Adobe: Experiencing the experiential (part one)

The Adobe Experience Cloud Summit 2018 in March was a clear indication of how far Adobe has come in the past two years and how far it has to go. I look at the event, the strategy, the messaging, the program, and the experience itself to see if Adobe can truly make the claim it is in the business of helping businesses create experiences. True or false? Find out.
Written by Paul Greenberg, Contributor

Video: Adobe rolls out updates to Experience Manager

I know I'm late on this one by a couple of months. But, hopefully, the wait is worth it.

First, I apologize for taking so long to get this out. My other excuse is that I had six client-related projects to do in the course of the past few weeks. Plus, I'm reviving the Event Scorecard for 2018 with this post, and I had to tweak the weights and the categories. In fact, there is so much to this post, it's going to be published in two parts.

Read also: How Adobe moves AI, machine learning research to the product pipeline

So, I'm sorry, this is part one, and let's get to it.

Event Scorecard: A few changes

After all these years, I've made some changes, and I'm sure most of you have also forgotten about it completely. So, as I always do for the very first scorecard of the year, I provide an explanation of the scorecard itself. If you know it from my distant past, you'll possibly note the changes.

As many analysts, I travel to a lot of conferences over a year. I have either been engaged as a speaker who also is an analyst or am there strictly as an analyst to find out what's going on with the company. Either way, I'm a participant at the event.

The thing is, the event itself is of real importance to the company putting it on, because, if its a user event, and it usually is, it shapes the perception of the company for a 12-month period until the next event. It's an overarching, powerful creator of an impression that lingers a long time after the knowledge of the specific event fades. Something on this order is what the attendee might say about the event 10 months after the fact: "What was it about? Oh, something to do with marketing I think but it was a great event, and it's a great company." The lingering feeling is more powerful than the content presented. Obviously, I'm exaggerating a little at both ends of what's remembered and what isn't, but it shapes the perception of the company in the months to come. Its how the users and prospects and analysts and everyone attending gets a feel for not just the products and services but the company and its people and culture.

So, I score the events. However, I am more lenient in my scoring than I am with the CRM Watchlist, because I know how hard it is to produce an event, and then actually do it, with a boatload of moving parts to pay attention to that could veer off in the wrong direction at any given moment.

But score it, I do.

Read also: Adobe patches critical vulnerabilities in Flash, Creative Cloud

Here is how the scorecard works, and how Adobe, as the first of this season, did. The second part of this post will be on the analysis of Adobe's direction, actions, future, and opportunity. This post is the event scorecard, the Adobe ratings, and setting the stage on customer experience -- so that I can show you what I think Adobe is doing in context in part two.

Event Scorecard: Criteria/Categories

  • Crowd Size: This is a new category about the size of the crowd. But the actual grade is based on the size and impact of the company holding the event (revenue, etc.); the impact of the company holding the event; the size of the crowd relative to other like company events; and the size relative to the previous year. It isn't just a number that is graded. It's what that crowd represents to the outside world. There is a lot of subjectivity in this rating, because I have a number that I think represents a minimum threshold, a likely ceiling (though this is not much more than a paper ceiling and can be easily busted), and a percentage of growth relative to the last year (minimum).
  • 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, and what it said to an audience given its mindset, etc.
  • Conference (Staging): This is the rest of the main stage speakers (e.g., the celebrities, the lighting, the screens on the stage, the video content shown, the music, the quality of the demos given, the feel of the 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 is that they are only ancillary to a message -- not the message purveyor. How effectively do the ancillary speakers either represent the company's messaging (e.g., this year, for Adobe, there was Jensen Huang, CEO of Nvidia) or support the brand image and culture and enhance crowd engagement (e.g., SNL's Leslie Jones, during Sneaks)?
  • 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, and that is accounted for by me)?
  • 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's particular 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 Engagement: How into the conference is the crowd? This doesn't mean how loud they are, but how involved they are at 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.
  • Logistics: 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). This is the ability to handle crowd movement. This is the security of the conference. All those things that add to a feeling in an environment and to the ease of navigation at a conference.

