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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Rant Addendum: Radical Deperimeterization

This is part 5 of an occasional series. The initial post is here.

At the end of my marketing rant a few weeks ago, I suggested that corporations might need to reimagine their places in the universe in order to be effective in the new marketing world order—not as central sources of information, but as minor nodes in a much larger network.

I know, I know. That’s kind of a big blow to the corporate ego. But let’s be honest, with few exceptions, potential and even actual users of your products just aren’t that into you. They may like your products just fine because they serve a useful purpose somehow. That’s a different thing than being into a “brand” in itself. But so what? Everybody talks about customer-centricity and solution selling, right? So what really needs to change?

Well, almost everything about how a typical corporation runs, really. Continue reading

Rant: The Internet Killed the Traditional Marketer

This is part 4 of a five-part series. Read part 1 here. Read part 5 here.

The match that lit this was a comment Ethan Banks made in his latest anti-Klout post:

If you’re in marketing, you need a better way to discover who the influencers are. My recommendation is to engage in the communities you want to market to. Make friends with those people. Find out who matters. It’s more work, but you’ll end up with something much more nuanced and real than a Klout score. You’ll have a relationship with a human being who knows other human beings. That’s where social is *really* at. Community – it’s not just a word.

I read that, set it to stewing on a back burner of my mind, and went back to editing whitepapers. But only for so long. Continue reading

Communities of the Faithful

This wound up being Part I of a five-part series. Read the next post here.

Back in December, a friend and I were sitting around shooting the breeze about orchestration and automation, because what else would you talk about on a Saturday afternoon? The talk turned to the political challenges of developing cross-platform tools, and then to innovation more generally. My friend, who has a certain fondness for bombast, demanded at this point, “Why do vendors who have done basically no innovation for years continue to have such intense customer loyalty, while newer companies with actual solutions to the problems the big guys have created struggle to survive?”

Leaving aside the obvious bit about people having natural reservations about ongoing support from a vendor struggling to survive, we concluded that incumbent advantage has at least as much to do with the personal, emotional value that users derive from their association with a particular vendor rather than anything that can be put on a spreadsheet.

Continue reading