As an industry observer, I attend probably something like 40+ user conferences a year, and from a longitudinal perspective I have been attending them since 30+ years, working for software vendors. My first industry conference, as a German native was of course... CeBIT in Hannover back in 1986...
So a few observations based on my recent experiences...
- It's about the product. Users take time from their busy jobs to learn more about a vendor's software, that they already use or plan to use. So product needs to get a lot of room. Yes, services matter, too - but it's the product that matters in the first place. Savvy vendors will make sure they have enough in the product pipeline for a key user conference. If there is nothing there at the user conference - not a good sign.
- Have a motivational speaker that matters. Motivational speakers are great to inspire a user group. But it has to relate to the software, to their business. As great as the Cake Master maybe, that is not the motivational speaker to have at a user conference. Ok, to have one motivational speaker off topic - but it better be inspirational and the boss of the attendee can get the value already by name dropping of the speaker.
- Demo software. Many attendees are expert users. Vendors need to show they are experts, too and know their product. The more hands on an executive, the better. But software needs to be shown, it's the one and powerful opportunity for a vendor to have ALL of the attendees see something. Wasting the opportunity is like setting fire to the marketing budget - for nothing. And a demo needs to be live. Too many demos that are screenshots, screencams etc. Vendors need to remember - their users are in the audience, their customers, and 1000s and 1000s of them have to use it every day. It does not look good when an attendee comes back and has to tell the colleagues that the vendor did not show live software.
- Subject Expertise beats Celebrity. Yes, user conferences are also about inspiration. But a shows star, soap operate protagonist or a talk show host - is not something an enterprise software user can relate to for their work and why they spend 3-4 days and a few thousand budget dollars / euros to come to a conference. Vendors show offer subject matters, if push comes to shove from the user base. There is instant validation, trust and respect from a user to another user presenting. There is direct bonding of being in the same boat and sharing experiences from that. No celebrity can do that. Glamour effects don't last.
- Limit the Philantrophy. It's great for vendors to give back and share a purpose beyond the software. But it should not be 50% of a keynote. It takes away from the value of the philantrophy and begs for question on the purpose of the whole user conference.
- Users want to network. Vendors should give users a chance to network. Not just informally, but in a planned way. We are only quarters away from Facebook / LinkedIn et al waking up to the opportunity to connect the right users at the right time at the right conference. Vendors have the choice to provide the platform - with all benefits - or stand by and watch.
- Party Hard but responsibly. Yes, there is customer appreciation and its important. But vendors are in charge that their attendees have fund and are safe. 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.