So apparently conferences suck for you too

Events
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Wow. What was meant to be an explanation of why we’re dropping a lot of our road schedule in favor of more digital and partner focused content sure resonated with many of you. I’m always humbled by the number of people that read this blog and I’m thrilled that so many of you can make it through the grammar/spelling carnage that is Vladville to consider a point that I’m trying to make.

P.S. (skip this part) Yes, I went to college. No, I’m not illiterate. Sometimes as I write I think of another great point and go back and forth to edit stuff as I’m writing it – so sometimes you’ll see misplaced punctuation, verb tense mistakes, plural misuse and in general sentences that look like they were written by two different people. Sometimes my hand slips on my Macbook air and I notice later that I’ve been writing in the wrong paragraph. The only time I’m actually in my perfect and real form is when you see a gigantic runon sentence because that’s how I speak in real life – until all the room in the air is sucked out and everyone drops to the floor unconscious.

First, Thank you so much for reading my blog. I’m floored by the number of you that not just read it but have an opinion that you share with me through Facebook, twitter, email and so on. Folks, if you consider social media important and you have your Facebook chat turned off… you’re missing out.

Second, The conference situation is clearly much worse than I laid it out to be. Not that all conferences are bad, but that so many of you want to have a better experience at them – be it as a vendor looking for ROI or as an attendee looking for content and engagement. Unfortunately, I’m not the guy to fix this as I’m not the guy running conferences, I just pay to sponsor them.

Finally… Some of you misread my post as a conviction that all conferences are horrible and shouldn’t be attended or sponsored. That is not what I said. I just laid out the many problems that I saw with many of the conferences that we’ve sponsored and explained why we needed to step back from pursuing diminishing returns and focus our money and attention elsewhere. I am pestered each day by event sales people to sponsor stuff and since that was not my job anymore.. and more importantly because I don’t believe in just walking away from business relationships without explaining why we are changing our focus, I decided to lump it up into one blog post because I don’t have the time to have a 1 hour exit interview with every conference organizer and every new sales staffer they hire for the next 5 years.

Many of you agreed. Some of you disagreed. One of you (and it had to be the nicest guy in the bunch) actually got offended.

I think having these opinions out in the open is worthwhile because this is the way things end up improving.

If you stay quiet, things only get worse. If you don’t stand up and say that there is something wrong, it won’t get fixed. I’ve always championed this for us through this blog and that’s why we have such awesome products – because our partners have always openly and at times harshly beat us up over stuff that was wrong. I’m not going to lie, it’s hard as hell to look at and have people tell you that you suck. But once you fix it, there is no greater satisfaction and there is no other product/company I’d rather be the CEO of (well at least in Software. If Playboy or Hustler are hiring I’m one.)

So that’s what I have to say. However, since many of you don’t read comments I wanted to pick out a few here for your enjoyment and consideration.

Folks, if you don’t like the content and what you’re spending your money on, just stop. Otherwise the situation gets even worse. We live and work in an opportunistic environment with a bunch of entrepreneurs. So long as people get away misrepresenting the audience there will be vendors willing to roll the dice and sponsor an event because everyone is trying to make money. But.. don’t talk to me, I don’t run a conference. Talk to the conference organizers you like and tell them what it takes for you to attend/sponsor again.

Now, on to your comments.

Jeannine Edwards, ConnectWise. Interesting feedback because she’s not only in charge of one of the largest conferences out there but also one of the largest show marketing budgets as well:

I think this is an interesting post…I actually appreciated it. I needed to rethink my event spend in 2011, while at the same time work hard to plan an event that brought the best ROI possible to participating sponsors. So I had a razor sharp focus on where I felt real ROI was to be had… and also made sure I baked those deliverables into IT Nation.

I also appreciated the importance of the unbiased perspective. I think it’s important to remember why we’re spending the money we’re spending – to spend time with partners and potential customers, not our friends – that’s a nice to have when the opportunity presents itself, not a must have.

