I think that the power of conferences is both overestimated and underestimated. Its overestimated because often the vendor, when its over and they "done good" sits back with an incredibly self-satisfied smack of the lips and thinks that a huge amount of their branding work for the year is done because it went well. It isn't.
Its underestimated because there is a true value for the customers, analysts and journalists they've invited in the mingling with staff and the underlying informality of much of the event - not the structured stuff so much as the unstructured stuff. Plus, there is a true value in the amount of information that is made available to the customers et al so that they leave the event satisfied that they learned something of significance to them.
There is also a delicate balance on what kind of information/knowledge is extended to the customers. If its "product knowledge" - meaning a lot about the vendor's offerings - there is some real value in that. Especially for existing customers - if support is offered freely. For prospects - if the demos can be tailored to their perceived needs, then there is value to them. But at the same time, the host company is trying to use the conference to change a prospect to an opportunity or to expand or solidify their business with an existing customer, they have to be mindful that one of the reasons the customer is attending the conference is due to their interest in the company's intellectual capital and simply because conferences are seen as places to party and be pampered by those customers. They want to mingle and learn in addition to see the vendor's latest and greatest.
Striking a balance here is not an easy task. Yet I have to say, Lithium managed to pull off one of the best events I've seen this year and at the same time, is establishing itself as a serious player. They'd like to think that its in Social CRM but all in all it doesn't really matter. What does matter is that they have little competition when it comes to the depth of their social offering - especially with the recent acquisition of Scout Labs and now their partnerships with companies like Genesys. Scout Labs is clearly extending the Lithium functionality and Genesys the reach.
In fact, Lithium's only serious competition is Jive - and their perspectives are quite different. I'm going to leave the deeper analysis of the differences between the two for Esteban Kolsky who is going to be posting on that sometime soon - but I'll say this. Lithium's approach to the community is outside in and thus more suited to the B2C community - no coincidence the other keynote besides me was the community manager of Best Buy. Jive's approach is more "inside out" and thus they are more suited for the B2B space - again, no coincidence that one of their key customers is SAP - and they run the SAP SDN community. Both of them play in the others space - but they each are more suited to the areas that I mention here. That's a notable difference but doesn't stop them from competing at times.
Additionally Lithium doesn't see itself as a product company but more a services company who has a platform to build communities with.
I'm not going to cover the product as much this post until I get a chance to get a deep dive. I haven't had that yet even though I've seen the product and am impressed.
Nonetheless, I'm excited about what I see at Lithium. But before I get to far into that, I want to outline a bit about the conference because not only did they pull off a tour de force in how they ran the event, but the composition of the event itself was very instructive when it comes to understanding the convergence of the social and CRM worlds and the differences that still clearly remain in the perspectives of each, which, at this juncture, create a set of problems that have to be resolved in order for Social CRM, or Social Business or whatever you want to call it, to succeed in a large enterprise in particular.
LiNCing up with the Social CrowdI was at LiNC (Lithium's name for this thing) as a paid keynote speaker for the event. I was there to lay out what Social CRM is and was up to. What made this challenging to me is that this was a very different crowd than the "usual" crowd that I speak to. Normally, the crowd that I'm engaged to speak with is a crowd that gets CRM but is nearly clueless when it comes to "social" - as the NY Times seems to think its now abbreviated to. But this crowd was very different. They got social but didn't really understand CRM very well. They were distinctly right brained as opposed to the stats driven left brainers that often drive CRM initiatives. They saw their job functions e.g community manager as a lifestyle choice as much as a job - which is to their credit. They lived their jobs. What distinguished this audience from a more typical enterprise or CRM audience was that seemingly had little contact with the operational side of the business and in fact, in conversations with several attendees, didn't see the relationship between the operational parts of the business and their own as terribly connected. One speaker even indicated that they were baffled that some people in their own companies didn't support what they did.
Even the tweets of this crowd were different than the tweets of the crowds that I normally interact with. For example, a "typical" tweet (if there is such a thing) for someone live tweeting my speeches would be "@pgreenbe: More than 3/4 of all Internet users are on a social network" /lrger than I thought". There were two tweets pretty representative of the response of this audience: "Paul Greenberg is blowing my mind" and "I think I'm in love with @pgreenbe!" (right back atcha). Needless to say my two favorites. I don't think I have to spell out the differences between the two.
The audience that Lithium manages to reach, if this conference was any indication are large enterprise representatives who are mid-managerial (e.g. Director or Community Manager) if I had to pick any one category (which of course, doesn't do justice to the entire audience). There were 22 people from HP including the guy who runs 7 communities for HP or another guy who was the onboard manager for Lithium at HP. They had Best Buy, Dell, Verizon, and multiple other community drivers at their respective companies. They were clearly customer service too. During my speech, given time considerations, I gave them a choice of a discussion on a new sales model, marketing model and customer service model. The vast majority chose customer service - not surprisingly. Surprisingly, no one took sales at all.
The orientation of Lithium customers is clear and so is the orientation of Lithium. They are a hard core B2C community platform services organization. They have no interest in the public sector at all. They are interested in the consumer side of business communities - not surprising given that their founder Lyle Fong was the creator/owner of gamers.com and also a world class gamer along with his brother (who was so good, he won John Carmack's Porsche in a gaming event) and they have the interface to prove it - actually one of the nicest UIs of any kind I've seen.
Will they ever go to B2B? Don't know. Maybe. Maybe not. The reality is that they have been very successful doing what they are doing and they've developed a devoted network of customers and they actually understand what they are doing with a plan to do it.
They still need to improve in a couple of places. I'm not that impressed with their analytics back end nor do i think they've spent enough time on integration with CRM technologies. They say their customers don't ask for it, but I think that might be a bit shortsighted and they need to think about what the future holds as they evolve their platform. The value to them will be a deeper penetration of the B2C enterprises and keep them in a premium post position. They've got the customers, they've got a very good product and they've got a wonderful disposition and culture as a company. If they beef up their analytics and integrations, whew.