Read also: Adobe updates Experience Manager for marketers and developers

Event Scorecard: Adobe Experience Cloud Summit 2018

Crowd SizeB+The official attendance seemed to increase from the prior event about 40 percent -- i.e., from 10,000 attendees to 14,000 attendees, which is a nice leap. But, don't forget, this is also measured against other conferences of like sized or influence companies. So, B+, which is a solid mark, but not mind-blowing. It would have taken closer to 18,000 to get an A in this one, given Adobe's influence. But the leap is nothing to ignore either. This was a sizeable increase in conference attendance, and Adobe should be applauded for it.
Keynotes (Content)AThe keynotes were the best I've seen at an Adobe conference. Led by CEO Shantanu Narayen, the speeches were visionary, outcomes driven, and at the same time, were as in the weeds as Adobe classically is -- but without the annoyance of geek-speak that goes over the heads of me and most of the audience. All in all, if you take the combination of Shantanu, the demos, the interviews with partner leaders like Jensen Huang of Nvidia, the other leaders who spoke, a consistent, interesting, and balanced narrative kept its thread throughout the entire conference.
Conference StagingAThis was literally a perfect numerical score in addition to the highest letter grade you can get. Adobe does brilliant staging. The opening videos were both beautiful and inspiring with ultraHD color and flowing movement -- a literally moving sometimes Salvador Dali, sometimes Piet Mondrian, sometimes Andy Warhol-type canvas, and other times, during some of the ancillary presentations, montages of the person and the company he/she represented. Additionally, Adobe had momentary flashes of 3D screens when it was making some business point.
Tracks/General SessionsA-The best I can honestly say about the tracks overall is that Adobe kept its promise. Keep in mind, here I'm operating from a small sample size (probably 30 to 35) and extrapolating. What was good about Adobe's tracks is that it didn't skimp on the right-brained side of its equation, so there were plentiful tracks on things like personalization, building customer experiences, etc. Also, they were true to their descriptions. The presenters and their presentations got somewhat mixed reviews, though overall leaned strongly to the positive. But not entirely. Still, keeping the promise with strong positives is enough to get them the A-.
Analyst/Press RelationsA-As always, a great job done by the analysts relations team members at Adobe -- they're the top four in the business, as far as I'm concerned. They took care of each of the analysts at the event and made sure that they had a "customized" experience, meaning if one-on-ones were your thing, you had some one-on-ones, for example, though on the lower-volume side. That's understandable, since they are juggling the needs of dozens of people with a limited group of executives and customers. They had groups of senior executives meetings with groups of analysts -- and the executives were candid and encouraged feedback. The only reason they got less than a solid A was the lack of tables and power for the analysts and press during the keynotes in the main ballroom, which is pretty much at this point, table stakes (no pun intended). That disparity makes it more difficult for the analysts and press to do their jobs, since they were working off their laps and they had to concern themselves with the preservation of their battery power. Neither of those should be a concern.
Exhibition Hall C-While a marked improvement over some of the past Adobe Exhibition Halls, this one wasn't that much better. It was somewhat confusing, with poorly labeled booth numbers/names and numbered "rows" (i.e. ,aisles) that at times made no sense as to where they were and which booths were there. The community maps there for directions were so general that at times they were useless. So, as in prior years, they were a mishmash. The walkways were good enough to allow traffic to flow both ways without too much interference, but they weren't particularly spacious areas. The one thing that was at least pretty good was the recharge areas, where you could do anything from getting water to playing some simple games or just relax. One thing I would suggest, aside from clarity and much better labeling and improved organization, is that Adobe strategic partners should be featured in the central Adobe exhibit space in the hall. That sends a message to those walking the hall that their strategic partners are part of their ecosystem. It's a message, given Adobe's publicly announced direction, that's a very important one.
Crowd EngagementBThis was odd, because it was highly uneven. For example, there was extremely high audience engagement during the Sneaks session. The interactions with the audience and the presenters, including the MC and Leslie Jones, were exceptional and lively. Oddly, as good as the keynotes were, and as memorable as the staging was, the crowd's energy and level of engagement was never that high. It took some real effort for those on stage to get a reaction to whatever -- ranging from the usual, "Good morning! I can't hear you. You're not loud enough. You must have been out late, so I'll say it again, good morning!" to the level of gasps and applause that you would expect given the quality of what's happening on stage. The comments about what went on stage throughout the conference were indicative of something being very well received, but that wasn't evident during the actual presentations.
LogisticsB+These were solid everywhere: The food was out where it needed to be; the quality of the food was decent, not great; the crowds, while on occasion knotting up, were moving to their appointed destinations without a lot of difficulty; and the security and traffic control people and service desk staff were courteous and well informed and able to keep things moving the way it needed to be. There was nothing exceptional about it, but then, it doesn't have to be exceptional. It just has to work, and it did.
OverallB+Adobe is very good at putting on events that have a lasting impact, and this one continued that tradition. It had areas that could be better -- notably, again, the exhibition hall. But, on the whole, in the places where it counts, the content and the presentation of the content shined -- and that is what matters. Ultimately, in eight months, when someone asks an attendee about Adobe, the event has to leave enough of an emotional trace for the attendee, even if they don't remember the content that well to remember enough of how they felt in order to say, "It was great" or "They are a really cool company doing really cool things" or some variation on that theme. Adobe, in my estimation, achieved that -- again. Though, probably, given this year, it needs to change the name next year to the "Adobe Experience Cloud Summit" or something a little more creative. Because it now speaks to areas well beyond just marketing.

