RSR Research: Making the Most of User Group Conferences
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?