So, What Are WE Going to Do About It?

Well, I hardly imagined there was anything out of the ordinary with my last post; just another conference write-up. But apparently I hit a nerve with regard to my complaint about how most conferences are structured. It seems LOTS of people are fed up—vendors and users alike.

I’ve since had various conversations about this across multiple platforms, so I thought I’d consolidate my views here, in one place, along with my thoughts about what we can do better.

I mean WE in the broadest sense. There’s plenty of unhappiness with the current state of affairs, but for an industry that prides itself on “innovation”, we—sponsors, attendees and event organizers—are mostly just going with the flow laid down for industry conferences ages ago, rather than thinking about how to make them better instead of just bigger.

First, I have no quarrel with vendor sponsorship as such: it costs money to host a large event, and for some organizations, it’s an actual revenue stream. For some (Upperside Conferences, Layer123), it’s their raison d’être. For others, it’s a codified part of the revenue mix (Gartner, for example, reported that 11% of their revenues came from conference sales in 2014). If a tech vendor hosts its own event (eg VMworld, SAPworld, etc), it’s primarily viewed as a marketing activity: less of a revenue stream than an awareness and customer/partner contact event—but still not a small budget item.

As any arts organization can tell you, ticket sales only cover a portion of the cost of an event. The rest has to be made up by deep-pocketed benefactors. And so event organizers, by and large, are just giving their biggest customers what those customers have been trained to want.

And that’s the problem. Not because it’s inherently evil or corrupt—it’s just standard business practice to make your biggest customers happy. The problem is that the deliverables sponsors have been trained to expect, and therefore want, don’t necessarily deliver the kind of value that sponsors actually want or could get. Instead, there are probably better ways to provide value to the largest customers and do more for smaller ones (attendees) at the same time. In other words, I’d like to see more creative sponsorship packages.

For example:

  • Sponsors spend lots of money to obtain booth space, and then lots more money on big fancy booths. Some of us then book juggling or unicycle or magic acts to draw people to our booth, and offer up giveaways as an incentive for badge scans. The sponsor scans some number of badges of people interested in their giveaway. Actual qualified leads that can be used by Sales are typically under 1%. Where there’s genuine interest, ie the attendee has had a meaningful conversation with a qualified booth staffer, the staffer usually gets the attendee’s business card and promptly gets in touch with the relevant salesperson and/or product people at corporate, thereby circumventing the whole lead-gen flow.

Now, events are absolutely a good place for users to meet with a lot of current or potential suppliers in rapid succession. Sometimes good sales reps are proactive about arranging meetings at events. But maybe event organizers could help facilitate the process: all attendees fitting a certain profile automatically get offered meeting matching services with up to 3 vendors of their choice, plus a “wild card” in an area in which they have a general interest (“DevOps tools”, say) which could provide luck-of-the-draw opportunities for small, potentially interesting startups without a lot of name recognition. Or heck, maybe a vendor-user speed dating event.

  • Speaking slots are probably the most valuable portion of any standard sponsorship package, but there’s definitely a right way and a wrong way to do it. More often than not,unfortunately, it’s pure advertising. I’ve even known of individual speakers who tried to do something more interesting than straightforwardly “push the message”, only to be “corrected” by their corporate people. Some events try to encourage or even mandate a user speaker in their sponsor sessions, but even when that’s possible (and it can be remarkably difficult even for a large vendor), the user speaker knows they’re there to help the vendor, and the end result is the same.

On the other hand, event organizers who are in touch with users themselves are in a good position to find good speakers with interesting stories. For example, the 2011 Gartner Data Center conference featured several “How we got to private cloud” sessions, which were all packed. Because the speakers weren’t naming any of their vendors, they were less constrained by internal rules against discussing their deployments. And the knowledge-sharing was widely appreciated. The speakers were typically surrounded 5-deep after their talks.

  • What’s wrong with working sessions?? This is absolutely possible, even at a big event. I expressed by boredom and frustration at the last OpenStack Summit to a friend, who told me he’d been spending the week in an ancillary session that was apparently open to all attendees but completely unadvertised. “It’s awesome! I don’t know why every product person isn’t there. I mean, it’s actual users sitting there telling devs, ‘I want it to do something like this,’ and the dev quickly scripts out a rudimentary idea and they go from there.” People actually talking to each other in a collaborative context to figure out real solutions—wouldn’t that be useful to everyone involved?

What about a little competition? A panel of users poses a problem they’ve been grappling with, gives relevant vendor teams 30-60 mins to draft an idea for a solution, and 3-5 minutes apiece to pitch them. Judging criteria should include points for complete solutions which demonstrate an understanding of the entirety of the customer deployment experience—not just how to build a better mousetrap.

As I said in my last post, I’d even be good with gripe sessions. Customer Advisory Boards tend to be all very polite and not terribly useful because no one wants to be rude to their hosts. But at an independent event? Put together a panel on a given topic (“Identity Management”), invite vendors, and have them sit in the audience where they have to listen and not talk while the panel members talk about what they love, hate and need from their IAM solutions. A slightly less intimate version of the OpenStack hackathon, but also perhaps a bit more scalable. And certainly a refreshing change from the current state of affairs, in which vendors mostly lecture at users.

In general, I’m not fond of things being structured to further the distance between users and vendors. It’s no secret that many user orgs deeply dislike working with a number of their suppliers, but often those same suppliers don’t fully grasp the intensity of dislike, much less the reasons behind it. Wouldn’t it be better if they did, so they could do something about it? Instead, event organizers enable and perpetuate bad marketing habits which are all about unidirectional shouting, instead of a mix of talking and listening. Which make users dislike vendors all the more and further deepens the adversarial, predator/prey dynamic you find in many interactions—especially on the conference show floor.

This isn’t healthy. Nobody really likes working this way. But sponsor expectations will need to be reset. Event organizers will need to show that alternative approaches really can deliver value, and be prepared to articulate the kind of value that is—beyond lead generation. Attendees can be far more vocal to organizers about what they do and don’t want to experience more of.

So—what would work for you? And what can you do about it?

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