Scorecard in the books. Now, we move on to what are we actually talking about when we are talking about customer experience -- more complicated than you might think. And, in part two, I'll cover what did the conference tell me about Adobe's direction, how far it's come in the achievement of its vision, and what can you expect of it. And, finally, right here and right now: Will the Yankees win the Series this year?

Let's start with the latter. Given current trajectories, yes. That takes care of that. No room for debate on that one, fans of other teams.

Read also: Adobe and Nvidia expand partnership for Sensei AI

Before I get into the Adobe Experience Cloud and Adobe's direction, I want to clarify the definitions of customer experience. Note the plural, because there are three kinds of experience that need some definition, since Adobe is focused on one of them. The reason I want to be clear is that, if I thought Adobe was promoting the other two, I wouldn't be so comfortable with what it's doing. In fact, I'd blast it.

Customer Experience (x3)

I spend an entire chapter of my upcoming book, The Commonwealth of Self-Interest: Customer Engagement, Business Benefit, on the differences in customer experience(s). The reason I gave it that much time, since the book is about customer engagement, is that entire businesses will succeed or fail based on how they approach customer experience and its symbiosis with customer engagement. Thus, definitions have to be clear so there is no miscommunication between buyer and seller, between customer and company, and between industry and thought leaders about what customer experience is, which version you are talking about, and what you can do programmatically and strategically with each kind of customer experience.

Customer Experience

Customer experience, in this incarnation, is the one that technology companies most talk about and have the least impact (a.k.a., none) on: A customer's feelings. Two definitions will suffice to explain most of this easily:

First, let me present the definition used by the individual I think is the foremost thought leader in the customer experience space -- Bruce Temkin, founder and CEO of the Temkin Group, former Forrester analyst, and a long time influencer. His definition:

"The perception that customers have of their interactions with your organization."

A small excerpt of a piece he wrote for my upcoming book explains his thinking well:

"The word 'perception' is critical, because customer experience is in the eyes of the beholder. It's not what you do as a company, or how your employees think about what they do. It's how your customers think and feel about what you do."

That segues beautifully into the other definition on this kind of customer experience -- mine:

"How a customer feels about a company over time."

As perception is critical in Bruce's definition, "feels" is critical in mine. When a company is talking about this "big picture" customer experience, it's the emotional state of the customer at the time that the company either proactively or retroactively becomes aware of it. I'm not going to go into the details of what drives it, how it formulates itself, what changes it, what the value is to a company to know it, and how it impacts the customers engagement with the company. The book covers some of that. But what I am going to emphatically state is:

If a technology company is talking about providing its technology to impact this kind of customer experience directly, then it doesn't know what it is talking about. You can't enable how a person feels via technology. Period.

The reason I'm so emphatic about this is that it is a strategic flaw I see repeated in the messaging and promises that some tech companies make around customer experience. What technology can do is -- via analytics and by understanding customer behavior individually -- identify the customer's feelings at a given moment in a journey, and that may or may not reflect the overall state of the customer's feelings toward the company. It may be just how they feel at that given moment. Analytics can ascertain how the customer feels at the point they produced the data that the algorithms are using to draw a conclusion. But the technology can't enable those feelings. The long-term feeling is something that evolves after engagement and interaction and outcomes are aggregated and filtered and assessed at conscious and subliminal levels by a customer or two or a million.

Read also: Adobe adds more AI, customization, transparency in Adobe Target update

If Adobe was claiming that it can enable these long-term feelings, then I'd have a problem, but it is not claiming that. So, since this is a post about Adobe, I'll stop here. Please feel free to query me in the comments if you want to get further information.

Brand Experience

This is another type of customer experience that is, to use the best term I can think of at the moment (I'm pretty tired), "impressionistic." It is the conscious effort a brand makes to leave a strong impression about the brand. That means that, when customers think about a brand, they are going to have an impression -- "coolest company ever," "what a cutting-edge company," etc.That isn't always that easy to articulate, but the feeling associated with coolest, for example, is easy to feel.

I know that's not a great way to describe it, but let me give you an example, that I've used before in an article on customer experience, customer engagement, and CRM.

