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Growing Trend - Small, More Frequent Conferences with Training

Written by Bill Cushard

Published on July 16, 2015

Increase Customer Success Through the Frequent, Mini-Conference

The big, blockbuster annual technology conference seems to have become a litmus test for technology companies that have "arrived." If you consider what Salesforce.com has done with Dreamforce, it is no wonder technology companies are hosting their own conferences and working hard to grow them to become as big as possible. Any why not? The annual conference is good for business. Good for the brand. Good for sponsors. Good for customers. It is an opportunity for people to come together over a common topic to network, learn something new, and in many cases, take a mini-vacation paid for by one's employer. 

If done right, the annual conference is a great chance for a software company to help customers and prospects learn new skills and techniques for using its software to improve their jobs. The annual conference is great way to improve customer success, by offering programming that improves customer skills and horizons for what can be done with the product.

Although the annual conference is a great way to help people improve their work by learning your software, there are many problems with the annual tech conference. 

  1. Cost: Most annual conferences are priced over $1,000 per person and are money losers even after sponsorships are taken into account. 
  2. Not held frequently enough: Since the annual conference only occurs once per year, there are limited opportunities to interact with customers.
  3. Travel required: Unless people live local to the conference (what are the odds of that?), people need to travel. And that can be expensive; not to mention the time away from work and the time away from home. This makes it difficult to justify to bosses and family members. 
  4. Planning Can Become a Priority over Everything Else: Weeks or months of people's time goes into planning large conferences. People get pulled in to help out and planning can be an overwhelming drain on a team that can do no other work except for planning the conference. The resource drain is something that is often underestimated. 

(Comment below if there are others, I have missed).

These problems beg the question for enterprise software companies, "Is the annual conference for us?"

Obviously the answer to that question is, "It depends." The prudent thing to do is consider whether the benefits of such an event outweigh the costs. If the payoff of happy customers who use more of your product, renew at higher rates, and purchase more products, outweighs the cost of the event, then the positive return is worth the effort. 


But it is not for everyone.

Alternatives to the Annual Conference

If you decide that the effort of planning an annual conference is not for you, you are in luck, because this is not a binary equation. There are many alternatives to the annual conference: User groups, roadshows, and the mini-conference.

User Group: On the opposite end of the continuum is the user group or MeetUp. These informal gatherings can occur quite frequently, depending on the community, and can be a way to meet customers in person and even offer useful content to customers about how to improve their use of your product.

Roadshow: Another alternative is the roadshow, which is what a company does when it sends a small team of people from city to city to gather prospects and customers in small events at hotels and conference centers. In recent years, I have attended roadshows put on by companies like Yammer, Hootsuite, and Jive Software. I find the networking good and the programming fine. The problem with roadshows is that they are too focused on the company selling to you what they are doing and not educating you on how to be a better you using their software. 

In other words, they are mostly a sales pitch. 

Mini-conference: One trend we are seeing emerging amount earlier stage enterprise software companies is the mini-conference (or user summit) that runs multiple times per year, in multiple cities. Although not an entirely new concept more and more technology companies are adopting it. The mini-conference is less expensive, easier to plan, and can be offered in higher frequency and in multiple locations which increases opportunities to interact with customers. 

In addition to size and frequency, the main purpose of the mini-conference is to help prospects and customers improve skills and to help people do their jobs better. It is almost incidental that the tool used to improve these skills to be better at one's job is the host company's product. Certainly the software company wants to sell software, but the primary motivation of these mini-conferences is to help people be better at their jobs. 

So who's doing it?

NGINX, known for the open-source web application server, started hosting mini-conferences right from the start. NGINX calls their event a User Summit, and it hosts these events every few months in cities all over the United States. The content of the NGINX User Summit begins with a half day training course and continues throughout the day with sessions, often delivered by customers, partners, or other technologists, on how they use NGINX to improve their businesses. 


Docker is doing something similar by hosting multiple conferences. Docker hosted a conference in June 2015 in San Francisco and another one in Barcelona in November 2015. Training and sessions are offered and the point of having smaller, more frequently conferences in multiple cities is to create as many live opportunities to interact with customers and increase adoption of Docker in the DevOps community. 


 A Chance to Increase Adoption and Customer Success

Whether we call it software adoption, customer success, or the outcome economy, we are seeing a shift in how software companies are interacting with their customers. Helping customers succeed at their jobs is soon becoming a necessary condition for enterprise software company growth. And since there is no substitute for in-person interaction, even in a digital age, live training and frequent, mini-conferences is one important thing software companies can do to help customers get more out of the software they use so they can do their jobs better.

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Call for Comments

  1. Have you attended both large annual tech conferences and smaller, mini-summits? What did you like and dislike about each?
  2. What is the future of the tech conference?
  3. Have you ever taken a training course at a conference? How valuable was it to you?

Originally published Jul 16, 2015 9:58:11 PM, updated Jul 16, 2015