Are we ever going to get small events right? Lessons from the ups and downs of vendor analyst days
- Small scale VIP events are back - but have we learned anything? I took vendors to task for screwing up analyst days. The ways to achieve a great analyst event are getting clearer - but what do we do about hybrid? Here's what we've learned.
Events are back - and that includes events of the VIP variety. For enterprise vendors, one of the most challenging events to nail down is the vendor analyst day.
The constituents are demanding; the temptation to pile on forklifts of product information is ever-present, and the imaginative potential is constrained by the design stability of conventional formats. But are we missing out on something?
Since I last did a review like this, we've had plenty of analyst days to attend. Some have been virtual, some hybrid - and many are back in person. I wish I could call this an opportunity. Unfortunately, the hybrid format presents more ways for analyst days to go wrong.
There are plenty of posts on how to throw a terrific analyst event. But until I came along, there was an editorial void: how to botch an analyst day. As I reflect on how analyst days go wrong, two things jump out:
- Is the goal of the event off the mark? (In my opinion, that answer is usually yes).
- Have we lost track of the power of creative formats? (yes)
- Is hybrid even a good format for an analyst event? It's a valid question - one that vendors need to answer sooner than later.
Done properly, an 'analyst day' can be a welcome addition to the event calendar (I prefer them about six months after the vendors' user conference, with a batch of progress reports to keep the convos going)
On the other hand, when you gather a bunch of persnickety/over-traveled individuals in the same bland hotel fishbowl for a full day, lots can go wrong. User conferences go for multiple days - plenty of time for course corrections. For analyst days, there's one swing at the plate.
And lots of ways to screw up.
Before I start the satirical countdown, let's once again acknowledge the mirror. You'd be hard-pressed to find more divas, fussers, curmudgeons, eccentrics, and assorted high maintenance individuals (some of whom notoriously don't get along with each other) than you will amongst a group of analysts - present company included.
On the flip side, if analysts can be charmed into
putting down their phones and leaving Twitter alone for a few freaking minutes of engagement, they tend to be very smart and committed people who raise valuable questions.
A good analyst day brings insights to all, and informed coverage to the masses. Alas, pulling off a really good analyst day is a ton of work. Fortunately, there's a low-effort alternative: screw the day right up! Let's run through how that's done - then I'll give you my latest tips on how to avoid this fate, informed by some good analyst events I have attended, such as the Workday event I am at now (though it's not even halfway over at this hour, so therefore exempt from this post)
Twelve easy steps to screw up your vendor analyst day
1. Decide that the purpose of the day is a brain dump, with as many slide decks as you can blast through. Instead of letting the day breathe with plenty of chances for feedback and interaction, why not cram the schedule with back-to-back slide dumps? That way, analysts can keep up with their email. Which leads to:
2. Start as early as the rooster crows. 8am? Nahh, go for 7am. Even 6am. The analysts can sleep on the plane - you have boatloads of slides to cover. No need for a relaxing mixer over an optional 8am breakfast.
3. Don't invite customers. It's a pain to get customers in for a day like this. And: a customer session takes time away from "Where we're going with AI and blockchain" slides. Granted, you do miss out on the chance for customers to offer a real world view of your software that analysts find persuasive, but they can always get customer stories from your competitors.
4. Invite customers, but over-moderate the panel. You wouldn't want analysts to ask your customers questions directly - that could get awkward. Better to (futilely attempt to) massage with scripted questions. Oh, and make sure the customer panels are NDA also!
5. No need for small group break out sessions or 1:1s - just keep everyone cooped up in the same room all day.
6. Don't invite analysts who have been critical of your software. No need to engage those who are skeptical, or ensure they are at least well-informed of your plans. Leave those fussbudgets at home. You'll get through more slides this way.
7. Adhere to a very strict definition of analyst when sending invites. Never invite influencers who matter to your community unless they fit that definition. Pretty much stick with Gartner, Forrester, or IDC. What's an analyst if they don't have a design department to crank out pretty graphs? Besides, the "independent" analysts tend to bog the day down with outside-the-box ideas and questions.
8. Sprinkle "NDA" slides liberally throughout your slide decks. Don't just have one or two important, no-blog/NDA slides. Slather "NDA" on slides throughout the decks. That's crucial to controlling and limiting the editorial coverage from the event. Foster confusion on what can be shared.
9. When you go for the NDA slides, make sure the timeframe of the NDA is long-term and unclear. Lifting all NDAs in a week or two would result in too much open press coverage. So: keep the NDA timeframes murky.
10. Definitely ask to review all copy about your event before it is published - that's a guaranteed winner. Don't be tempted to let the analysts blog unfettered views - that will royally mess up the sentiment analysis your marketing team is doing! Besides, readers preferred sanitized copy to open views, right? Err...
Bonus, on screwing up the analyst dinner (usually held the night before)
11. Make sure that the dinner is a multi-course affair that will last at least three hours. If your analysts get too much sleep the night before, they'll interrupt the rhythm of the slides too much. Also, very important: make sure that you assign seats for the dinner so that people can't sit where they want to. The more you can establish a caste system and perceived hierarchy of guests at dinner, the better. Definitely don't do an informal buffet style where people can easily network, leave, and get to bed early.
