User Conferences, Pigs, Wigs, and Lipstick

I’ve been traveling a lot recently (including a nice vacation at Club Med in Mexico) so please excuse the hiatus in posting.

In restarting, I thought I’d blaze out of the gates with a controversial marketing rant on user conference branding provoked, in part, by a Stephen Arnold post on his Beyond Search blog about (what I consider) the disguising of Nstein’s user conference.

Stephen comes from a different place than I do; his focus is to question whether users should attend these topical, vendor-driven conferences or topical, vendor-neutral ones? In some sense, I think he’s taking the bait. Fact is, these supposedly topical conferences simply aren’t: they’re user conferences wearing wigs and lipstick.

Don’t believe me? Then see the descriptive copy on Nstein’s site: “… to create a unique user conference for executives & technical developers …” They buried it, but it’s there.

My question to marketing VPs is simple: when did “user conference” become a four-letter word? Why do marketing teams insist on dressing their user conferences up in wigs and lipstick? Examples:

  • Endeca’s Discover
  • Nstein’s Innovation Leaders Summit
  • Business Objects’ Insight
  • SAP’s Sapphire
  • Cognos’ Performance

I have three problems with these faux-topical conferences:

  • They’re brand dilutive. Does Nstein really believe that people will say, “hey Joe, are you going to the Innovation Leaders Summit this year?” Sure, given enough size and money you can actually achieve that goal — people really do say “are you going to Sapphire?” — but even when you succeed you fail because you’ve diluted your branding. What’s more, if asked, “hey Joe, what’s Sapphire?” he’ll say “the SAP user conference.” All you’ve done is to create a synonym, and where’s the marketing value in that? And, sure as the sun rises, marketing will print the conference brand on all those bags and t-shirts in 10x bigger type than the company brand. Heck, I’ve seen examples where they fail to print the company brand at all.
  • They’re misleading. A disguised user conference isn’t a topical conference. If you went to the Insight conference hoping to hear case studies of how people have used Cognos or MicroStrategy to gather insight from data, then you were sorely disappointed. If you’re going to the Innovation Leaders Summit, don’t expect to hear how Elsevier, Oxford University Press, or Nerac have used MarkLogic to innovate in publishing. Good marketing doesn’t deceive.
  • They’re confusing. Reversing the prior case, whither the poor Nstein user who wants to learn about product directions, network with fellow users, meet with product developers, and visit with corporate executives? Should he go to the Innovation Leaders Summit? No, he’ll think, it couldn’t be something high hifalutin like that. By misnaming the event you appeal to people who shouldn’t be there and fail to appeal to those who should.

I’m fine with themes. I think user conferences should have them to provide a unifying element to the program. And I think the themes should be topical. But when it comes to names and branding, just keep it simple.

  • Call it the XYZ user conference, as we do at Mark Logic (“Discovering Agility” is the theme, not the name.)
  • Or emulate Fast and Cognos who (now) use simple variants of the corporate brand that pretty clearly indicate it’s a user conference (e.g., FastForward, Cognos Forum)

Aside: Some might argue that Sapphire falls into the second category. While Sapphire clearly does not try to position the event as something topical (i.e., there’s no confusion with a gemstone conference), I don’t think it qualifies a good, simple variant either because the company is called S-A-P by some or “sap” by others and when you say “sapphire” you make neither of those sounds. SAP Forum or SAP World would be better imho.

Sure, there’s an appeal in giving your user conference a sexy name. And, yes, everybody else does it. But does that make it right? No. Does it make it good marketing? No. Does it serve your customers? No. All it does is train them not to believe you.

By the way, if you want to host a real topical conference, go for it. It’s a great idea, and I’ve done a few in my day. But if the event is your user conference, then just call it that. Don’t worry: if you have users, then they’ll want to come. (And if you don’t, you have deeper problems than your conference name.)

By the way, I’ll see you at the Discovering Agility conference — just kidding– at the Mark Logic User Conference in June.

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