Time to bring back the software user conference

Tech conferences are quickly becoming a waste of time. Here's how to fix them.

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Time to end the gimmicks

As an industry observer, I attend something like 40+ user conferences a year. My first industry conference, as a German native was of course... CeBIT in Hannover back in 1986.

Every tech company has a user conference these days. And is it just me, or are they all starting to feel the exact same? Same announcements, same message, same speakers, same venue. Rinse, repeat.

On top of this sameness, irrelevant gimmicks and lack of substance threaten to drag the tech user conference into obsolescence. But all is not lost.

Here are a few areas in which tech conferences are going astray, and a few ideas about how to fix them.

  • It's about the product. Users attend conferences to learn more about a vendor's software. So product needs to get a lot of air time. Yes, services matter too-but it's the product that people have taken time out of their busy schedules to learn about. Nothing is worse than going through the pain of attending a conference only to find out the conference is light on product programming. Conferences are for users-ensure they have plenty of meaty product-heavy content to choose from.
  • Have a motivational speaker that matters. Motivational speakers inspire user groups. But ensure the speaker has a message that relates to the software and to the users' business. As great as the Cake Master may be, a speaker with an irrelevant message isn't the best motivational speaker to have at a user conference.
  • Demo software. Many attendees are expert users. Vendors need to demonstrate they, too, are experts with their own product. The best way to do this is to demo the product. This is the most efficient way for conference organizers to not only show off their skill with the product, but demonstrate they understand how users will actually use the product in their businesses. On a related note, these demos must be live. Let us do away with demos consisting of screenshots, screencams etc. Remember, the audience is comprised of users who use the products every single day. It does not look good when an attendee returns from the conference and has to tell colleagues that the vendor did not show live software.
  • Subject expertise beats celebrity. Yes, user conferences are about inspiration, but a celebrity, soap opera star, or a talk show host is not something an enterprise software user can relate to their work and is definitely not why they spend 3-4 days and a few thousand dollars/euros to attend a conference. Conference organizers should err on the side of subject matter experts over celebrity. As fellow users, subject matter experts generate instant validation, trust and respect from a user audience. There is direct bond of being in the same boat that no celebrity can generate.
  • Limit the philanthropy. It's great for vendors to give back to a purpose outside of the software. But it should not be 50 percent of a keynote. Excessive philanthropy detracts from the value of the philanthropy and begs the question "what is purpose of the user conference?"
  • Users want to network. Vendors should give users a chance to network. Not just informally, but in a planned way. User conferences are a great opportunity to connect the right users at the right time in the right setting. Vendors have the choice to provide users with the platform to connect with one another, or stand by and watch.
  • Party hard but responsibly. Yes, customer appreciation is important, but vendors should ensure their attendees have a productive conference experience. Limit late and early events, give attendees a chance to sleep (so they retain what's being said next day), and make the conference a safe environment.

POV

What do you see out there? If you are a user or a vendor reading this -- share your observations from the recent user conferences. Is the conference industry heading in the right -- or not so right direction? And most importantly: in your POV, what is your ideal user conference? Please comment. See you at the next conference!

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