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Feb 27, 2007
How To

Make a User Conference More Effective - 9 Tips

SUMMARY: Having a booth at a trade show is a good way to meet prospects or position your company in its industry context, but a user conference will involve your customers and prospects in a peer-to-peer community -- a big club, if you will.

Attendees aren’t just coming to meet your company reps; they’re coming to meet each other. Still, it can be difficult to show the ROI from such an event.

That’s why we’ve gathered nine tips to make the most of a user conference. Includes how to plan the event, market it and get customers to evangelize your product.
The goal of a user conference is to build relationships among your customers that hinge on your brand. This is why it’s so important for vendors to be proactively involved with their user conferences, says Carl Steffens, Director, Enterprise Relationship Marketing, Adobe Systems.

Adobe supports more than 100 user groups around the country and hosts or helps with regional user conferences and product seminars throughout the year. Combined with the company’s own conferences and participation in third-party events, this makes for a lot of marketing potential, but also a lot of marketing outlay.

“It’s easy to spend money on events,” Steffens says. “Senior management sees a lot of money going out the door, but the metrics associated with a quality event get very hard to identify, and the ROI doesn’t appear to be there.”

Steffens shared some of Adobe's event marketing techniques. The interview inspired us to do some research, and we've come up with nine tips for making the most of a user conference:

-> Tip #1. Bring your marketing and events teams together to prepare for an event

The bulk of a company’s preparation for a user conference often falls to an events team or other group in charge of logistics. But that team members need to coordinate with your marketing staff to determine what the company wants to get out of an event, what marketing tactics can achieve those goals and which customers should be engaged.

The planning team should include:

- The events team
- Members of the sales staff
- Enterprise or corporate marketing
- Members of the product marketing team

Starting the process early is critical. Figure you’ll need at least three to four months lead-time to brainstorm marketing ideas and perform pre-show marketing.

-> Tip #2. Facilitate the event, but don’t dictate the content

You should listen to your user group to determine the content of a user conference. The group’s leaders will know the critical issues facing members and can prepare a schedule that’s going to press the right buttons. The company’s job is to support that user group with whatever resources it needs.

One way to solidify the relationship is to designate user-group liaisons inside your company. Those liaisons can guide the topic-planning process, line up resources to support an event and help identify speakers with specific expertise.

-> Tip #3. Plan promotions and activities that engage users and prospects

User conferences are great relationship-builders, but Steffens points out that many companies don’t create enough ways to interact with attendees. Here are a few ideas to engage the crowd with special events:

- Use part of your exhibit space as an area for attendees to set appointments with your sales team. You can add a promotion, such as a free giveaway, to encourage customers and prospects to arrange a meeting, but you might want to limit the sign-up process to key customers or your best prospects, whom you’ve identified and invited before the event.
- Create breakout sessions on specific topics or targeting specific industries that help you meet with smaller groups and deliver more targeted marketing messages.
- Offer to email attendees customized information packets based on the products or applications they asked about at the show. This way, they won’t have to cart around more brochures, printouts and other documents, and you’ll have an email address.

-> Tip #4. Use pre- and post-event marketing to make your customers feel like VIPs

If attendees feel good about the user group experience, they’ll probably feel good about your company, too. So make sure they know they’re appreciated.

o Send key customers and prospects personalized, pre-event marketing. For example, Adobe used a personalized welcome kit for their best customers attending an event in Philadelphia. Those customers were asked before the event what kind of food they liked and activities they hoped to do while in town. Then, the marketing team made maps for each one showing restaurants they might enjoy and places to visit based on their selections. Those packages were waiting at the hotel desk when attendees checked in.
o Handwritten notes, either inviting customers to a meeting or thanking them for attending, go a long way.

-> Tip #5. Invite a company’s entire product team, not just one or two employees

The decision to buy or renew a contract with a vendor is often in the hands of an entire product evaluation team, encompassing people from IT to corporate management to line-of-business managers. Yet most companies only send one or two employees to user conferences and other events. To build the strongest relationships possible, you should reach as many users within a company as possible.

It may not be easy to convince your customers to let several of their people disappear from the office at the same time, but here are a couple strategies to boost attendance:

- Make the event relevant to people in multiple roles. Encourage user groups to incorporate tracks for everyone from developers and techies to day-to-day users and corporate decision makers.
- Put a little extra effort into your pre-show marketing aimed at reaching multiple contacts within the same company. In addition to direct mail or other techniques, try telemarketing. Talk to your sales staff to get a complete list of users or decision-makers within a company, then make sure you call all the people on that list to invite them personally to the event.

-> Tip #6. Use customers to evangelize your product

Prospects at a user conference want to meet someone just like them who’s already a customer. Make it easy for prospects to find and talk to those people:

- Ask a few of your best customers if they will meet with prospects at the show. Create a forum so that potential customers can sit down for a conversation.
- If that level of commitment is too high, make sure that your customers stand out. Ask them to wear a special badge or ribbon on their name tags that identifies them as customers. This makes it easier for a prospect to strike up conversations about your company or product with existing users. It’s also a great show of force.

Steffens recalled an event in 2004, before he joined Adobe, when the company he worked for was undergoing a hostile takeover attempt. Customers wore special buttons identifying their support for the company’s independence. “It’s important for customers to know there’s fierce loyalty out there.”

-> Tip #7. Give unhappy customers a chance to speak their mind, too

73% of technology customers cited customer service as the No. 1 reason for dropping a vendor, according to a 2005 survey by RightNow Technologies, yet many vendors don’t realize a problem exists until the customer is gone. User conferences are a great place to look for those unhappy customers -- before you lose them forever.

Have a customer-service presence at the event, not just sales and marketing folks. You can field technological questions or allow clients to vent what’s bothering them with their account.

Important: Coordinate with your technical support or customer service team beforehand, so you have the files and records that document ongoing client problems or trouble-tickets. The last thing you want is for an unhappy customer to talk to you about a longstanding problem and have no knowledge of the situation, or at least know how much back-and-forth has already taken place.

-> Tip #8. Plan ancillary events that encourage networking

Fact is, networking is hard. Most people don’t know how to do it and end up sticking with their co-workers or, worse, standing by themselves at networking events. Do what you can with events outside the formal program to help attendees meet one another.

Organize industry tables at conference lunches. Put big signs at each table indicating what industry type will be sitting there. That way, a lone attendee looking for a place to sit will be assured they’ll have something to talk about with the other folks nearby. Adobe uses the technique. “Rather than walking into a huge hall filled with banquet tables, attendees saw a way to get value out of that hour they were spending,” Steffens says.

And don’t forget to market at cocktail parties and other after-events. Make sure you have plenty of signage at your parties, and don’t think that just because attendees are there to unwind that they won’t take time to learn more. You can set up nice product displays or other means to engage customers with your company.

-> Tip #9. Add a virtual element to the event

Look online to extend the networking capabilities of a user conference. You can post notes and presentations from the conference for those who couldn’t attend (and those who could but want to see the data again). Or, you can create online-only special events and product showcases and demonstrations that extend the conference long after it’s over.

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