Net net, I do still find the face to face community the best place to engage with our partners, and potential partners, so I’ll spend the money – maybe less of it, but I do see value in the conduit.

Bold and interesting post pal.

Matt Makowicz from VARTrek blogged at length about this. His point is interesting because he was with SMB Nation until recently.

When I turned on my PC this morning, I logged on to Facebook and saw something different.  My friend, Vald Mazek, with his sometimes controversial and always “in your face” vladville blog, expressed concern that he was about to offend some folks out there.  Well, that’s not news, although the concern may be.

After reading Vlad’s blog (www.vladville.com) I found it thorough, informative, insightful, and a wee bit of “what no one else is saying.”  Great blog, Vlad – as usual.

I have a bit of a unique perspective on the subject of the industry events and particular the vendor side of conferences having worked for clients on both sides of that fence.  In fact, I chuckled at some of the “value statements” Vlad cited as I know I have uttered some of them myself and some to Vlad’s marketing team.

Vlad was wrong about one thing:

Where Vlad got it wrong, in my opinion, is that the attendees don’t see the vendors as a “vital component of the event.”  Attendees I have spoken with have consistently responded that a given event’s expo hall, or an introduction to a vendor is in the top 3 reasons they either chose to attend the conference or found value from doing so.

Especially, with the change(s) that are sweeping the IT industry, and in particular with the SMB focused Partners, integrating vendor solutions is the only way to stay in business much less be or remain competitive.

My own $0.02

I have “seen” behind the curtain of the conference business in chatting with several conference organizers as well as my own work experience.  I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the bullshit.  And for the most part, Vlad is right – it ain’t pretty out there.

In fact, the entire reason I am building a consultancy around helping vendors with their Channel Partner programs is I see tremendous opportunity for improvement.  I’m amazed at the Channel Marketing budgets of some vendors.  Of the 100 plus vendor Channel marketing programs I’ve been closely involved with in one way or another, I am shocked at how few really focus upon ROI on an event by event basis.

Of course, there IS something to the goodwill, community, or the impact of “not being there.”  While real, these intangibles should be used to sway “on the fence” decisions, not be at the core of decisions that involve precious marketing dollars.

Regarding attendees and their “quality” as it matches (or doesn’t) to any particular vendor I suggest a few old, but solid techniques for flushing this out.  I suggest the following:  1) Simply attend the conference the first time you hear of it and use that “scouting trip” to help in determining if the event should be sponsored next year.  Do this for the events seriously being considered but aren’t absolute certainties.  2) Share with the event sales rep what your “A” Partner and “B” Partner look like and get a number of each that will be in attendance.  3) Most importantly, question that number.  Typically, as it was in my case, the sales rep believes what he/she is saying.  Look at the history of the event.  Ask about what marketing activities the event organization is doing to generate the promised number.  Look for or negotiate a guarantee.  Find a bottom number that the sales rep sees as worst-case scenario and base an ROI calculation on that.  4) Finally, strategize on how your firm can stand out at the event.  Approach the buying decision like buying a boat or bigger house.  There is a lot more than the purchase price involved to “do it right.”

Last thought:

I disagree with my friend Vlad on another point as well.  It’s not necessarily true that there are too many events in the industry.  If attending these various events has taught me anything, it’s that each has its own ”community” following and unique audience.  Vendors, however, seem to limit their scope and marketing budget to the event’s they know of or their competitors are sponsoring.  I know of an event that only two vendors “in the circuit” have ever sponsored and it’s a goldmine.  But beware, it’s a different event that requires a different strategy.  Email me and I’ll share, plus it’s more fun than my looking at “view” statistics.  :-)

Happy Hunting!

The following is courtesy of an exchange between Kate Hunt (who works for us at Looks Cloudy) and Ryan Morrison formerly of IPED and perennial keynote eyecandy for the 3 ladies at an IT conference:

Kate:

the real problem, in my estimation, is that an event that actually serves both the solution provider and the vendor, and justifies the time away for both parties, is an impossibility. why? because in order to do so would require the event hosts to accomplish something that’s impossible: serving two masters.

