RSR Research: Making the Most of User Group Conferences

Jun 01, 2009
Nikki Baird

By Nikki Baird, Managing Partner

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion
is an excerpt of a current article from Retail Paradox, Retail Systems
Research’s weekly analysis on emerging issues facing retailers.

User group (UG) conferences are rapidly taking the place of
prominence for learning about new technologies and capabilities, replacing
the trade show, in my opinion. Four years ago I attended more trade shows than
UG conferences. Now, I find the reverse. But it actually means you have to
work a little harder to get what you want out of the conference. Trade shows
give you a lot in little bites. UG conferences require careful planning of
sessions and a healthy dose of chance encounters with the right people.

There’s something of a pattern to UG conferences: the big
picture overview, the inspirational speaker, the case studies, product updates,
and then the hardcore user advisory group/council business. But I’ve noticed
that there is a lot of variability in how much each of these is provided. Some
of this seems like common sense, but you’d be surprised.

My take is that there should be something of a balance between
case studies and product updates. The case studies should preferably be fresh
– people who have rolled out or began a rollout since the last UG. And the
product updates should be half formality (as in, most everyone already knew
it was coming) and half
“here’s what we’re hearing we should look at next.”

However, for as much time as you devote to the combination
of case studies and product updates, you should devote at least that much time
to your core advisory group. From what I’ve seen, the best way to do this is
before the general sessions start. I’ve seen some vendors overlay them over
sessions – which drains your sessions of your most passionate users, and I’ve
seen some hold the advisory councils after the general sessions are over, which,
if you have big issues to deal with, can be disruptive to the event.

I know there’s a temptation to hold the advisory meetings
last as a way to keep people staying over, but the reality is users are there
because they need you and/or love you. They’ll stay. And if they can’t stay
that long, they’ll fly in late for the advisory stuff anyway.

Recognizing that more people might be “lone-wolfing” these
conferences than before, vendors should also reconsider how they enable networking,
especially in cases where it’s a large community and not so closely knit. Any
way you can facilitate those chance encounters (for example, by creating conversation
places or times at events, rather than blasting music or announcements), or
through creative games – believe it or not, casino nights for prizes actually
works really well.

The one thing I can say about every user community I’ve spent
time with is that if they’re involved enough to take time out of their lives
to engage with the vendor, they’re there to learn and to share – and they are
more than happy to do so. But it’s up to you – vendor and retailer both – to
create those opportunities in the first place.

Discussion Questions: What do you think of user group technology
conferences versus trade shows? What’s the ideal conference setup for getting
the word out on emerging retail technologies?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.

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10 Comments on "RSR Research: Making the Most of User Group Conferences"

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Pradip V. Mehta, P.E.
Pradip V. Mehta, P.E.
11 years 11 months ago

As companies find ways to economise, it makes sense to have User Group Conferences instead of trade shows where the attendance is more of “general” people as opposed to “specific” people, and where attendance is also declining.

However, a balance between the trade shows and User Group Conferences may be most effective as opposed to the one or the other. Trade shows are good for establishing contacts and getting the word out about products and services. In my opinion, a trade show followed by User Group Conference may be quite effective!

David Dorf
11 years 11 months ago

I agree with Nikki’s formula, and I think it’s especially important to foster conversations between users. Avoiding common mistakes, finding innovative solutions, and getting validation on approaches are extremely valuable ways to leverage the group’s expertise. Every attendee should walk away with more product and industry knowledge, and also a wider network on which to lean.

David Zahn
11 years 11 months ago

It has been my experience that the “sharing between peers” is the most effective way for users to generate ideas and practical insights. Secondary to that is the host company (technology provider) making presentations or demo’ing applications. After that, the “talking head/commercial” type presentations lag far behind.

The more the discussion can be at the practical and tactical “case study” level, the more impact it has. A trade show struggles to offer that in most instances, and replaces it with flash and “WOW” in the booth–but little time to talk and address issues.

Steven Collinsworth
11 years 11 months ago

User Group Conferences are much more complete with informative presentations of the subject matter at hand. Whether it is market research, software, or a specific technology, the User Group is a simpler format to obtain additional training, provide feedback, even networking with other people involved in the same or similar line of work.

