A Rosetta Stone for technology conferences - decoding what not to do now we're back in the convention centers

Brian Sommer Profile picture for user brianssommer June 3, 2022
The real world technology conference is back - and that's set alarm bells ringing. Here's a personal checklist of what vendors really ought NOT to do now we're back on the ground...

Rosetta Stone

The Rosetta Stone is an ancient decoder ring of sorts. It helped archeologists and historians translate Egyptian hieroglyphics to/from Greek. We may need a similar device to help readers assess the newly reinvigorated software user conference spectacles coming to a convention center near you.

So, herewith, are the different kinds of events you might encounter along with the key ‘tells’ about each. 

(If I missed any, please drop me a note and I’ll promptly add them to this article.)

There are several distinct kinds of user conferences. These include:

  • The no-news is still no-news fest – This usually happens when a vendor’s R&D efforts are failing or it has a new, but clueless, management team. The whole show is a waste of everyone’s time and money as all of the ‘news’ could have fit on a 1-page press release. Without content, vendors resort to other time-filling sessions involving jock keynotes, an evening rock concert and paid sponsor infomercials.
  • The geek fest – This is a conference so riddled with buzzwords it makes industry watchers swoon. While we create drinking games to celebrate the overuse of trendy or techie words and phrases, it just confuses customers and prospects. Seriously, who can understand what a future-proofed, next-generation, modern platform designed for today’s sustainable and resilient enterprises really means (other than it’s gonna cost a lot!!!)
  • The near riot event – Sometimes there are really angry users. Maybe their cloud solution got hacked, the vendor got acquired by a miserly non-technical firm, or, maybe management has been too aggressive in auditing customers and wallet-fracking their business bank account. These are dream moments for an industry analyst as torqued-off customers stand up in the keynotes, disrupt/heckle the CEO and threaten lawsuits. It’s what reality TV aspires to be!
  • The love-in event – There are moments when customers really like a vendor and piles of like-minded customers converge with these feelings all at one conference. Customers are pleased with their purchase decision and are getting the value and product support they expected (and maybe more!). These events are actually rare as financial or Wall Street-driven vendor executives often assume very unfriendly positions vis-à-vis customers. But, when you attend one of these love-ins, you feel like you’ll never need sugar or saccharin again.
  • The Swan Song show – Here a vendor’s CEO or founder is going to either retire or get kicked upstairs to a board chairperson spot. Unfortunately for the thousands of attendees who have never interacted with this person, the show producers and company speakers will waste hours of keynote time thanking the glorious leader for his/her leadership (check Twitter for #TYFYL – thank you for your leadership). When we all get the kind of golden parachute and stock options this newly departed executive is cashing in on, maybe we’ll celebrate their departure a bit more. But for now, couldn’t the vendor hold the line on its renewal price increase instead of giving this executive millions of dollars just to go away?
  • The Jock show – No, this isn’t an athletic supporter product, but a vendor event where some vendor marketing or sales executive thought everyone on the planet loves one specific sport to a super fanatic level of amazement. That’s why we get inundated with jock keynoters, race cars brought on stage, videos of amazing 6/10 bowling spares, and enough sports cliches to fill the Superdome (e.g., “You can’t go cloud unless you give it 110%!). There are so many sport tie-ins that you forget that this is supposed to be a SOFTWARE event. It doesn’t matter what the sport is (e.g., arm wrestling), I doubt that everyone in the audience has big love for the sport.
  • The technically-challenged tech show – Nothing screams irony like a technology conference where the vendor can’t get the conference wi-fi to work, the demos crash and the power overloads/fails in the keynotes.  If the vendor has no disaster recovery plan in place for their user conference, why would you think their cloud data centers are any better managed?
  • The snooze fest – This is an event where the content is so old, so dull, so uninteresting, that people are blowing off all of the sessions just to experience the pool, the local bars or play golf with their assigned sales rep. Drug companies should bottle some of these sessions and sell them as a sleep deprivation remedy (“I sleep so much better now with just two tablets of on-premises financial consolidation tips & tricks! It’s the solution to my insomnia!”).
  • The sales event masquerading as a user conference – Vendors can hijack a ‘user’ conference and let it get converted into a ‘sales’ conference. When this happens, the content will take a hit as the sales pros are more interested in getting customers and prospects away from the event and into more private environments (think golf foursomes) to pitch them a contract renewal or in-fill sale. Your clue this is what you’re walking into is: is your sales rep counting on the conference to help him/her make President’s Club this year? If so, stay home.
  • The giant infomercial – Some vendors want to make a lot of money putting on a ‘user’ conference. One way to do so is sell a number of multi-million-dollar keynote slots to ‘partner’ firms. Those partners rarely send a thought leader though for this talk. Nope, they’ll send a vacuous, content-free/jargon-rich sales executive to jabber for 30-60 minutes of your time. Just before the pandemic, I saw one such sales-type get positively animated telling us about this new thing called, wait for it, ‘the cloud’. It was transcendent as he clearly time travelled from 1999 to tell us about this. You won’t watch an infomercial at home so why put up with one at a user conference? These sessions are the ‘must walk out’ parts of any show.
  • The tone-deaf event – These are super painful to attend and the aftereffects can dog a vendor decades later. I saw one keynoter insult people from multiple countries even though this was a global conference. I’ve seen one speaker talk up the firm’s social responsibility efforts only to have customers, partners and competitors challenge these points in social media during the presentation. Or, how about the vendor CEO who wants all attendees to purchase carbon offsets for their commercial flights to/from the show, but the CEO won’t do it for his/her corporate jet(s)? Hypocrisy makes conference goers wince.


