I’ve shared things in presentations and meetings that have gotten me odd looks over the years, but when I told my leadership team I wanted to change the format of our “user” conference and replace it with an executive leadership summit, I admittedly received some surprised looks.
Let’s be real, just about every company has a user conference. We certainly did; it was growing to exceed 2000+ attendees. We had bands, parties, swag, etc. The problem with user conferences are that they are really just about the company and their products, cushioned with some best practice sessions and a bit of a boondoggle.
It’s not a bad model. As an attendee, you get the latest product updates, you’re up sold on some future vaporware, and you hear about how great company XYZ really is. As a company, you get to hang out with customers, set yourself up to over promise and under deliver and sell some products you don’t yet have. It’s a win-win, right?
Why User Conferences Don’t Work Anymore
I’m not sure about that and I believe prospects and customers are beginning to get fed up.
User conferences rub me wrong for the following reasons:
- Everybody does a conference. There are just too many, making it difficult to figure out what events are even worthwhile.
- They are all the same. The events recycle the same speakers from other events and it often feels like you’re hearing from the same people again and again.
- It’s pay-to-play. If you want to be a main stage speaker, it has nothing to do with how qualified you are, but rather how much you’re willing to pay. If you have $100,000 to spend, you can be on the main platform with an ultra, platinum or title sponsorship that is billed as an “invite only” (or so they say).
- It’s a cattle call. These gatherings, where the goal is to get as many people as possible to attend, often feel like a cattle stampede with expo hall sales reps pushing deals to get their money’s worth out of the hefty sponsorships their bosses have paid.
- It’s too much. With all the pitching and demoing from the host company, the last thing you want to do be bombarded by sales pitches in an expo hall.
But here’s the hard truth: sponsors don’t always get the expected ROI from user conferences. Let’s face it: speaking in a random breakout session and having your signage on a photo booth and a (probably lame) follow up email to attendees after the event is not going to cut it.
Admittedly, the pay-to-play and “come see me” mentality has created some really great events for some companies. But in my experience, it creates many more misses than hits. So why are we all still doing it this way? In a word: Tradition. It’s very hard to break out of the established mode even when we know it will probably suck.
But times are a changing. The desire for something different is coming, and it’s getting here fast.
We ran some numbers. Paying for hefty sponsorships at events didn’t have the ROI we expected in 2017. So with very few exceptions, we didn’t sponsor events. While we had the money, we didn’t see the return, and that’s simply not how we do business. Guess what? We did fine.
A New Kind of Business Conference
After reflecting on our own experience, we decided to do something different. We decided to dispense with our own user conference and to replace it with an executive growth summit instead.
What is an executive growth summit? It’s an invitation-only gathering focused on growth for senior executives (VP level and above) in revenue-focused positions. As opposed to a user event, a growth event has the following characteristics:
- Rather than having the event be about XANT a growth summit is about executives learning from each other and networking.
- Rather than having thousands of people stuffed in a big hotel, a growth summit is at a small and intimate location. And instead of inviting everyone, it is an invitation only event for a small number of senior executives.
- Rather than asking speakers to hint at (translate: extol) the value of XANT, speakers are asked to not mention our company at all. (What a concept!)
- Instead of having sponsors pay to speak, speakers are chosen on merit. (Not one speaker on our agenda has paid to present).
- There are no booths and no expo hall.
- Rather than leave it to chance that sponsors will get meetings, we proactively set up meetings with target prospects and sponsors.
By telling you this, I’m not making a pitch and I’m not posting the link to our event in the hope that you’ll come. If it feels right, you’ll know it. (And so, for that matter, will we.) But I wanted to go on the record about why this conference is different than other company-hosted events.
And the trend is just beginning. I predict that this and other Mastermind-focused events will grow in popularity in 2018 and beyond. Like a growth summit, a mastermind group focuses on a gathering of peers in even smaller numbers to exchange new ideas and focus on transformation rather than products.
Targeting Makes It Easier to Create Great Content
There is certainly still value in user conferences– however, a catch-all event with people from all walks of life, ridden with sales pitches about your product is not the answer. Highly targeted events with valuable learning sessions are the new black of events.
I think it was Meredith Hill who said “When you speak to everyone, you speak to no one.” Having an exclusive, like-minded audience makes it easier to create truly great content which helps them grow and learn.
Our speakers are cherry-picked by merit, and we will have, among others: best-selling author Michael Lewis, fighting legend Sugar Ray Leonard, a professor of psychology and organizational behavior, as well as sales leaders from Fortune 500 companies like T-Mobile CenturyLink and Microsoft.
I believe we will see more companies segment their audience to make sure they are targeting the right people with the right events and messaging. User conferences appeal to product champions, while leaders want to learn from and connect with other leaders.
The user conference model must change, and I believe they are changing. My only question: are we changing it fast enough? Time will tell. And I welcome your thoughts.