Adobe doubles down, but it can't just stay in Vegas

Adobe just held their 2016 Digital Marketing Summit, and the undercurrent -- even more than the loudly announced "stuff" -- had blockbuster significance for this company. If they can follow through. Here's what I mean.

In Las Vegas, as I was waiting to board a flight to Chicago, I overheard this young woman who had been (I think) at the Adobe Digital Marketing Summit, saying something which was at least metaphorically indicative of the conference itself and at the same time, an indicator of the mindset that we are dealing with when it comes to the bigger questions of customer engagement and customer experience(s).

She said (semi-seriously): "I really thought that I was going to win the $1 million slot machine prize and if I did, what a great story that would have been."

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Key phrase: "...what a great story that would have been." She didn't say, what a life changing event that would have been or what a fantastic outcome or what a great help that could have been to me but "what a great story that would have been."

John Mellor, the VP of Strategy and Business Development, Adobe, who also, despite his protestations kept up really well when he sung with Donnie Osmond on the stage, and as a result was promoted to SVP, Crooning at Adobe, made a really significant point in his commentary, while emceeing Day 2's keynotes, when he said "it's all about storytelling." One more reference and then I'll explain. Alan Berkson, who is Director of Community Outreach at Freshdesk and a thought leader in the world of the corporate narrative (has a brilliant methodology on how to tell that story), wrote a guest piece for me on the subject to of storytelling that reinforces the point with the following statement:

"Conversations surrounding brand have moved out of the marketing department. All the stakeholders of an organization--customers, employees, investors, partners, vendors, and yes, even competitors--are telling some aspect of the story of the brand."

The point is, it's always all about storytelling and the company that has the best story to tell - and - pause for dramatic flourish here - and tells it best - wins. When it comes to the marketing cloud - especially in the consumer-side business world - Adobe may have the best story to tell. Does that mean they have the best marketing cloud? I'm not saying that. I'm not judging things at that level - yet. But, what they revealed about what they are doing and how they are reshaping the company makes for a great story and a potentially formidable force in the world of marketing automation, customer engagement and customer experience. And they told us about it so very, very well.

BUT...before I get into that, we have to take a look at the Adobe Digital Marketing Summit itself - as the event it is. Thus, my friends, the now infamous - or famous if you would like to put a more positive spin on it - CRM Watchlist 2016 Conference Scorecard - my first public one of the year.

What that means is that you now have to suffer through a brief commercial about what the event scorecard actually is. And it is something....else.

Simply put, it's very hard to put on an event that has 25 people much less thousands and thousands. But at the same time events at the scale of the Adobe Digital Summit (10,000 attendees from around the globe) that are put on by companies that have a large public presence are watched closely for the announcements, for the size, for the enthusiasm of the crowd, for the marquee presences, for the presentations of vision, mission and successes that indicate what the company is thinking and what they have done. To sum up in a short burst - these events are important. The announcements can have an instant effect on a public company's stock price - as short term as it might be. The feeling - the experience generated by the conference can impact the relationships that the customers have with the company over the 12 months to the next conference.

So here are the categories and what they each cover:

Keynotes (Content) - This is the messaging, the focus, the details, the presentation and in this particular case, the presenters who work for the conference host, all taken into account in the assessment. That means how visionary, how practical, how detailed, what they said to an audience, given its mindset, etc.

Keynotes (Presentation) -This is the rest of the main stage speakers e.g. the celebrities, the lighting and the screens on the stage, the video content shown, the music, the quality of the demos given, and if demos are given,, and the feel of the whole main stage effort, among other things. The reason that the non-keynote speakers (those who don't work for the host, but are on the stage like at this conference Steve Young or Michael Keaton for example,) are included here is that they are only ancillary to a message not the message purveyor. So "reinvention" was a message that Adobe wanted to get across, Steve Young was asked about reinvention. They are not the prime deliverers.

Tracks/General Sessions - Did the content of the tracks and general sessions cover what the attendees needed and what the host needed to say? Did the titles meet the expectations of the attendees? For example, at CRM Evolution last year, we had a couple of glitches where the titles of the track didn't really follow the actual content of the presentation. What was the level of the presentations? Did the content get presented in a way that left something for the attendees to chew on?

