Hosting a conference for customers is an intriguing concept for many companies. If expertly planned and executed, a customer conference can be a rewarding experience for everyone involved. However, these high-visibility events are fraught with potential pitfalls. Some organizations fail to gain the marketing traction they hoped to achieve from conferences, while others enrich relationships with customers by developing conferences that are thought provoking and educational.
DirectConnect chats with Michael Fisher, SVP of sales and marketing for the Americas at Alterian, about how companies can ensure their conferences keep customers returning again and again.
“We’re in the software business, so we go to user conferences all the time. We support 80-some marketing services providers throughout the country. So, we’re always at conferences, and too many of them are always about the company holding the conference,” says Fisher. “We decided our conferences should be about our customers and more importantly, about their customers.”
Alterian’s annual customer conference, the “Engaging Times Summit,” is held in its base city of Chicago. The company says that attendance has grown every year. Alterian held its sixth event in August and drew nearly 500 registered attendees. “This year’s conference was wildly successful,” says Fisher.
Your company and your conference must be customer-centric. “It’s appropriate for your company to hold a customer conference if you center your business on customers,” says Fisher. “Until you understand that customers are the key component to success, you’ll always struggle to maintain relationships because you don’t really know who your customers are. It’s the same thing with a conference. Until you wrap your conference around the customer, you’ll struggle to have a successful event.”
Programming is about the customer, not you. Along with keeping an eye on current trends and hot topics, Alterian gathers research and solicits feedback for potential programming topics from many sources. These include customers, prospects, the analyst community and partners — just “as good marketers should do anyway,” says Fisher. This year’s event focused on the socialization of brands, and social media was a component in the cross-channel coordination strategy. “Last year’s summit was all about engaging customers. Next year, our summit will be tied to measurement and attribution around engagement and socialization,” he says.
Bring in the best speakers for the topics offered. Once Alterian’s summit planners decide on conference topics, the search is on for the best speakers on those subjects. Alterian’s 2010 Summit speakers included industry leaders from Epsilon, Dave & Busters, Western Union, Walgreens and American Greetings, to name a few. Keynoters included Engauge Chairman Stan Rapp and Don Peppers, founding partner of the Peppers & Rogers Group. “We’re not putting on an Alterian commercial,” says Fisher. “We’re providing thought-provoking content. Everybody is going to learn something new.”
Create opportunities for networking. Fisher says Alterian’s conference planners make sure there are lots of networking venues and opportunities for attendees to mingle. “In between educational sessions, we always host something on the rooftop, or we go watch a ball game. We have all kinds of different venues for people to sit and chat — indoor, outdoor, bleachers, whatever they want to do,” he says. “So, it turns into a networking event where the content and commentary is very much tied to what we learned today.”
Create an event that satisfies clients and provides your company with new insights. “It’s never a field of dreams. We don’t build it and hope they come,” says Fisher. “We feed them. We give them drinks. We ask them to speak. We listen to what they have to say. We figure out how we can help them.”
Make the conversation compelling. Every single Alterian customer was represented at the company’s 2010 Summit, says Fisher. “We bring together top brands that want to talk to their peers and constituents. More than that, they want to talk with the service provider network we work with,” says Fisher. “More than 60% of attendees have scheduled strategic follow-up meetings with us. That, for us, is an outcome that is extremely successful.”