How To Host an Analyst Conference

by Dave Michels

This post is written to the analyst relations folks at UC vendors. The opinions below are officially mine, but several opinions went into the making of this post.

Most vendors in the Unified Communications and Collaboration space host annual analyst conferences. The purpose of the event is to share successes and strategies, and position th products and services moving forward. I believe each vendor to be unique, but uncovering the nuances can be tricky.

Some people view these events as an obligation, but I consider them a privilege. Senior executives happily answer questions and provide a peek at what’s coming. Also, interaction with the other analysts is always interesting – keep in mind you get to know each other as we attend so many of the same events. Basically, an analyst event is filled with great education, great people, great products, and great food. What can possibly go wrong?

Here are a few things to consider to ensure great future events.

Don’t attempt to impress with a fancy location. My vote is a city with a major airport, preferably an airport hotel. Almost the entire event takes place indoors in one or two rooms, so there is no need for exciting nearby attractions and beaches. I have been known to extend my trip to enjoy such activities, but that’s before or after the event. Some firms have excellent event facilities at their offices, but I prefer hotels. Sometimes urgent matters arise and being able to slip away to a private room to deal with such things is appreciated. Of course, the goal is to be ‘present,’ and that’s easier with the knowledge that fires are out.

What is the deal with (lack of) Internet? Several recent conferences didn’t provide Internet and that’s just silly. We regularly talk about how we can be connected anytime anywhere, the importance of mobility. Anywhere but at an analyst conference. Yes, there is a problem with ADD, so make those presentations lively. Seriously, I get that the Internet can be distracting, but so is running out of the room to process urgent matters. At one recent conference I processed messages during the sessions and visited the hotel lobby to sync my iPad during breaks.

And another thing – proactively communicate the event’s hashtag.

With or without Internet – there’s a good chance we are using our devices for note taking at a minimum. Give power to the people and provide lots of power strips. Think high-tech, not airport.

Analysts use the presented information in a variety of ways – reports, media, conferences, competitive analysis, speaking, etc. Obviously the more we know and understand, the more we can share, recommend, and accurately position the vendor. The kink in the plan is the NDA – non disclosure agreements prevent us from sharing, retelling, and justifying our conclusions. Personally, I take the NDA very seriously, so my request is that the vendors do as well. For example, putting “confidential” on every slide is somewhat crippling (or pointless). It is helpful when vendors share selected bits of pre-announced information, just make it clear what’s under NDA and what is not. Even when I’m wearing my media hat, I get and respect NDA and confidential. Make it clear.

Typically, the cone of silence is activated during the roadmap presentations. I find this information invaluable as it crystallizes the vision and shows commitment. My point here isn’t to skip the NDA part, but make it clear. Some vendors are particularly good about this.

Tell Us What you Want Us To Know
This may sound lazy, and maybe it is – but it helps. The fact is there are two kinds of messages at these events – standard issue statements and strategic differentiators. Every vendor is going to spin how they are open and committed to SIP and UC and collaboration. These messages are similar to late night ads and their “new and improved” or “wait, there’s more.” Yes, they are important, but in many cases I could write the scripts before I get to the event.

Then comes the strategic messages of differentiation such as “we are committed to [blank].” (channel, international expansion, simplicity, integration capabilities, etc.).  So just make the themes and messaging extremely clear from the get go – and then reinforce those messages throughout the presentations. Think of the analyst conference as a science fair project. Make your opening statement(s) and then prove them. Don’t let anyone leave confused.

Provide the Content
This is probably the most common mistake. The whole point of these events are to transfer information, yet the handouts usually come post-event or not at all. As a result, many of us focus our attention on hastily writing notes instead of actively listening. Unfortunately, many of us will no longer fall for the “slides will be available after the event” line. Easy fix, provide them in advance and let us focus on the message and conversation.

I have mixed feelings on hard or soft copies. I think it is best to go with soft copies – USB sticks and URLs for tablets. But sometimes I enjoy writing notes on the slides. Hard and soft seems wasteful, so let me suggest an ideal of soft copies with hard copies available for about 20% of the attendees.

No working lunches. It’s hard enough to keep up with content, note taking, discussions, side conversations, gossip, and Twitter without getting spots on my shirt.

There needs to be abundant quality coffee and teas – all day. Yes, hotels way overcharge for this stuff, just like most UC vendors overcharge for various options. The reality is both are necessary to get anything done. Not providing abundant caffeine is just silly. Don’t let it happen to your conference.

Generally, speaking ill of competitors in public forums is not good form. But these events are not general public events. In fact, most of the audience is trying to figure out exactly how the host does fare against the competition. We understand that each vendor has strengths and weaknesses, but what do you think they are and what are you doing about it?

On a related note, analysts generally regard other analysts as competitors. Avoid situations which could suggest a non neutral playing field. Oh, and it is perfectly ok to tell an analyst that he/she just asked a really stupid question and to think long and hard before asking another.

There is never enough time. There’s always more to the story, and more questions than expected. The schedule slips and then some things (usually the roadmap) get shorted. The best conferences adhere to a reasonable schedule.

Warning: Customer Presentation Ahead
There is absolutely nothing more important than what the customer thinks. But what the customer thinks isn’t important. In other words, sometimes customers need a little help in carrying your torch. We want to hear about their success with your solution, not their perspective on life. As one of my colleagues put it “technology analysts don’t want to hear about the company’s philanthropic founder, what awards it’s won, and how great a place it is to work. Technology analysts want to hear about technology.”

Repeat after me: always include demos in an analyst conference. Also, bring some hardware if you got any.

Don’t Be Fazed
Last point is not to let the analyst comments get to you, and certainly don’t expect an attaboy. Analysts are nit pickers and complainers. We critique the arc and color of rainbows rather than admire them. We will complain about the event’s date, location, food, and the selected font. It’s in our nature.  If you don’t get any complaints… worry.

These events are hard to pull off. A lot of coordination goes into them, and who knows what the cost runs. But they are worthwhile and highly appreciated. I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but I learn a tremendous amount at each one. I don’t think I am alone.