User Conferences Worth the Risk

I was really excited about GetTogether 2006, GetActive's third annual user conference, the day before it started in mid-September. We had secured a stellar keynote speaker, Seth Godin, had lined up an amazing group of presenters, and had carefully planned two days of networking opportunities for our clients. What could be better than having more than 300 of your clients in one room? That's always a good thing, right? With sales prospects and our biggest partners? And a Board member? That’s when I started to feel a bit queasy.

To tell you the truth, I was anxious long before the conference started. Before we ran out of vegan meals and I had to track down the hotel manager to replace the ham sandwiches. Before I became a tour guide to escort yet another client up two flights of stairs to their session. And, believe or not, even before the fateful ten minutes when I found myself having a beer with two clients who, unbeknownst to them, stood on opposite sides of every single political issue.

Getting all of your clients together for a two-day event can certainly be a risky proposition. We struggle with the pros and cons each year and ask ourselves the same questions: How do we design sessions that appeal to clients across various sectors? How do we react to a heated discussion between clients? Should we seat people with different political views far apart from each other? What will our clients say about GetActive and how will we react? Admittedly, the question "What do we do if we run out of vegan meals?" never came up.

After this year's conference we've realized that it's virtually impossible to think of everything. We can't anticipate every possible scenario, problem, or discussion. Our clients are human. They are used to interacting with people who have opposing political opinions, and they do have at least two things in common: they're passionate about their organization’s mission and they use GetActive.

Like anyone with something in common, GetActive users like to talk. They enthusiastically shared stories about their experiences. At first, I was on edge about users swapping stories about GetActive but quickly realized that clients get more out of the product and learn more about leveraging our products when they share experiences. They talked about what they love about our system, what we should improve, and what we should build next week. This sort of collaboration is how they learn as clients, and how we learn as a company.

We encouraged clients with similar missions (e.g., the environment, LGBT issues) or in the same sectors (e.g., education, associations) to sit together at our "Birds of a Feather" luncheon. They talked about ways to improve their online communications with constituents and they told us they wanted to continue these group discussions at next year’s user conference.

Clients attended sessions geared towards their areas of responsibility (online advocacy, fundraising, peer events), and interacted with speakers who presented case studies and ideas about how to use GetActive more effectively. Some of our smaller clients wished that we had more ideas and solutions that were better suited for organizations of their size. Other clients were eager to return to their offices to implement some of the ideas that they had learned during the sessions or over lunch with other GetActive users.

During the conference, many clients provided video testimonials describing their positive experiences with GetActive. I was amazed that so many people voluntarily lined up in front of a camera to say what they thought about our company, our product, and our account managers. For me, this part of the conference made me realize the strength of the community that we have -- a true ecosystem of clients, partners, and employees who are sincerely interested in helping each other use marketing strategies and software to make a positive impact on society.

Providing a space for clients to be open with us and each other creates a circle of trust. Clients know they are getting straightforward information from us, and we get the "real deal" back from clients, which translates into our providing the products and services they'll actually need and use.

When the conference ended, users continued to communicate with each other via email, listserves, and blogs. On her blog Betsy Harman of Harman Interactive wrote about Eric Helmuth, director of Internet Strategy and Communications at Join Together, and his presentation. Don Wedd at Center for Economic Progress shared a tip on facilitating viral marketing through GetActive's Tell-A-Friend feature. Judi Sohn of C3: Colorectal Cancer Coalition was so impressed with Madeline Stanionis' that she has already implemented some of her suggestions in a recent action alert. Judi was pleased that the conference succeeded at addressing "big issues that affect nonprofits in general, and practical solutions for GetActive users". Thankfully, I have seen only one posting commenting on the food.

I'll dare to admit that user conferences are as much for the company as they are for the users. These events present unique opportunities for us to hear the candid feedback of our clients, talk to them one-on-one (and many-to-many) and gauge their reactions when they see sneak previews of new product features. Sure, we have irrational fears that people might gang up on us and ask us questions we'd rather they didn't, but that is a fact of life at a user conference. And you know what? It's not a big deal when it does happen and you find yourself in an awkward situation with a group of clients. It's at times like these that I realize what a good job we've done at building strong relationships with our clients - founded upon mutual respect. We're on the same team and we communicate openly with each other so that we can take our respective organizations to the next level. So when a client told us to put notepads in our goodie bags next year, we added it to our list. And it came right after "have more sessions for smaller organizations", but before "lighter on the ham, heavier on vegan".

Now, more than a week after the fact, when I watch the client testimonials for the twentieth time, and think back to the smiles on clients’ faces when they met their account manager in person for the first time, I realize the so-called 'risks' of having a user conference are irrelevant. Business is about taking risks, and user conferences are about learning. And learn we did - clients, partners, and employees alike. The count down is now on for GetTogether 2007.

Sheeraz Haji is the CEO and founder of GetActive Software, Inc.

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