How do we design a better enterprise event? Two customers weigh in

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed September 3, 2017
Enterprise events aren't completely broken, but they do need a rethink. I turned to two customers for their views on what works - and what needs to change.

Despite my satirical attempts, most vendors stubbornly cling to questionable event formats. Exhibit A: the over-extended, techno-hype keynote.  That's not the case across the board; some vendors are actively testing ideas. Recently one of our partners asked me, "What kind of event schedule do you like?"

But who cares about what a snarky blogger/analyst/influencer/whatever thinks? It's the customers that foot the bill. Given all the cocktails-in-hand event deconstructions I've been a part of, I thought I had some idea of what customers want. Why not put my ideas to the test?

My interview victims subjects: Tammy Powlas of Fairfax Water and Sue Keohan of MIT Lincoln Library (Obviously, they are both speaking on behalf of themselves, not their employers). Both are long time SAP Mentors, ASUG volunteers, and session speakers. (ASUG is SAP's North American User Group). Their experiences are mostly in the SAP event world, but that includes a range of events put on by SAP, ASUG, and others.

Five questions about event highs and lows

Here's how I broached the question to them: I wanted to ask a couple of event-seasoned folks like yourselves that have seen the good and the not-so-good. My ideas for starters:

1. End keynotes on time.
2. Provide lots of birds-of-feather networking time. Make it easy to find folks who share your regions/interests/problems.
3. Include plenty of informal educational sessions as well as formal. (As in: an expert lounge setup, where you can drop in and out of sessions easily).
4. Have a  "community clubhouse" setup in central location with coffee, and hubs to learn about product/services, and make connections.
5. And of course a motivational speaker (not).

Powlas likes an informal learning setup called "Speakers' Corner":

Hi Jon - you have hit all the right notes. One thing that Eventful Australia does that I really like is have a Speakers Corner - a speaker goes to a "corner" for thirty minutes after his/her session so attendees can come and ask questions.

Powlas brought up a point about slides I hadn't considered:

I also like getting the slides before the event, to help decide which sessions I can attend. Oh, and you are you are right about motivational speakers.

Powlas also likes the "Ask the Expert" format. And yes, the strategic placement of coffee. Meaning: good coffee drinks, barista-style:

SAP Insider is the best at having "Ask the Experts" tables for networking, and ASUG did something brilliant this year by having a coffee barista on the third floor of Education sessions at ASUG Annual Conference :)

Powlas in conference mode

Another Powlas tip: live pictures capture the moment.

Another thing that Eventful Australia/South Africa does is show pictures from the networking events from the night before. It gives you a good sense of community and cohesiveness.

Keohan also likes an informal learning setup, and plenty of guided networking. Vendors: note her take on keynotes.

I do think the Speakers' Corner was great, and I can't stress how much I like ample time for Birds of a Feather. For me, fewer keynotes, and having them end on time is crucial. I feel that too many key notes takes away from the time that attendees have for educational activities and networking.

She also warns against getting too futuristic in keynotes:

Not all customers are on the latest and greatest products, so plenty of time for those of us who aren't. I mean, you have to be good at doing what you have to do with the tools you have today - as well as the ones you may get next year.

Keohan feels smaller events have an edge on community building:

Eventful pics from the networking event is great, and does build some sense of community, but also Eventful conferences are much more intimate (and much more rewarding) than 20K at ASUG/Sapphire.

Round two - bringing the event benefits home

For round two of our questions, I mostly looked at what comes after:

  • What are your big goals from a show?
  • Are there questions you need answering from your project? Something you want to bring back to your team?
  • Or is building out a network the most important thing, so that you can turn to that network as needed in the future?
  • Also - any other things you don't like? (e.g. I don't like guest keynotes from political figures from disgraced administrations). I'm also not a fan of the brown bag lunch with the mayo-soaked sandwiches from whenever.

Powlas says learning new skills/products is a priority:

Goals for the show depend on what I am working on at the time; like next month, I hope to learn as much as possible about S/4HANA at SAP TechEd. Usually it is about learning something new.

For Powlas, the network-building counts - but happens organically. As for her dislikes, she doubled down on slides:

I do dislike not having the slides up front, and having to wait until the end. I don't take good notes that way at all. Building a network is a side benefit.