The Power of the Combo Event

As if the preceding conference formats weren’t bad enough, sometimes a vendor will convene a committee of their best and brightest to design the ultimate conference experience. This event will combine the best worst of user conferences into one spectacularly abysmal combo event. Compare the conference agenda to the checklist below to see just how miserable your next event is going to be.

The tough combo event:

  • Starts off with a deafening marching band that causes most people’s eardrums to rupture. That’s actually okay as you weren’t really going to hear anything of value at this event anyway.
  • Is held at a golf resort in the middle of nowhere. You can’t even escape this place to play hooky. You’re trapped.
  • Has a sales rep assigned to each and every attendee. Not only will they shadow you everywhere, they’ll even follow you to the bar and expect you to pay for their drinks!
  • Has a paying sponsor talking in every keynote and breakout. For bonus points, all of the meals and breaks are also sponsored. If you want a cup of coffee in the morning, you’ll have to first watch a sponsor’s 30-minute promotional video first.
  • Will include a number of non-technology and other irrelevant keynotes whose speakers want to pimp their book, tell you some astounding motivational stories (like how they walked all the way to the stage from their hotel room), and, explain how their grade school participation trophy is somehow related to the software industry.
  • Has breakout sessions where you’re told that you can ask questions later. Unfortunately, the vendor won’t answer these until much, much later (i.e., at next year’s event).
  • Marks every slide as ‘Confidential’ and doesn’t want this info shared with outsiders. And yet, all of these slides contain either really old information or really unoriginal ideas.
  • Has hired a non-technical television personality or comedian to do an ‘in-depth’ fireside chat with the CEO.  These superficial puff pieces offer no new product insights but you will learn about what kind of music the CEO listens to.
  • Will have one of the most polarizing and useless keynotes possible - a politician. This politician might be a local official who loves talking about himself and his policies or it could be a national figure that hasn’t been in office for over a decade. Either way, the speaker either is fishing for campaign funds or looking for votes. What this has to do with machine learning, ERP or human capital is always a mystery to me.
  • Will conclude with a number of highly scripted customer panels. You’re doubtlessly familiar with a vendor asking these totally self-serving questions like: “Tell us the three most incredible features from our award-winning, industry-leading, modern, agile and adaptive software that you just love the most!! And don’t spare the superlatives!!!!!”   And, I always love the off-the-cuff scripted customer answers, too, especially when the customers read their responses off of 3X5 cards they carried on stage with them. UGH!

My take

Colleague Jon Reed is the king of vendor event mechanics stories and he has written many pieces about what vendors could have/should have done differently with their events during the pandemic. The new lessons in the pandemic (e.g., virtual and hybrid event concepts) got pioneered with some successes and failures.

Post-pandemic, you would think that vendors would have incorporated some of their recent learnings into their new in-person events. Think again. It’s feels like we’re in for shows that are clones of those from the pre-pandemic days. Jon warned me this would happen!

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