Analyst/Press Relations - How were the analysts and press treated? Did they have a working environment that allowed them to get out the coverage they needed on the conference? Did they have the materials they needed? Were the AR/PR teams responsive to requests? What was the general environment? Friendly? Standoffish? Neutral? Were the "asks" of the analysts or press met (e.g. one on one meetings) as best as possible (Note: it's not always possible to accommodate everyone for everything they ask)?

Food (VIP) - How was the food and drink given to the VIPs which is often different or at least in a different location than the general session?

Food (General Session) - How was the food that was provided for thousands of people? This might not seem to be a matter of concern, but the bulk of the people there paid to go with meals of some level included. The quality and availability of those meals and snacks etc.

Exhibition Hall - The partner pavilions are critical parts of any event. Prospects, customers, analysts, and journalists, get a feel for who is willing to throw their lot in with the hosts of the event. Partner ecosystems are a critical part of a tech company in particular's offering. So who is represented? How wide are the pathways to walk to make it easy for an attendee to talk to the partner. What about the organization of the hall? The breadth and depth of the partners represented? The quality of the booths, etc.

Crowd Energy - How into the conference is the crowd? This doesn't mean how loud they are, but how involved are they in the event. There is a palpable energy that is highly noticeable over the course of an event. It has an impact on the residual feelings about the experience. Electricity works.

Ambiance - This is the conference center environment, the room set up, the hallways, the swag that all the attendees are offered, and the concert that may or may not be part of the event, the lighting and the Wi-Fi. All those things that add to a feeling in an environment.

Overall - The summing up and the weighted final score grade equivalent.

So, now that you are the experts in the Conference Scorecard, ladies and gentlemen, the Adobe Digital Marketing Summit 2016 Conference Scorecard!!

Clapclapclapclapclapclap.