Teeling Whiskey, a fast-growing Irish Whiskey distiller, about two years ago, opened the first new distillery in Dublin in 125 years. Keep in mind, as new as the distillery was, the Teeling family, has been distilling whiskey since 1782, so its not new to the business. But, unlike the behemoth of Irish whiskey, Jameson's, it didn't want to be establish its brand identity as a long-standing, historic icon of distilling. A new distillery was built and designed to imply (leave the impression of) "a new generation of Irish Whiskey" challenging the long-time, seemingly old-school brands like Jameson's, Bushmills, etc.

The way that it built this impression, was vast amount of experimentation with the distillation of the whiskey itself, with unique casks used to produce wildly different flavor profiles, with names that stepped outside the norm, (Liberties' 11 year old, etc), and most importantly, a highly orchestrated specific experience at the distillery itself that was designed to cement the impression of a new generation.

When you signed up for the tour at the distillery, you noticed first, from the get go, a hipster sort of vibe in the initial room where you could get a light lunch of artisan sandwiches and salads. But the key was when you stepped into the tour itself. Unlike Jameson's, which assigned a guide immediately to you who regaled you about the history of the distillery, at Teeling, you were put in a room that had museum like cases (with a lot of light, though) that had whiskey distilling historic items. You were left in the room for about 10 to 15 minutes to wander around and look at the history. Then a guide came out, took you to a thre- minute video from Teeling family members welcoming you, and off you went to the modern distillery, where the gleaming copper pot stills had glass enclosures, so you could see into the process itself as the distillery went about producing the whiskey.

The idea was simple: History, sure, look at what you want of it, but we are the new generation, with new approaches who want to be transparent about our distilling process -- no secrets here. We are the ones that meet the needs of 21st century whiskey drinkers -- not with our history, but with our exciting whiskey.

For all intents and purposes, it works. That's the distinct brand impression you have as you emerge from the experience. Teeling is the leading progressive new generation of Irish whiskey distilleries.

That's brand experience. The experience is designed at multiple levels and orchestrated to create a specific image of a company with its customers. Its not personalized, per se, its just appealing to the bulk of the customers who interact with the company.

Read also: Adobe XD for Windows review: A powerful but usable design tool

Is Adobe doing that? Indirectly, but not directly. If this was solely what Adobe was trying to do, I'd worry about it, though, not be dead set against it. But that's more the job of the agency to support this, rather than the tech company, per se. To be fair, those lines, between an agency and a tech company, are getting increasingly blurry -- and have been for a while. Look at Infor's Hook and Loop internal agency. However, this is not Adobe's focus.

Consumable Experiences

This is the sweet spot for Adobe. I'm not going to focus on that (that's part two, coming either next week or the week after). I am going to explain this a bit though. This is where technology can not just impact experience(s) but actually create them and monetize them, too.

This goes back a long way. For the background, read this interview I did with Adobe's CMO.com back in 2016 so you get a good sense of where I'm going with this third experience.

Ultimately, this experience is created and consumable. "Created" means a designed commodity that has a purpose to evoke an emotion. This could be seen as a product or service, but it might be a series of one or the other or both. "Consumable" means both available to the customer as an offering, and more likely than not, monetized. Go to a great restaurant and, one way or the other, perhaps built into the cost of the meal ,you have paid for something that, when you leave, you think or say, "That was amazing." The food was amazing, as well as the service, the ambiance of the restaurant itself, the individuals who are providing the service, the ancillaries (such as a bartender with a flair who puts on a literal show in his/her drink creation), etc. That is a consumable (no pun intended) experience. The entire restaurant is geared not just to providing you with great food, but all in all, a great -- and memorable -- feeling. Go to Restaurant Daniel in New York City. When you leave, you'll know what I mean. Trust me.

Back to Adobe (and part two, coming soon)

While I'll dive much more into where I think Adobe is going, where it is, and what I think it probably needs to do -- if my opinion matters at all -- in part two of this post (either next week or the week after), I am actually more than comfortable with Adobe's approach and messaging, which, when it comes to customer experience, as a theme and a meme for a technology company, is something that I never thought I'd say. I will continue to maintain that, when it comes to the customer's overall experience (how a customer feels about a company over time), you cannot enable that with technology, which is why you have no such thing as a system of experience. You can enable engagement, for sure. But what I think you can enable is the creation of consumable experiences, which are a commodity or at least an actual thing. Adobe is doing just that and can thus justify its messaging and positioning and brand promise. How well it is doing that and what it is doing, I'll leave to the second part.

See you at Restaurant Daniel.

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