Is Content Marketing Killing Your Customer Conference?

I consistently hear from clients and colleagues how hard it now is to drive attendance to annual customer and user conferences. Many vendors do everything under the sun to entice customers to sign up, yet these events still suffer from below-goal attendance and a hit to the bottom line.

Why is this? Many of us remember when customer conferences were all the rage in the early-to-mid 2000s. Customers hungered for the vital information and vendor connections conferences gave them—needs that weren’t met in other ways at that time. So vendors raced to launch inaugural annual conferences, despite the years it usually took to break even on them.

So what’s changed? And what does this mean for the future of customer conferences?

I see three main reasons for this shift:

A fractured target audience for technology products.

Before, software was sold via perpetual license to an IT buyer—purchasing decisions on these high-priced, technical applications weren’t trusted to non-technical users or departmental leaders. At the same time, IT was often the application user, too—not just the buyer. So vendor user conferences were designed for a specific, succinct demographic and psychographic segment: information technology professionals.

But then trends like Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) and the consumerization of IT changed the tech landscape in a myriad of ways. As far as targeting users and buyers, though, they really mixed things up. The buyers aren’t necessarily the users. They aren’t even usually the day-to-day admins.

Also, thanks to SaaS’s common freemium model and easy-to-use apps, any employee can introduce an application into a company’s technology environment (barring integration and security policies that might be in place, that is). And with consumerization of IT, some companies even encourage this behavior.

As a result, line-of-business leaders from departments such as marketing and sales now influence technology buying—and renewal—decisions more. And their information needs and interests—essentially the reason why one attends a vendor’s customer conference—differ greatly from IT.

So, while IT is still very much involved in the buying process for most technology purchases and very much a target for event marketing, focusing solely on IT in today’s world means you exclude the critical, non-technical buyers, influencers, and users who could introduce, advocate on behalf of, or approve/veto your technology at any point during the buying cycle.

Customer conference competition and fatigue.

It seems nearly every vendor with revenue of at least $50 million offers its own customer conference. Vendors deluge end users and administrators with conference invitations, often competing for the same attendees. Recipients face a confusing flood of invitations, most promising the same vague benefits for attending one conference over another.

At the same time, many employees can only attend 1-2 conferences per year due to budget and schedule restrictions. They’re challenged to do more with less and make the most of their technology investments, yet most struggle to find time to step away from the office to do just that. And, if they do find time, the vendor has just one chance to deliver the relevant, compelling information the employee desires, or risk losing their attendance forever. So vendors are under intense pressure to make their conference more compelling, fun, and affordable than others.

But primarily—I believe content marketing is responsible.

Before, users and IT/application managers attended a vendor’s annual customer conference to get the information they needed to successfully deploy, integrate, use, expand, and manage the vendor’s application. This was their once-per-year chance to get detailed instructions and face-to-face help on how to make the most of their substantial investment. And let’s face it—IT staff back in the day didn’t get to leave the office much. An all-expense-paid getaway to a warm-weather vendor conference didn’t take much convincing.

Today, marketers—and the tools they use—are getting better and better at identifying and fulfilling their audiences’ specific interests and needs on an ongoing basis. Purposeful, persona-based content marketing can feed a near-constant stream of relevant information, helpful tools, and best practices to aid everyone involved in the buying, implementation, usage, and ongoing management of technology tools.

Thanks to content marketing, your audience no longer relies on a single event—your customer conference—for their ongoing technology education. So, unless you demonstrate that your conference serves more than just that basic need, attendee targets may have a hard time justifying their attendance at your event.

This is today’s reality, but it doesn’t have to be a harsh one. Content marketing doesn’t have to spell doom for your customer conference. By modifying your approach, you not only can keep your conference relevant—you can actually make it thrive. Here’s how:

  • Be uniquely relevant to everyone.

Take the time to create custom conference content appealing to each different persona using your technology, for example, target a range of people, from non-technical end users to IT administrators. Figure out what truly matters to each role, the specific business problems they face that your technology helps address, and what information they need that would compel them to attend your event over others they might be considering.

Once they arrive at your event, fulfill your promise by giving each role/persona interesting sessions that prove to be relevant and meaningful to them. Offer them networking and learning opportunities where they can connect with other people like themselves, in similar roles, who face the same challenges.

Effectively and properly serving the needs of all of these different roles and segments takes a lot of work. But the payoff is worth it. And there are different ways to do it. Some vendors create conference agendas featuring a different track for each role they target (IT, marketing, sales, etc.); others split their single conference into smaller, separate conferences targeting different roles/personas. There are benefits to each approach—do what works best for your audience and your company.

  • Focus on customer connections and customer stories.

Consistently receiving high ratings in post-conference surveys are the activities where customers meet, interact with, and learn best practices from each other: case study presentations, “birds of a feather” dining tables, customers-only networking hours … you get the idea.

So give them more of what they want—pack your conference agenda with as many of these activities as you can. Allow for and encourage attendees to meet and interact with each other. Coach customer presenters to really dig into the meat of their projects in their presentations—what they did, why they did it, what did they consider but decide against (and why), what lessons did they learn along the way, what would they do differently, what kind of ROI are they achieving, and so on.

In a nutshell, don’t merely regurgitate straight-up product or company information that’s easily found and understood online, no matter how interesting you think it might be. At your conference, give attendees value they can’t get anywhere else.

  • Think and act holistically, and timelessly.

No longer can you consider your conference a standalone annual event. Rather, your “annual conference” needs to morph into a continuous two-way conversation you maintain with each and every customer. By providing more value more often, you more easily and naturally sustain a long-term symbiotic relationship with an individual who is then more inclined to actively participate in any conferences you offer.

In this model, content marketing becomes the strategy for how you provide—via both online and offline interaction—the most relevant information to each persona on an ongoing basis, based on feedback continually received from them. Here, content marketing melds seamlessly with your online customer communities and customer marketing efforts, giving your customers a unified knowledge base and experience with which to interact.

When undertaken as mutually exclusive endeavors, content marketing definitely competes with—and even threatens—annual user conferences.

When viewed as peers, content marketing can, for example, help you identify topics most likely to entice people to register for your conference—the highest-rated, most-shared or most-commented on blogs, white papers, webinars, how-to articles, etc.

But when engaged as two complementary strategies supporting the same goal—fostering a long-term, mutually beneficial, two-way customer relationship via both online and offline means—content marketing and customer conferences can feed each other the critical insights needed to provide continuous value for users throughout their customer journey with you.

Do you have any tips for creating customer conferences that people are eager to sign up for? Share them here!