Category Grade Notes
Keynotes (Content) A Last year's problems - e.g. lack of vision, demos that were either too brief or too rapid fire, etc. were fixed, leading to a seamless presentation when it came to content. CEO Shantanu Narayen presented as a thought leader with decent visionary thinking, and a solid framing discussion to set the tone for the event. If I would tweak anything at all - and it's only a tweak - I would have made it a little more interpersonal - not interactive - interpersonal - more warm, though it was friendly. Also, it was a bit low key in tone. Again, these are tweaks, not overhauls. The demos were well paced. The customer stories were out of this world great from RBS to Mattel, to McDonald's, whether or not they were speeches, interviews and/or videos. All in all, one of the better organized and presented keynotes I've seen for a while.
Keynotes (Presentation) A- I could almost literally rewrite what I wrote last year, but there were differences both for the better and for the worse. The visuals were very good (not spectacular), the music was at best "typical" and both loud and thematically meaningless - more of the energy boosting variety designed to show hipness. The celebrities rocked - especially George Clooney who was the most engaging one they've ever had and actually effectively took over and owned the interview on stage - though he is a master at interviewing himself (in a manner of speaking). Donnie Osmond (never thought I'd be saying this) was really very good and able to get the crowd engaged, John Mellor singing and took (in a funny way) Richard Dixon, President/COO of Mattel to task for the Donnie Osmond doll - keeping the crowd laughing. Lighting was good but not exceptional. Kind of a combination of kaleidoscope and tie-dye. But on the downside, they repeated last year's mistake by not leaving the names of the presenters or interviewees on the screen long enough to remember who they were. They also, most sadly, came out for the second year in a row with a terrible 60 second commercial about too many screens, connectivity loss etc. that ended in a guy dying of rattlesnake bite. Not really that funny and once again, the wrong message entirely (explanation of why available on request) - and, now, because I'm seeing two straight bad years, I'm not thinking that Adobe's standards are brilliant but that the 2013 Click, Baby, Click commercial (take a look at the baby pounding the buy encyclopedia button on an iPad from last year might have been a fluke. Whether or not it was, it's the standard they have to meet and they've failed to meet it two years in a row.
Tracks/General Sessions A- Well organized, (each track had a floor more or less at the Convention Center), good solid content, presenters were (according to reports) engaged with the audiences and the content met the needs of the crowd. The Sneaks presentation is always their unique signature session where their partners/ISVs get to demo on stage and it is co-hosted by Adobe and a comedian - this year Thomas Middleditch (Silicon Valley). All in all, very well done. Not a lot of standout stuff beyond Sneaks, but it doesn't have to be there.
Analyst/Press Relations B+ To qualify this a bit - the Adobe Analyst Relations team (and the press folks) are top quality - one of the best in the industry. They are attentive to the needs of individual analysts and press; they make sure that things run smoothly at the conference. But this year, there were a few problems - mostly infrastructural. Normal practice at these events is to make sure that at the general sessions there is power, tables, and decent WiFi so the analysts and press can work - which means ranging from taking notes, to live tweeting or other broadcasting, to writing their posts and articles. Without tables, it is awkward use of devices on laps, without power, the shutdown has to come early so they can't finish the event in order to preserve their machines for use throughout the day; without decent Wi-Fi, well, you can figure that out (e.g. live tweeting? Not.) This year - at the general session, no tables, no power, horrible Wi-Fi, even on dedicated channels. However, you could power up in the analyst/press rooms.
Food (VIP) C+ Generally, while the reception food was okay, the food to feed the stomachs of VIPs was not much to speak of - breakfast sandwiches, etc. and one morning even the promise of coffee wasn't met. Distinct departure for the worse from last year.
Food (General Session) C Crowd "blahh" when it came to food this year, was closer to universal than last year. In fact, many folks I asked said that after the first day, they just went to restaurants.
Exhibition Hall B+ A significant improvement from last year, but still could use some work. Given that there were 10,000 people at this event, the size of the exhibition hall (compared to other tech like sized event was on the small side). That said, this year, unlike last year, there was sufficient passage way between rows and booths, the exhibition hall was easy to find and access and the array of partners was germane to what Adobe did. However, there didn't seem to be any particular rhyme or reason to the organization of the booths that went beyond a possible - "I want that space" request from the vendors (I'm speculating. I don't know that). It was hard to find specific vendors if they didn't have a big standout booth with large signage. Seemed random, haphazard, slapdash, whatever you want to call it.
Crowd Energy B+ Initially, I thought that we were going to see a repeat of last year's somewhat aloof crowd because at first the response was so low key. But what it became was an engaged crowd who were attentive, responsive to questions and to asking questions. That persisted in the keynotes, general sessions and most visibly, in the track sessions. This is not an audience that crackles though. There isn't a lot of high energy or high touch in this. Even though Adobe makes rather noble attempts to generate the energy with the celebrity appearances and highly personable onstage executives and some modest fireworks e.g. lighting, sound.
Ambiance B+ The move to Las Vegas might actually have been a good thing when it comes to ambiance (God help me for saying that. I really don't like Las Vegas). The crowd traffic flow was never out of hand, also smooth, never even momentarily clumped. Security was handled surreptitiously and well. Where they changed this time was cost cutting around swag for the audience and thus, given expectations from last year when they gave out a one-year free subscription to Creative Cloud Photography (a lite version of Creative Cloud), a free Under Armour light jacket, and a box of Girl Scout cookies to the entire audience, this year, an entirely underwhelming...nothing. The concert was Weezer, a step down (in my musical taste's opinion, to be fair) from last year's Imagine Dragons, the broader reception pleasant, the VIP receptions nice and as always the Summit Sneaks were a lot of fun, according to all reports. All in all, a generally happy, but once again, fairly low energy, environment overall
OVERALL B+ Once again, Adobe garners a B+ which is the high end of the more commonly scored good marks (A- and A are rare to never). A well thought out, well put together conference with an incredibly well done and organized and supported set of keynotes over two days, fixing much of last year's problems (e.g. lack of vision no longer lacked, so to speak) and at the same time bringing a strong consumer vibe to the conference, making it entertaining and fun with good content. The energy needs a boost and that is not an easy problem to solve, the exhibition hall can be ratcheted up a notch and there needs to be some more physical equipment for the analysts and press to do their jobs but all in all well done Adobe, well done. Again.

