I’ve been in technology for a long time and attended and presented at many user conferences. Yet, I was surprised at our MarkLogic User Conference in San Francisco in April – not because of the great number of attendees, but because of who attended and what happened.
It was an unusual user conference in that MarkLogic is not a company that’s been around for 30 years with user conferences almost like a class reunion where you see people you know and may have worked with for many years. Rather, it was an innovators’ conference. The participants were people who are trailblazing new technology. Even so, the surprise was how many business people, not just IT developers, attended.
Two or three years ago leading-edge people in IT organizations came to MarkLogic’s User Conferences. They were doing things that were ahead of the wave. This year I noticed a lot of high-level business people – of course CIOs, but line-of-business leaders also participated. “Big Data Analytics” is a hot topic, and there is an acceleration of interest on the business side in how to get their arms around the explosion of unstructured information in their companies. Using software solutions to manage big data and unstructured information is growing into the business mindset as organizations are beginning to understand that they need to leverage it for competitive advantage. Users from the business side of companies and agencies at our conference were exploring how to get in front of that competitive advantage.
Unstructured data (e-mails, PDFs, Word documents, PowerPoint, Excel, images, videos, etc.) represent more than 80 percent of the data people create every day, and it’s growing exponentially. The question at an enterprise or a government agency is how to access and analyze it effectively. The reality is probably only 10 percent of that is required. But the question is: which 10 percent and how do you do apply it to solve the business problem? To me, a User Conference is for learning, and that includes me. I learned that customers are using MarkLogic in many different ways to solve the “which 10 percent” question.
In his presentation at the conference, Gartner analyst Donald Feinberg discussed trends and what will happen in the industry over the next three to five years. The picture he drew validated what many of our users were saying: big data is exploding and there is a lot of competitive advantage in the data, but organizations will need to invest in technologies that can deal with exploiting the competitive advantage in the data.
A big surprise was how packed the conference developers’ lounge was. We know that our customers who are developers are driving change through enterprise applications and are under pressure at their enterprises or government agencies to deliver results. So we implemented the lounge for the first time this year. It turned out to be standing room only, with developers sharing what they’ve done to solve critical business problems and sharing best practices.
We thought the developers’ lounge might be interesting, but we had no idea how much interest there would be. It absolutely will be a cornerstone in our going-forward strategy, and we’ll invest more in this. We’ve had a continuing focus on the developer community and invested in a lot of virtual community events. But we’re seeing a lot of uptick in the demand for physical, rather than virtual, meetings.
Value in face-to-face interaction
In this day and age, there’s a lot of virtual communication – text, Facebook, Twitter, etc. – that is very powerful. But I believe there’s still a need for the kind of face-to-face interaction that a user conference has. Why? Because it solidifies someone’s decision.
MarkLogic is currently a late-stage startup, but, frankly, many of our customers risked their careers when they bought our solution; it was new technology from a new company and, in many cases, they bought it for mission-critical projects (yes, even some life-saving projects among the government intelligence community).
We live in a world where information flows so quickly because of the social media forces available. But the information flow is not always correct. I think it’s important, particularly when people are staking their careers on their decisions, to have face-to-face communications; there is a different meaning in this type of conversation. That’s what a user conference offers. Nothing comes close to face-to-face time with the people who are using your software, saving businesses and as I mentioned before, in some cases, saving lives.
Among attendees at our User Conference, there was a sense of pride in coming together with colleagues in different industries who have taken the same path. It’s very energizing.
I also saw this demonstrated when I was formerly with Autodesk. Their user conferences draw from 3,000 to 10,000 attendees, and many people took personal vacation days to attend the conferences. The face-to-face interaction meant that much to them.
Stanford University’s Professor Bob Sutton delivered the keynote presentation. He hit it out of the park as far as resonating with our attendees, who were primarily innovators and trailblazers. His point was it’s not enough to have an innovative idea; one must also be able to market/sell the idea internally to managers and peers.
But he stressed that the time to market or sell the idea is not when a team is brainstorming. It’s important to let everyone get their ideas on the table and then let the ideas start dying. When all but one has died, everyone needs to get behind the idea that remains and sell it. (Or if an individual has several ideas, each must die until one remains, and then the focus moves to “selling” that idea.)
Best practices for software company user conferences
Aim for C-suite visibility. Software companies often lament they lack a pathway to their customers’ C-suite so they can sell deeper and broader into an organization. A user conference is an excellent means of gaining visibility among the top executives. But it requires being intentional in targeting top executives from the business side as attendees. Make sure part of the tracks and agenda present hot-topic valuable information on how companies can solve their emerging business challenges.
Keynote presentation. The keynote presentation needs to align with the interests of the attendees but also go beyond and take their thought process to a different level. The reason we selected Professor Sutton for our recent user conference is that most of the people who attended are trailblazers and are the people who innovate and have really cool ideas for solving critical business problems in their oganizations. Sutton is an international best-selling author on creativity and innovation, but he talked beyond the process of innovating and focused especially on thoughts around how to “sell” an innovative idea.
Venue. Often, companies focus on the conference agenda, making sure it’s appropriate for the intended audience, but don’t have a realistic idea of the audience the agenda might draw. A key to success is making sure the venue is appropriate for the size of the audience. Our developers’ lounge, for instance, was a problem. Standing room only is a nice problem to have, but it will bring complaints. Our lounge was almost like a three-ring circus occurring in a fairly tight space.
We’ll learn from that next time as we continue to make developers the heart and soul of the company. They need more space, and maybe a little more pizza.
Obviously, no one wants to lease a facility that holds 2,000 people and then have 200 show up. But it’s actually worse to have a room for 50 and have 70 show up. Strong motivation for pre-registration is helpful in ensuring the venue will be appropriate.
Tactics. I can’t overemphasize the fact that a user conference should not be an event for an event’s sake. It should be a tactic in a series of tactics to execute on company strategy. A user conference should also an opportunity for learning – and that includes the software company’s top execs. As CEO, for example, I didn’t attend our recent user conference just to pontificate in a keynote presentation or to talk one-on-one with customers and partners about more opportunities. I was there to listen and learn from them.
Execution. It is critical that the sound system is perfect, that seating arrangements don’t make for a crowded environment and that slides are compelling. In other words, from the technical side, execution must be flawless. If it isn’t, your message is lost because the audience is distracted by the glitches. The same goes for the logistics of the event. Make sure there are plenty of meeting rooms, make the meals enjoyable and leave plenty of time and space for networking and ad hoc meetings. Participants love to do this … so plan for it.
A user conference isn’t over the minute the last guest leaves the building. In my mind, that’s when the real value begins. Following up after the conference to make sure attendees have their questions answered, get the presentations, and have an opportunity to tell us how we can make the conference better the following year is key. Hearing from users after the user conference is the most valuable takeaway that we can derive as a business.
Ken Bado is CEO of MarkLogic.