User conferences are back - will your event be a blockbuster, or a dud?

Jon Reed & Brian Sommer Profile picture for user jonandbrian March 23, 2022
User conference are back - but is that a good thing? For most of us, the answer is yes - but things will go a whole lot better if event planners avoid Brian and Jon's ten bad event habits. Plus: 11 tips for a better customer event.

Brian Sommer - event buttons
(Delightful event souvenirs for the win!)

User conferences are back – and better than ever? Hmm, hold your tote bags friends.

Yes, software vendors have had two years or more to rethink, "re-imagine" and refocus their annual confabs: the user conference. Does that mean events will finally get it right? If your answer is yes, we’ve got a couple of NFTs you might like…

We may be far away from truly exceptional events. But we can start by avoiding the worst of the gotchas.

In that spirit, Jon and Brian offer up this list of bad user conference items that should never be resurrected.

User event habits we all need to break - our top ten

1. The unimaginative location selection – Let’s say you’re the event planner for a user conference. Apparently, you think there are only two places in the world to hold a user conference: Orlando and Las Vegas. Let’s buy these event planners an atlas, and heap praise on those planners who choose places like San Antonio, San Diego, Boston, etc. It’s a great conference if it doesn’t require a 1-mile hike through a smoke-filled casino.  (Movie this resembles: Casino)

2. The clueless CEO keynote – We like CEOs who really know their products, product roadmap and customer challenges. But sometimes, CEOs feel they must keynote their user conference when they have nothing to say or know very little about their firm. So, what do these CEOs do? They squander thousands of people’s time, telling us about their firm’s new logo, unbelievable market momentum, fabulous customer success programs, or magical pivots. If we’re lucky, we get a few African Safari pics tossed in. It’s like watching a slide show of a relative’s vacation to the Poconos, but with less excitement.  Bonus: attendees can use this time slot to check-in for their return flight home. Virtual events forced the blessed discipline of the 60 – 90 minute keynote, giving attendees their day back. Let’s keep that discipline, shall we? (Movie this resembles: Being There)

3. The mercurial wi-fi – It says something when a tech firm can’t get a simple tech commodity like wi-fi right. Show producers often provide wi-fi login credentials on your id-badge. Unfortunately, no one ever seems to test the limits of these connections and the wi-fi will fail before the first keynote even starts. Instead of solving the bandwidth issue, producers implement two wi-fi systems: one for the on-stage users and a substandard one for the rest of us.  Note to vendors: If you’re going to pitch the metaverse, you need a conference wi-fi that can support a VR world for all attendees.   (Movie this resembles: Tron)

4. The deafening marching band (or hipster DJ) – A bad trend started years ago when vendors started having marching bands in enclosed ball rooms loudly trumpeting the start of the show. Making people’s ears bleed just to get us all excited for the non-announcements to come is just bad form. Let’s drop this aural assault vendors!  If we’re going to need hearing aids, I’d like it to be due to front-row seats at a Rolling Stones concert than at some easily forgettable user conference.  Oh, and we travelled thousands of miles to network, not to struggle to talk over the hipster noise festival of local DJs in every lobby. (Movie this resembles: Drumline, or Stayin’ Alive, the critically panned sequel to Saturday Night Fever)

5. The great disappearing coffee containers – For the love of caffeine, nothing hurts event morale more than coffee containers (or Dr. Pepper, adds Brian!) decisively wheeled away after a short break. If there’s one thing to open the wallet for when it comes to event costs, isn’t it keeping your attendees awake? Put the coffee containers out! (Movie this resembles: Office Space)

6.  The awkward CEO talk show format – This is when Jimmy Fallon wannabes have a fake TV set on stage for their keynote and invite fawning guests, awestruck customers and irrelevant celebrities on stage for an overly scripted, saccharine ‘interview’. There’s no news in these, just dreck.  You should absolutely skip this session and use the time to check out the expo hall for great swag.  You never know when you’ll need a new promo t-shirt to wash your car with! (Movie this resembles: Talk Radio)

7. The demotivational jock keynoter – Vendors that invite keynoters with no tech savvy usually do so as they lack any real news themselves. The jock keynoter will, of course, exhort us to give 110% all of the time but rarely knows what big data, hyperscalers or finally getting ROI on your software investment looks like. The time slot for the jock keynote is most effectively used by attendees for checking emails, or spreadsheet wonkfests.  (Movie this resembles: Revenge of the Nerds)

8. The over-moderated panel – Nothing squeezes the remaining oxygen from the room like an overly scripted and excessively moderated “panel,” as the facilitator says “amazing” to every anecdote shared by panel members. Whether the panel is customers, partners, or pundits, the script is the source of your content pain – and that of the attendees unfortunate enough to add this to their session calendar. (Movie this resembles: Broadcast News)

9. The color-coded social distancing bracelets – Let’s keep it simple: if someone is wearing a mask, they probably don’t want a bear hug. Otherwise, if they made the trip, they weighed the safety issues and came to a decision. Color-coded bracelets are well-meaning hygiene theater, but are not part of any serious discussions of event safety. Yes, bracelets are better than “I’m feeling a bit yucky today” top hats, but that’s about it. (Movie this resembles: Clueless)

10. The paid infomercial keynote – If there ever was something that needs to get cut from every user conference, it’s this. Seriously, what vendor thinks people want to pay a small fortune to attend their user conference only to be forced to endure a droning, hour-long infomercial from a ‘polycarbonate level partner firm.' Attendees will exact their mobile revenge, using the time to check-in for their return flight and possibly upgrade out of that row 27 middle seat.  (Movie this resembles: Airplane!)

Tips for a better customer event - this one goes to 11!

So if we leave these bad event habits on the cutting room floor, what should we have instead?

Here are our best recommendations:

  1. In addition to the vendor’s short-term product roadmap, let’s get the top vendor visionary to detail the long-term vision of what solutions should entail in a few years hence.
  2. Let’s see videos of the technology (and/or related technologies) in use at real customers - as told by real customers, from the keynote stage!
  3. Here’s an attention-grabbing format few have the guts to do: turn the keynote stage over to customers for a half hour, and let them moderate their own customer panel!
  4. How about a session on how a customer radically scaled up, and another who economically scaled down their usage?
  5. Or, a session where a customer described how they merged or absorbed a large business into their own?
  6. How about a session on what a customer had to do to negotiate a realistic renewal? (Ok, we can dream!)
  7. How about an unfiltered customer feedback session on your new cloud release?
  8. How about an on-site hackathon that results in a product showcase for curious customers?
  9. How about a keynote where an entire factory shop-floor or supply chain is modelled on-stage and enabling technologies (e.g., AI-enabled IoT) are highlighted at every step?
  10. Beyond live-streaming the keynotes, how about a series of interactive hybrid sessions for those who weren’t able to be on site? Creating a hybrid/virtual event track is not as hard as you think – and it shows thoughtfulness for the geographically dispersed and immune-compromised.
  11. How about getting a number of college juniors or seniors to evaluate the UX of the vendor and its expo hall exhibitors’ solutions? Let’s let future users tell us what excites them and what skills/solutions will help their resume?

If your firm is a major ‘user’ of a vendor’s software, send their CEO a letter and tell them what you want in your user conference. Remember it’s supposed to be about you (and not the vendor, its event sponsors, its channel partners, its preferred implementation partners, etc.). Users, it’s time to take back control of your user conference.

Saddle up folks, this could be a rough ride…

Image credit - The delightful event souvenirs are from Brian Sommer's enviable collection. Jon is jealous of Brian's "My door is always open to you" button in particular, but Brian refuses to part with it.

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