Now on to being totally judgmental....

Okay, that was me being nice. Now on to me being judgmental though not necessarily hyper-critical...mostly not at least.

Vision, mission, launch the new wave....

What is becoming apparent is that Adobe has decided to go all in on the enterprise and is not particularly stopping at their current portfolio. While this can, in most of the companies who declare it, be called bravado, or "marketing" or ridiculous, in Adobe's case, this should be heard by all their competitors - current and future - as a serious declaration - and not necessarily as a shot across the bow.

But it ain't perfect either.

What in the hell do I mean by that? Let me tell you, fellow....uhhh...whatever we are.

Vision, Mission and Oops.

Adobe described a world of enterprise software deployment that has come in 3 distinct waves over the past couple of decades. There was, in the eyes of Adobe, the back office wave, the front office wave and now we have the third wave - the Experience Business Wave, which is a consumer focused wave that is driven by the need to develop and manage and enable experiences. Shirley Siluk, a journalist writing for CRM Daily actually described what Adobe was trying to say really well when she said, "According to Adobe, we are now in the third deployment wave of enterprise software, which involves rolling out personalized and digital services. The first two waves were for back-office (payroll, accounting, etc.) and front-office (data streamlining for customer interactions) applications." I like that description a lot.

To be fair to Adobe, there is some truth to it, but I have concerns. There have been periods where the needs of companies focused around their back office - led pretty much by companies like SAP - starting in the very late 1980s and throughout the 90s. Then the back office technology enabling accounting/financial/human resources/supply chain/logistics processes and workflows - and driving back office automation of what had been tedious and manual efforts became standard issue - business necessity rather than nice-to-have. In the late 1990s and through even the last couple of years - the front office - CRM/sales/marketing/customer service - technologies have been enablers of operations in those departments and have driven effectiveness/efficiencies that have led to better knowledge of customers and better ways of transacting and to some extent interacting with those customers. They moved from nice to have to need to have now.

But note that I used the word "enable" in both the back and front office cases. The Experience Business Wave if there is such a thing has to be heavily qualified when it comes to the use of the concept of experience. There are two customer-related experiences. One is the longer term version - which is how a customer feels about a company over time. I'm going to be emphatic here. That cannot be enabled by technology. You cannot enable a feeling. However, that said, there is the other experience one that was best discussed by "experience economy" pioneer Joe Pine back in the late 90s and through now - what I call consumable experiences. Those can be enabled by technology. They are designed, managed and enabled - and often monetized. The best example in the world is pretty much everything Disney does. You pay a premium because you are getting more than a product or a service - you are getting an experience that incorporates products, services, even tools and events, that in sum total more than just a transaction. Think of going to Disney World and spending the day or days there. It's a whole thing not just the purchase of discreet things. That may be an unscientific and not exactly analyst-specific way of describing it, but I bet you know what I'm talking about. If you don't, ask.

That said, while I understand Adobe's approach and applaud their visionary direction - and their distinct focus (much more to say on this a bit later in this post) - I'm a little queasy with it, because of the lack of clarity of the definition of experience in this discussion. It is incumbent upon Adobe to take their position, make it clear and develop the framework and thought leadership around it. Because it is a stake in the ground that is being planted in pretty muddy soil.

There are two things in this context that need to be said. First a single sentence - and another reason for my queasiness (which then again, could just be some bad food).

When it comes to these three waves, what about the cloud? It changed how we deliver things across enterprises - actually across institutions that go well beyond the technology industry. Wow. Okay, that's more than a single sentence. There was little to no discussion of it at the "market forces" level - and honestly, if you are speaking at the level of defining "waves" or bigger picture large trends, acknowledgement at least has to be there.