On her dislikes, Keohan joined me on the brown baggers and guest keynotes:

I could do without the guest keynotes as well, Jon. Brown bag lunches? I'll pass. Never know what's in those things, and it usually doesn't end well for me.

Keohan's goals center around the rewarding "give and take" of a peer-to-peer gut check:

For me (if I am not focusing on my ASUG or Mentor commitments - so I'm going to pretend here) it is the networking, the learning, the sitting down with people who have been where I am and got to the next level, or people who are where I was and trying to get further. So give and take.

Keohan also strongly prefers the slides in advance:

I suck at note taking, but also PowerPoint slides seem meaningless once I get home so I really need the slides in advance. As a speaker, I understand the reluctance to hand out the slides in advance ('Then why would someone come to my session?') but as an attendee, I think the slides bolster your reasons for attending a session.

Powlas pinged back with one more dislike I think we can all relate to: unethical misuse of our contact info.

Oh, but I found another "pet peeve" - dislike - a big one. I don't like it when the conference sells my name, email, phone to sponsors/vendors/everyone else without my permission. That's a big fail in my book. I won't name the company, but I've caught this happening more than once. Why pay to go to an event, only to have your information sold?


Ding ding ding, we have a winner - HUGE PET PEEVE.

My take - decisive (but not radical) changes needed

The bad news? Most vendors need to make big improvements on their large scale events.

The good news? The structural changes needed aren't too radical. No one I've talked to called for an end to keynotes. Vendors just need to get their keynotes under control, then give the time back to customers in the form of informal networking and learning.

So what's a good structure? The end-of-conference "closing keynote" is almost always a waste of time, so scratch that (folks are tired and their attention is elsewhere). The ideal keynote structure is: two concise keynotes to begin the first two days. 90 minutes max each, end on time no matter what - even if you literally have to end mid-sentence. If your keynotes are long and complex, what does that say to your customers about your products? I've been to some three hour keynotes this year. That's on-stage flatulence.

  • The day one morning keynote is a focus on meeting the leadership, their vision/state of the market, with a heavy dose of customer stories and a dash of sexy news/futures.
  • The day two morning keynote is a chance to hear from the product managers, with a frank roadmap session, perhaps spiced up with some interactive questions from customers on roadmap and what's to come. Yes, some preview of new tech (AI, IoT) can be worked in, preferably with alpha customers to help share how this will actually be productized in a useful way.

And no, we don't need a stand-up comic or media "personality" who doesn't understand our industry to facilitate these keynotes. Vendors worry too much about entertaining attendees, losing the chance to let them hear from their own leadership in unforced ways. I've seen great keynotes from awkward and honest executives who decided to share good info - and not worry about putting on a show.

That said, I think ONE well-chosen celebrity keynote - preferably someone with a real business track record who isn't just pitching a positive attitude - can have impact. I like scheduling those at the end of the first day (or maybe end of second). That gives folks a chance to catch it, or move on with their evening - without conflicting with educational sessions.

Tacking slide distribution is obviously a sticking point in need of creative solutions. Distributing slides via a mobile event app is one option. As for that issue about sharing data, vendors should keep in mind that just accepting a lengthy "terms and conditions" isn't enough. It's important to remind attendees how their information will - or won't - be shared.

I'm also a believer in an open ideation session where customers can ask whatever the heck they want of the product leads. Domo did this brilliantly with a large group in 2017; I'll write up how they did it soon. Though Keohan and Powlas didn't mention mingling with bloggers and analysts, I think it's good to stir the drink and find ways of mixing vendors, partners, analysts, and so on. Exposure to a diversity of views is a big part of the conference payoff.

Finally, don't assume that putting people in a room with drinks counts as networking. Try creative ideas like app-based matchmaking - and turbo-networking - to make sure attendees make as many relevant connects as possible. It's not always easy to meet new people - much less the right ones.

Unconference formats can round out the mix nicely, perhaps on a pre-conference day. Hopefully we'll see the fruits of these experiments take hold.

Image credit - Announce © Stillkost -

Disclosure - SAP is a diginomica premier partner. As noted in the article, Powlas and Keohan work in the SAP field, but their commentary applies to a range of events, not just those put on by SAP itself. My own analysis is based on events across vendors, and also includes non-vendor events.

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