Are You Ready to Host a User Conference? 5 Ways to Tell the Time Is Right.

Are your customers asking for one? Be sure to give them one that prompts them to become evangelists for your brand.

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By Don Mal


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Microsoft Ignite, Oracle OpenWorld and's Dreamforce: These tech conferences are household names in the software community, and each company has a customer base broad enough to warrant having its own user conference. What are these events for? User conferences are designed by vendors to:

  • Educate, inspire and encourage networking among customers and prospects
  • Build brand awareness around a vendor's projects, features and customer success stories
  • Provide customers with best practices, upcoming products or features, and additional value through through face-to-face contact

Related: How To Hold A Conference People Love

While you may read most frequently about tech and healthcare user conferences, any company with a critical mass of customers using its product or service can find value in hosting its own event.

So, should your company hold a user conference? Yes, because, when it's done right, a conference can prove that your business has "made it" and serve as a rite of passage for your company.

Yet there are caveats here: Kicking off a user conference too early can backfire, resulting in poor attendance. On the other hand, waiting too long can mean missed opportunities (and missed new customers).

How do you know when you're ready? (Hint: just because competitors are doing it doesn't mean it's time!) These five signs show that the time is right:

1.Your customers are asking for it.

Customers asking for a user conference shows that your business has a passionate fan base. So, there's certainly no harm in holding an event as long as you keep it small and intimate. The venue should be full, not empty.

Based on existing customer relationships, you can determine a ballpark attendee headcount. Conduct a customer email campaign or survey to determine a potential number and consult your account managers. These team members are more familiar with your users, have insight into agenda items that would appeal most and can provide honest feedback on whether you can fill a room.

Related: The 7 Secrets to Ensure Your User Conference Is a Smashing Success

Before proceeding, get executive and key stakeholder buy-in on exactly what you want to achieve. Doing so will ensure that everyone shares one, aligned event goal.

2.Your customers will gain more value from your product by attending.

Your product may have features and capabilities users are unaware of. Now is the time to demonstrate and prove the product's value -- and to get customers really excited. And what's great about a conference is that fostering customer enthusiasm is far easier to do in-person. To this end, leverage case-study sessions as a way for users to "sell" your offerings to peers in a way that doesn't feel forced.

Then, as your product evolves, customers will benefit from training sessions, one-on-one consultations and best practices -- ideally shared from in-house experts and fellow customers alike.

For example, Personifest (a user conference put on by Personify) provides staff and clients with an opportunity to interact face to face and discuss challenges and operational efficiencies. As a result, customers are empowered with knowledge of the company's software in a way that could only be delivered in-person.

3. Your customers will benefit more from face-to-face contact.

Nothing beats in-person networking. The more passionate customers are about your product and brand, the more reason there is to bring them together. Even those who aren't speaking can serve as effective evangelists -- and be more powerful in person than online influencer sites, webinars and other industry events.

A good example is Pulse – a user conference by Gainsight. Billed as "the ultimate customer success event," Pulse allows attendees to network and learn and share best practices in managing customer relationships. It does so via sessions, most of which don't mention the company or its software. The event includes a day of training with customers sharing lessons.

The right event, then, encourages customers to share their enthusiasm, build community and brand loyalty, and share best practices to address common challenges.

4. You'll provide the right balance of education, networking . . . and fun!

A user conference directly reflects your company's culture and brand. Provide a mix of fun and entertaining activities, along with sessions to highlight your company's people and environment.

Marketo's recent Marketing Nation Summit featured a mix of entertainment, learning and networking. Keynotes included the CEO, CMO . . . and Queen Latifah. Last year's event featured Will Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff. Needless to say, beyond the 120 sessions and 64,000 attendees, such star's power was attractive in and of itself.

Of course, not everyone is Marketo. Star power is great, of course, but there's no need to go beyond your means. So, plan for more modest activities that allow attendees, partners and employees to interact and have fun outside the sessions. Whether it's a cocktail hour or something else, such opportunities reward customers and staff for their loyalty and passion. And they deserve that reward: If your first user conference feels like a daylong commercial, it may well be your last.

Make your conference fun and memorable by planning unique social events and inspiring keynotes embracing your host city. At our recent VenaNOLA conference, we offered an authentic Louisiana crawfish boil, a classic New Orleans parade to an evening event and a keynote from a local Hurricane Katrina hero.

5. You'll embrace the opportunity head-on.

From agenda, to food, to venue, every detail of your event should reflect your brand. Only take the plunge when you have the budget and are ready to commit 110 percent. If not, you risk a lukewarm event, which might signal that you threw a user conference just for the sake of having one.

Move forward only when you have the money and resources. Depending on the conference's size, preparation could take two months of part-time work or a team working full-time for 12 months. That's the kind of time commitment needed to put on the best event possible. Your customers, employees and partners will thank you for it, and your brand will benefit long-term.

Related: 5 Steps to Creating a Valuable Customer Conference

When it's time, rally the troops before the event with a team dinner to ensure everyone is on the same page, and to thank all helpers for their hard work. Your staff's energy will have a major impact on your event's energy, which will carry over to attendees. Afterward, listen to customer feedback to ensure your next event is even better.

Then, if you do plan another event, you can wrap up the conference by letting everyone know. This helps keep the ball rolling and encourages customer enthusiasm for when you come together again. Good luck!

Don Mal

Co-Founder and CEO, Vena Solutions

Don Mal is CEO and co-founder of Vena Solutions,a provider of cloud-based corporate performance management (CPM) software. As CEO, Mal executes Vena’s global growth strategy, manages customer relationships and secures long-term revenue. Previously, Mal led the North American sales teams for Clarity Systems, an IBM Company. He then led global sales for Cognos FSR at IBM before co-founding Vena. 

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