The other one is far more specific. Adobe in its discussion of the third wave has four points that are paramount to the principles governing business behavior toward customers. They are (paraphrased):

  1. Know me, respect me. Anticipate my experience before I ask
  2. Speak in one voice - regardless of whether you are marketing or sales, or communicating on email, twitter, text, phone etc.
  3. Make the technology transparent - meaning it does what it does and the customer doesn't know it - the customer is getting done what he or she needs to get done.
  4. Delight me at every turn - delight me all the time at all touchpoints.

The first three are fine. Absolutely on point. The fourth one is a disaster waiting to happen.

Here's the thing(s). First, if you try to delight the customer 100% of the time, it's not delight, its expectation and thus the standard for delight goes up - and the cost of delight goes up and then it becomes expectation and thus the standard for delight goes up, the cost goes up and it becomes expectation...you see the infinite loop here, right? The key to delight is that it exceeds expectation. My definition of it is that when you have delighted a customer - not only are they happy about the unexpected surprise but THEY ARE NOT EXPECTING IT AGAIN!! One famous example of this was the 2010 holiday effort by KLM Airlines, dubbed KLM Surprise, where KLM tracking its customers checking in for their flights and simultaneously being tracked on social media, were presented live and in person with relevant and personalized individual, gifts much to their delight most of the time and occasionally to their consternation. What made this so "special" was not only that the passengers were genuinely shocked and mostly excited and happy but none of them really was expecting it again. That's delight. And it showed - and it was repeatedly communicated by the passengers via social media to everyone at the time of the effort. It was a WOW! without a "what's next?"

Also, despite our continued marketing crap about how we want our customers to love our company - and, in fact, some of them might - they don't love our companies the same way that they love their friends. They transact with our companies and have a long term experience that is good enough to continue the relationship. Note the key expression here - "good enough." That is what companies need to be concentrating on, regardless of their public postures on how extraordinary and wonderful they think their customers are. They may genuinely think that - and there are extraordinary and wonderful customers who are most likely extraordinary and wonderful people. But a business has specific objectives it has to meet in order to succeed and even qualify as a business - and the first one, more often than not, is selling stuff is a priority. Which means that they have to give the customers what they need to buy stuff - and that means:

  1. The actual stuff they are looking to buy
  2. The means to buy it
  3. The continuous motivation to buy it from the company selling it

The implication is pretty clear there - that means value to the customer - and that means the customer needs to feel valued. But not orgasmically engaged at all times. Valued. The simplest way to describe that is make the customer feel as if they are important enough to your business to be rewarded for that with a good long term feeling and control over the interactions they have with you. Beyond that discussion, you'll just have to trust me on this - since I'd get too far off course to explain it in detail.

Adobe's claim that one of its four tenets of the Experience Business Wave is "delight me all the time' basically rather than the less hype-ridden, not-as-sexy-sounding "make my experience good enough all the time to want to stay engaged with you. This is a mine waiting to be stepped on. They need to change the tenet or eliminate it to maintain the integrity of their message and not set themselves up for a promise that can't be kept. And,

Platform, Ecosystem and Coopetition?

All that said, I think Adobe is on the cusp of not only a fairly radical transformation of how it does business but also, if what I heard is successfully executed, providing an important business model for others to emulate. I also think that they will drive one out of the park if they can pull off what they announced as a plan.

There was a slide that Adobe showed on stage during the general session without a lot of fanfare that was far more important than the visibility they gave it. It was this slide:

adobeecosystemplan2016a.jpg

Adobe Platform/Ecosystem Plan

Pardon the clear lack of photographic skills that I have. I took this one. I own up to it. But the importance of what this represents in Adobe's thinking can't be understated, despite the fact that at least at the general sessions, Adobe actually understated it.

Adobe's thinking

But its importance (at least what it represents - not the specific slide itself) wasn't understated in an analyst briefing with Adobe's articulate CTO, Abhay Parasnis where he declared that not only the Adobe Marketing Cloud, but the Document Cloud and the Creative Cloud were moving to a new technology model and the company a new business model (at least by my reckoning). No longer were they going to be represented as a solution set (though they would still provide solutions) but as a technology platform - and that technology platform was going to be supported by an open ecosystem. The key phrase here was "open ecosystem." More on my thinking in a bit after I explain more on their thinking.