Ryan:

Perhaps two masters, but one purpose: creating profitable business partnerships. I mean, no one is naive enough to think that vendors are there to do anything other than recruit, but solution providers also need to refresh the portfolio. If you dispense with the pretense that the vendor is just happy to sponsor lunch because they care about the community, is there a way to bring people together on a logical basis that serves the basic purpose of business development?

Amy Babinchak, who is often the main content at the technical conferences and currently on the SBS MVP tour with Microsoft/HP. Show stuff aside, Amy is the CEO of Harbor Computer Services and the kind of person folks like me pay to meet at these events:

I like small conferences, the smaller the better. I’m there to connect with vendors not to be sold to. If you want to sell to me send an email. If you want my feedback and input and to hear how the market perceives your product be present in the vendor hall and the hallway of a small conference. Vendors should not see these events as sales opportunites but rather as product development events where you can really reach out and get real information.

Update: Here is another from Arlin Sorensen who runs HTG peer groups:

Very thought provoking and solid post. As someone who tries very hard to put on two solid vendor events each year, you have nailed some of the realities in the marketplace. There are too many shows, at least from the vendor perspective, because you are expected to be at all of them.

Solution providers and MSPs belong to a variety of communities and groups and aren’t faced with the literally hundreds of shows that are available to the vendor community. I agree, even though most SPs and MSPs have a more limited menu of options than a vendor does, they should not attend any event just for the sake of something to do. If it doesn’t drive their business they should stay home and be working on it.

We at HTG are completely focused on driving ROI to our sponsors and supporters. And equally important, providing real tangible value to our members. If those two aren’t in alignment we have to make changes to make it so. Our goal is a quality set of vendors and members who are willing to build relationships and have conversations. That is what we focus on – creating an atmosphere where people can succeed on both sides.

Running trade shows is a challenge to be sure we stay fresh and continue to add value. We are evaluating ideas and will be piloting some ways to increase the interaction, and relationships, in 2012 and beyond.

Thanks for the thoughtful and very insightful post. Great food for thought as we make plans for next year.

My advice to solutions providers and MSPs – know why you are going to any event – have an agenda ahead of time and a list of people you want to connect with. Spend your time doing that. Relationships are the real value of these events. You can get content lots of places. The face to face opportunity is the real value.

– Arlin

 

If you’d like to read more there are additional comments on the blog post as well as my responses, or you can check out the few threads on my Facebook wall at www.facebook.com/vladmmd – my only suggestion is to get involved.

It’s clear that this is not worthwhile for many of you, vendors and VARs alike. There are many great events out there and they only happen with the participation of vendors (like us) and we only spend money if great attendees show up willing to work. This community is what we make of it and sometimes we have problems that aren’t pretty but we work and we work and we make things better and almost everyone benefits. Finally, I am truly sorry that I have offended folks. But give me a break – if these problems apply to you – I’m not the one you should blame. And I would never publicly disparage you, your brand or your company – but it’s better you hear it from me now than from further decline of what could be something great. Love it or hate it,

The beauty of small business and entrepreneurism is that we are the masters of what we create – and none of us wake up to create garbage. So if this is a wakeup call for some of you, take your attendees and sponsors feedback – the real feedback, not the polite non-confrontational crap.

Update: Just an update on the potential conflict of interest some of you asked for. Some of the names listed here are in fact shows that my company, Own Web Now Corp sponsors – SMB Nation, Connectwise, HTG and the HP/Microsoft show all contain/feature OWN as a product or we’re a sponsor. However, much like I said in the first post, I will not take anyone down by name and the opinion is just mine about the problems out there in general.

One Response to So apparently conferences suck for you too

  1. Vlad, great post and awesome discussion. I recommend to my clients who I help with the growth of their IT business is to focus their attendance to shows in their vertical markets. IT shows are great, but I know for a fact that many of us will get huge value from attending the trade shows of the target markets we shoot for.

    Stuart Crawford
    Ulistic Inc.
    MSP Marketing Professional

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