Thursday, June 21, 2012

Industry Events - Waste of Time or Customer Development Opportunity?

A colleague recently sent me her comped tickets to a half-day summit on social media and internal communications. Attendees are probably mid to mid-senior level managers at large corporates, but no rockstars or C-levels. The question is whether attending is worth the time.

Most startup folks would say no; these speakers are unlikely to say anything new about the topic that I don't already know, and the attendees probably aren't decision-makers. If I had to pay I would agree, but since I don't it gave me an interesting opportunity to reflect.
What if the benefit from attending a corporate event is not to meet power brokers or learn new ideas, but to understand how the people who will be driving adoption of your product see the world?

In the startup world we lose track of the digital sophistication of the rest of the world [1]. If you have a B2B startup, you are almost certainly selling to customers who are less digitally savvy than you. You will have to struggle to get anyone to care that your software is superior to the incumbents' because it can do XYZ thing that is so obviously important. Execs with high-level visibility might understand the company's pain points and how you solve them, but all lower-level employees see is the headache of having to learn a new tool when all they want is to do their jobs and get home to their kids. 

Depending on how badly they need it, the executive who buys and champions your product might be able to drive adoption against their employees' will, but that's an uphill battle. More likely your would-be buyer will say, "We're just not ready for this" or "we can't push this through IT," or worst of all, sign a contract and lead you into a rabbit hole of work only to find out that they never completed their part of the work to get your deployment live. Very few startups can "pull a Salesforce" and sell lots of licenses to senior managers while rank and file employees hate or don't use the product.

How do you learn what corporate users - not executives - want? How do you understand the innovation maturity of an organization, its readiness to assimilate new technology? Traditional lean methods are great when your customer is a single autonomous actor, but they fall apart when your customer is a complex organization with competing internal interests. The most common method in enterprise is to spend 10 years in the industry getting to know its problems, then go do a startup to solve them. This is great but it's not something you can plan for. Another method is to read industry publications and swap intel with other B2B entrepreneurs.

Could going to summits with the middle managers of the corporate world on how to use technology be an opportunity to learn this? To get a sense of their fears and motivations when it comes to adopting new technologies? To stay grounded in your customers' reality? It's an interesting thought - conferences as "user research." I haven't completely convinced myself of it, or that it's better than the alternatives. What do you think?

[1] Josh Kopelman wrote a great post about this back in 2006 that is as relevant as ever.

1 comment:

  1. This is a brilliant - and disruptive - use of conferences. In a way, almost the only use, because companies seldom disclose surprising information in presentations, and the same goes for start-ups. I attended a meeting of mid-level, some even junior, marketing execs for very large corporations, where a research company shared insights from a prohibitively expensive study they ran for a client. The audience clapped and all seemed to be going well, but at lunch, over cold cuts, the marketers, people whose work it is to sell a bank, an amusement park, or frozen soups - were wondering how useful this study actually was, and expressed serious doubts over the insights could be translated to an actual campaign. The analogy to digital entrepreneurs is obvious - and conferences are a great place to gain this outside, pragmatic (occasionally harsh) perspective from future B2B clients and endorsers. To illustrate - at BDI's (NYC, July 19th) Social Communications and Healthcare 2012 I'll be hosting a round table on measurement and assessment of social communication. This can be a great opportunity to hear what pharma and agency execs are really looking for in this domain.