The concept as far as I understood it - and I did - is that Adobe recognizes that they have a lot to offer as an "experience-driven" platform - and a unique one - given their historic B2C and as Abhay put it their B2B2C perspective. But they don't do everything, can't do everything, don't want to do everything, and know that there are other companies who do some things better than they do. Consequently, they are going to be looking for primarily strategic partners who can fulfill their customers' needs in all kinds of areas - including some that they never played in - and the one he mentioned referentially (not reverentially) and in passing was an eye-opener - customer service.

They think that they need to provide a cohesive platform because the technology requirements in the 21st century when it comes to customer experience require actions and insights. With both insights and actions a company can provide the deep personalization (hyper-personalization is the term du jour) that individual customers are looking for from companies which thus leads to the kind of experiences that the customer requires to continue or even enhance their relationship with the company. That means you need as Abhay overstated a bit, - an "extreme focus on experiences." (Note the plural). "Experiences matter more than ever." To gain these insights you need data science - and a framework for ISVs (independent software vendors) to tap into - a platform as part of that. To that end, they announced Adobe.io - a portal that provides ISVs (developers) with the platform tools to build their application and algorithms to support the identification of the insights necessary to drive the actions that are needed to keep customers engaged.

Adobe's desire to become a platform (and this stage it's a desire in progress toward a reality) with all three of its major business units involved would be commendable and attuned to the market as it is. We're seeing the same desire in various stages of evolution from Salesforce (already mature), Microsoft (much more limited but moving with Dynamics) and SAP (desire more than execution at this point though the elements are there) and several other companies. We are seeing companies come online from the get go as platforms (XXXXX). In other words, even if they stuck to just becoming a platform play, this would be a significant and beneficial change for the company. There is a lot that goes into being a platform including new pricing models, sets of development and authoring tools, and developing a network of partners and developers, etc. Adobe isn't there yet.

But what makes this a deeply important move by Adobe is that they are tying their platform to an ecosystem. That thinking cannot be underestimated because ultimately in an era where customers are more demanding, what it takes to be good enough often involves more what a single company can offer. In other words, an ecosystem that can provide products, services, tools and consumable experiences that, if made available in ways that express the parent company's interest in the individual customer, makes the experience good enough to continue the relationship (again, good enough).

What makes this more than just words is Adobe's still rather low key announcement of what they are calling the Line of Business Exchange. The concept though it may have some wording that parallels the Salesforce App Exchange is very different. The Salesforce App Exchange when all is said and done is a marketplace. The LOB Exchange is designed to be strategic. The "members" would be selected partners who would be involved with Adobe as go to market (GTM) partners. Adobe would commit money to the relationship, train their salespeople in selling the partner's solutions and jointly work on deals. Initially, this is not focused on ISVs but what makes this announcement even more intriguing is that with the somewhat offhanded comment about customer service, and some discussions after the fact about "coopetition" (to sum them up handily), there is some real possibility here of a genuine ecosystem of partners including even companies that would be nominally and sometimes actually competitive in other areas.

My thinking

The transformation of Adobe's thinking in just a year borders on amazing to me. The ambition is both laudable and a bit scary. I think that at this stage, the intellectual framework is in place, the products are being reimagined and repositioned to support a platform and ecosystem, and more than anything else, the intent is being made clear. I think if I were to look at the actual level of its evolution at this point, while Adobe has a clear cohesive narrative in formation, the keywords are "in formation." They are, judging from discussions I had and observations I made, somewhat tentative on not only what an ecosystem looks like but how they are going to fully provide the platform and what partners they should ally with and how they should detail the structure of the alliances/ecosystem. So it's still very early. But it's underway.

You'll notice I didn't focus on the product releases. They were exciting, but to me they weren't the story. The story was in the undercurrents. If you want to see more about the product releases, go here...or here... In my case, I'm now going to see if Adobe's undercurrents become a torrent or they...don't. But if they do, watch out. Or at least...watch closely.