Trade shows are proving to have less value than ever before. They were at one time a fantastic avenue to announce new products, promotional campaigns, etc. For many companies they do not provide the value required to continue the expense for a suspect ROI.

My personal experience has been they were at one point an avenue for overseas companies to network with companies searching for alternatives (both retailer and manufacturing). The drawback to User Group conferences is they seem to work best with more sophisticated technologies, processes and software companies.

M. Jericho Banks PhD
M. Jericho Banks PhD
11 years 11 months ago
Trade shows used to be about selling, too, most of which disappeared years ago. After that, the workshops, meetings, comfortable shoes, and a steak at Harry Caray’s became the most important considerations. This fundamental change, plus the prohibitive cost for retailers to send people to the shows, spelled their demise. To add insult to injury (or dumb to dumber), retailers have never required their trade show representatives to prepare and present reports upon their return. No learning, no wisdom, no value. So now we’re apparently evolving to face-to-face UG (interesting acronym) conferences for information exchanges (but still no selling). The few I’ve attended seemed to place getting organized ahead of substance and review, and that’s to be expected early on. Per the various comments already offered here today, many organizational options will be explored and evaluated, with the benefit of many more UG conferences being available for flow-testing compared to the number of trade shows. Progress should be rapid. I’m curious, though, about the countless predictions of online video conferences becoming the UG standard. I… Read more »
Liz Crawford
11 years 11 months ago

When it comes to technology, the interpretation of innovation is as important–maybe more important–to understand than the technology itself. Furthermore, having third-party commentators on the most recent innovations is an advantage to the attendees, who appreciate more “impartial” remarks than vendors typically give at tradeshows.

James Tenser
11 years 11 months ago
Let’s call out the elephant in the room: Retail trade groups have utterly dropped the ball when it comes to presenting compelling content at their events. No wonder the vendor-sponsored user groups are stepping in with private label events to fill the void. There was a time (a few years, not decades ago) when the major associations and commercial trade shows presented vibrant and fact-filled conference programs that presented case studies and real-world practice experience for the benefit of attendees. The content made the trip worthwhile. The networking soirees were a bonus. Today, the top retail/tech events of 10 years ago are either defunct or de-clawed. Members of the trade press are staying away in droves–because there is little or nothing to cover. In contrast, the last few user group conferences I attended had some actual case studies presented by actual retail users and decent catering at lunch. No contest. Most of the large trade associations have a crisis on their hands in this regard, in my opinion. (I happily call out NARMS as an… Read more »
Cathy Hotka
11 years 11 months ago

I worked at retail’s biggest trade association, and can tell you with some certainty that they’re n. They’re about not about content, or networking, they’re about money for the trade association. Technology companies have wisely picked up the ball that Jamie Tenser notes trade associations have dropped, and have created intimacy and loyalty at their own events. Many of the tech companies I work with are reducing their booth space to focus on more productive marketing opportunities. I think they’ll be happy.

Mark Lilien
11 years 11 months ago

User group meetings are the best way to evaluate a supplier’s products. Not demos. Not “references.” Not internet research. By listening carefully you can find businesses with similar complexity and you can learn about the strengths and faults of the products you’re considering. And you won’t be “led” by the supplier because you’ll meet the complainers as well as the true believers and everyone in-between.

Trade shows usually depress the daylights out of me because so little is new and so much is bluster.

Vahe Katros
Vahe Katros
11 years 11 months ago
I saw this and had to do a dump, unedited, maybe there is something useful in this, a nugget or a memory. I was the designer of retail systems conferences at it’s launch. That meant creating the agenda, picking speakers, basically the look and feel. Tom Friedman was smart enough to stay out of my way, and I was a pain; I was an early adopter. At the time, I had left Filene’s where I did most of their new technology stuff on distributed platforms (PC networked databases, etc, the tools and manuals…back then, someone like me would do all the work from specs, to design, code, implementation and pager,) BTW, we had a great group at Filene’s federated with a team that eventually went on to be CIOs, and Heads of Consulting Companies. It was great, Anyway, I left Filene’s because I had the feeling that I needed to learn enterprise computer networks intimately so I went to a college and became network manager in a place where things like VMS, Unix, the then… Read more »

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