Next week, I’ll be attending Dreamforce, a conference hosted by Salesforce.com. Looking at all the different sessions, expos, and locations being rented out for the event, I started to wonder how they could accomplish all of this!
But most importantly, why would they go through all the trouble to put on an event of this scale? Do they expect to generate and close new business? Will they encourage advertising options for future events? Is there any kind of ROI from this event at all?
I couldn’t ignore these burning questions, so to prepare for my trip, I decided to find out as much as I could about what goes into planning and executing a software user conference.
In addition to Dreamforce, I researched several other software companies and their events, to learn how and why they host user conferences. Here are my findings:
Dreamforce is hosted by Salesforce.com, a web-based CRM solution, founded in 1999. The first Dreamforce occurred in 2003, with just 1,300 attendees. Now, in its 11th year, the event is expected to to host 135,000 registered attendees from around the world.
With over 1,450 sessions, this conference is a business professional’s dream (see what I did there?). Thousands of industry experts are presenting, covering a wide variety of roles, including developers, administrators, and IT, on top of the usual sales and marketing folks. Salesforce.com is then seen as a brand that can distribute this type of information, making them a true expert in the industry.
Another benefit of Dreamforce is its access to hundreds of exhibitors. Want to learn more about how software can help your company? Talk to a number of different vendors one-on-one who can give you a personalized demo of their product and show you what it can do for your business; most booths are also giving away cool prizes in exchange for a quick chat! Dreamforce organizes all of this, making it the place to be if you’re selling or in the market for software.
Lastly, Dreamforce is just plain fun! Like I said, there are tons of chances to get free stuff (I’m a sucker for anything free!) and all you have to do is walk around the campus. Throughout the 4-day conference, there are many networking opportunities around the Dreamforce campus, from the conference-wide welcome reception to parties hosted by other attending companies.
And of course, the UCSF Benefit concert with Bruno Mars; other headliners over the years have included the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Metallica, Stevie Wonder, and the Foo Fighters. With so much fun to be had every year, it almost guarantees return visitors, as well as new registrants that were referred by past attendees. This ensures constant growth, demonstrated in this infographic.
Unanet provides professional services automation software for project-based businesses, on the cloud and installed on premise. Their annual conference is called the Unanet Champions Conference. According to Richard Hayden, the Senior VP of Marketing and Product Management, the conference is based around product education, sharing best practices, and leadership.
Unanet started producing the conference once they hit a revenue level of $4 million annually, and on average they host about 220 attendees at each conference. As far as ROI, Hayden says they treat the event as an “important part of our customer success programs, helping with retention and increased adoption of Unanet’s software.” They price the event to break even, focusing more on the benefits for their users rather than the company’s bottom line.
The Champions Conference offers Hands on Training and workshops, allowing users to learn more about project management. The sessions range from a basic “101” level, to more advanced concepts, such as resource management, forecasting, and budgeting.
Users that attend also have the chance to network with other Unanet users to discuss best practices and exchange lessons learned from their own experiences with the software. Additionally, they are able to learn about other capabilities of the solution that can improve their business processes.
“Attendees benefit from increased knowledge to improve their adoption of the system and identify new areas of usage,” says Hayden. “They leave inspired and empowered with the ability to implement new processes, improve on existing approaches, and with specific ideas to improve current business practices in order to increase management insight, and to save time and money.”
The Widen User Summit is produced by Widen, a provider of SaaS digital asset management software. They started hosting the event in 2012, when their revenue level hit $10-20 million annually, with 75 attendees, and are expecting 150 users to attend the event this year.
Uniquely, the event has been free to Widen customers, select evaluators, and partners! However, as it continues to grow, they will consider opening the summit to the public and charging for it, according to Jake Athey, Director of Marketing.
Athey also says that Widen sees a positive ROI from the conference, because since it’s free for customers, it provides a competitive advantage for their industry.
The Widen User Summit has proven itself to be extremely beneficial. Since starting the event, Widen has been able to cut their customer churn rate in half. Athey says they owe this to their loyal user community that attends the summit.
They also use the summit to drive innovation and the development of their software solution in-house, so that the company as a whole is ready to put their best foot forward at the conference.
Finally, Athey says that the event “unites a very engaged community for all to feed off of with the knowledge and inspiration and open feedback loop.”
Hosted by Miva Merchant, a supplier of e-commerce software, MivaCon is the longest running e-commerce event of its kind. Since 2001, they have hosted 16 user conferences, including new regional events for this year. Their national conference averages about 400 users per year, while the regional ones have seen about 150 attendees each.
When Miva Merchant started producing the conference, their annual revenue had reached about $2 million. As far as ROI goes for the event, Rick Wilson, President of Miva Merchant, says they run their conferences to break even, using the cost of tickets and sponsorships to cover all costs.
Wilson says their number one benefit of MivaCon is customer retention, training, and service. “In B2B software, unlike consumer software, our products tend to do a lot of things. Even when you develop a new feature it can be challenging to get adoption or even awareness of the critical new competitive features. User conferences are a great way to get your key clients focused on what your product can do.”
Aside from their customers, Miva Merchant also uses the conference to introduce prospects to the product: “[H]aving prospects see our existing customers face to face and be able to talk to them without our involvement is a great way to expand our brand and win new customers.” However, he does point out that this only works if you have happy, loyal customers!
Finally, MivaCon gives clients the chance to give their own feedback face-to-face. Wilson stresses how important this is for Miva Merchant to truly understand their customers’ needs. He says it tends to be more difficult and time consuming to gain this kind of feedback remotely, but they “can accomplish a lot more, faster with nuance when you’re in person with multiple customers.”
SoftServe Inc., a software application development and consulting company, hosts the SoftServe Innovations Conference. The one-day event usually draws 50 to 100 executive-level attendees. They began producing the conference when their revenues hit $15-20 million annually.
Unlike the events I discussed above, SoftServe tries to gain a return of 2-3 times the investment in the events. According to Mary Brandon, VP of Global Marketing, they “continue to deliver a return of 4 to 8 times the investment.”
The purpose of the SoftServe Innovations Conference is to “bring together the best IT minds, including well-known industry thought-leaders as well as SoftServe customers and strategic partners.” Brandon says that they use the event to increase business with their current customers, as well as build and strengthen the relationships they have with those customers.
In terms of new business, the conference is used to educate “…potential customers on the business value that SoftServe services and solutions bring to their organizations.” Their end goal is to close the new business that comes in.
Do you host a user conference for your software customers? Is it profitable or do you do it for other reasons? Share your experiences in the comments below!