized customer community.
     

Optimizing the User Conference

Based on our research and client interactions, SiriusDecisions has consolidated the top three best practices that b-to-b organizations often overlook when planning a user conference:

  • Ensure significant marketing and sales involvement. Many organizations leave the task of planning a user conference to an events team, with only ad hoc involvement from other marketing and sales functions. Your reputation functions should be tightly woven into this process, as a major year-to-year metric to gather should be customer sentiment (not to mention identifying key trouble areas and addressing them through public and/or analyst relations following the event). Product marketing must take a role to formalize ways of gathering future requirements for your offerings, and field marketing to understand customer views on the organization and pain points that could be leveraged in future cross-sell or upsell campaigns. These events are excellent opportunities for sales to invite prospects who are a good distance through their buying cycle; simply by chatting with your customers, these prospects can be “sold” much more effectively in many cases than the most effective sales reps. The most effective user conferences have a mix of sessions that cover your organization’s overall vision and roadmap, case studies, individual tracks to cover industry solutions and individual product lines, and certification testing as applicable, giving your customer base – and you – numerous ways to learn.
  • Showcase the bad. Resist inclinations to the contrary and showcase at least one customer that had issues with your organization, and how you (and they) worked to overcome them. Not only does this give a more realistic portrayal of the user experience, it clearly demonstrates your organization is responsive to solving problems. Carefully choose a customer that is now satisfied but will be truthful and realistic versus giving a vindictive customer a platform to disparage your organization. In addition, staff your user conferences with customer service and support staff to help dissatisfied customers resolve issues on site (promoting this feature in pre-event materials) and create an “escalation” path that allows this staff to actually schedule face time with senior management at the event for customers with major issues. Use your customer service and sales teams to help identify attendees that have had recurring or serious issues before the event takes place, and develop a plan to interact with/manage them proactively.
  • Close an unconventional loop. Many times, the metrics that are collected on the back end of an event tend to be soft in nature, and fail to help an organization develop the benchmarks it needs to set improvement plans against. We have provided a number of ideas above that can be measured around past pure event satisfaction (which certainly should be assessed), from creating a customer sentiment index to the efficacy and impact of addressing customer issues on site. Each team that attends an event, be it product marketing, communications, customer service or sales, should create a set of metrics they want to gather prior to the event, rather than after it. Not only will this focus their efforts on participating in the event in a positive way, it will ensure that no function attends as merely an observer.
     

Pitfalls to Avoid

Despite the best practices that many organizations have gained through years of running user conferences, we’ve identified three areas that are often overlooked:

  • Too much structure. Although structured sessions are the norm for user events, many user conferences don’t schedule ample networking time. Plan to allot as much as 50 percent of the overall hours for networking; this gives your customers the opportunity to interact with similar users, and to share best practices and issues they’ve had. These events also allow your staff to mingle among the attendee base and informally learn about user issues first hand; a formal session should be scheduled post-event for your own people to meet, share the feedback they have collected, and develop a go-forward plan for addressing any issues that require attention.
  • Shaking the same hands. Many organizations target only their main customer contacts when marketing their user conference. But this event is the perfect opportunity to extend your reach within a customer organization, meaning one of your measures of success should be how well you are able to attract attendees who are not your end user/main contact. From case studies to informal networking events, there can be a number of opportunities created for these potential crosssell/upsell prospects to learn more about your organization. Advertise sessions beyond a technical focus that cover how other functions (such as sales, marketing and customer service) can benefit from a relationship with you, and encourageadditional customer attendees through incentives and discounts to promote the event beyond your main interface.
  • Inappropriate sponsors. Although the lure of additional revenue from sponsors is enticing, make sure you have sponsors whose products are partners (or potential partners) that provide complementary offerings to your solutions and the vision you are communicating at the event. Limit the number of sponsors so as not to be disproportionate to the number of attendees; 10 percent of your projected attendance is a good number to target. Weave your sponsor area into your networking events as much as possible; your sponsors will then have the advantage of gathering significant feedback from the user base, too.

The Sirius Decision

Many organizations spend years building up their reputation and goodwill, only to have it threatened by an isolated customer event or a defect in a product release. The key to managing inevitable rough patches is to foster a community between your organization and your customers, a community that can formally gather each year at a major user conference. By building an event that extends the notion of partnership between customer and company, the event will be valuable for all parties, and will become a vital extension of informal communities that have certainly sprouted up around your product and service mix.