12. Invite diginomica - nah, too obvious.
The wrap - does a hybrid analyst day work?
/end of satire and sarcasm!
If you want my take on a great analyst day, flip each statement to its opposite.
I'm not just a bystander - I've designed/hosted a number of enterprise events. I'll be the first to concede: getting events right is a tough racket. Even the best events have weak spots.
But there are ways to avoid the worst ideas. I believe it starts with the goal. To me, the goals of an analyst day should be:
- Deepen the relationships between analysts and vendor. Easier said than done - this goes directly against the "brain dump" model of covering as many slides and product updates as possible. There is a limit to how much info you can cover. But strong relationships are containers that can hold plenty of information - now and in the future.
- Cultivate a dialogue that helps both sides do their jobs better - and serve customers better.
- Give the analysts an overall sense of your culture and approach - and what your company is really about (this is obviously a huge advantage of the in-person event. Zoho recently took this to an extreme with a week+ analyst event in India. My colleague Phil Wainewright and diginomica contributor Brian Sommer both attended.
- Give the analyst some non-NDA content they can take to their constituents, or even tweet, blog or podcast about it (most analysts now blog in the public domain from time to time, so you want to leave them with a story that makes sense, not just a product matrix).
This is not the goals all vendors have. To which I would ask - why not? Wouldn't you want analysts to express confidence in their relationships with your key players to buyers and prospects? If the goal of the event is to cover all the product portfolio and strategy, then the day will end up mostly being a slide download.
Let's be fair: a few analysts don't like this interactive approach either. That's probably because they are trying to fill out their product grids, and have a narrow focus on that. To which I would say: isn't that what Zoom or Teams is for? For analysts who need a deeper product dive you didn't get to, isn't that the ideal thing for a virtual session? No groups will ever be happy with the breadth versus depth of your product briefings anyhow.
Even those who try to put on more interactive events run into a couple of problems:
Too many slides up front: why not limit the presenters to three slides or ten minutes of slides for each session, then open Q/A? The group Q/A is the real gold here - but you need time for the discussion to spark and the debates to ignite. You can always refer to more slides as relevant questions arise. Trust the questions, not the slide deck.
The travel hangover, mid-afternoon lag - when you stick people in the same room all day, there is a noticeable energy lag in the middle of the afternoon. That creates an attention span problem. Why not shake things up with breakout groups, or even an outdoor activity?
Vendors are getting more serious about getting customers to these events. Ideally, this goes beyond a moderated panel, into much more open Q/A. Inviting customers to mingle is a nice touch. I've only seen one vendor that mixed its VIP customer meeting and its analyst gathering for a couple hours. It was a big success - both groups had sharp questions for the other.
Ludovic Leforestier, Founder at Starsight Communications and Board Member & Co-Founder of the IIAR, has seen more than his share of good (and bad) analyst events (IIAR is the The Institute of Influencer & Analyst Relations, a not-for-profit organization established to raise awareness of analyst relations and the value of industry analysts). I asked Leforestier for his keys on a successful analyst day:
In terms of analyst events, my 3 key lessons are:
- For content, have a theme, wrap-up, invest time in MC'ing and make sure to keep sessions short (I went to 20 minutes over 10 years ago, it was unheard at the time).
- For logistics, keep to the theme as well, make sure you have a clear journey for participants, from before arrival to home - you should think about their itinerary.
- And finally, have a clear goal and measure to get execs onboard, plus make sure you actually collect and use analyst feedback actively.
As for the hybrid issue, just providing virtual access to your on-the-ground analyst event is not so incredible. It's still good to do it, because some folks just won't able to get there. I'm always glad to have the live stream if I'm remote, but even if you are able to ask a question or two, it's not a winning format. Sitting in the same room is one thing. Sitting at home all day in front of a cam screen is another.
What's the best solution? My current suggestion:
- Give folks that can't make it the chance to stream a good chunk of the event, if not all. But don't pitch it as a "hybrid" event. Consider making one exec Q/A session fully hybrid, with moderated questions that pay special attention to remote attendees.
- Follow up 2-3 weeks later with a virtual event - perhaps a two hour event that includes an interactive session, and a couple of breakout discussions. This event would only be for those who weren't able to be on the ground, to get them some vital "face time" with your teams.
Needless to say, virtual formats are also great for quarterly updates - ideally with a chance to talk with a customer, or a partner panel. Even a "happy hour" format can work well -- perhaps focused on a key topic of choice, like the impact of generative AI. Analysts like to argue, and hear your team's unvarnished point of view on hot topics. The only analyst group that doesn't mix? Financial analysts. They have a very specific investor agenda. I always enjoy arguing with them - sometimes I manage to learn from them - but that's best done on my own time. No one else needs to hear that.
Analysts are also responsible for making the day a good one. Involve them in the planning - then they are more accountable for the outcome. Now that we've fixed analyst days, user events, webinars, customer case studies and keynotes, what's left?