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Reflections on VMworld

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It’s been over a year since I’ve posted a blog here.  The last time I posted, VMworld was just over and the feeling of community with the various people I’ve met was strong.  Now that almost a year has passed it’s time to look back on what VMworld actually meant to me.

What a year it’s been!  On the one hand, I haven’t written nearly as much – here, or anywhere else – as I would ideally like.  On the other hand, I’ve made a lot of headway getting various business-related arrangements dealt with.

In many ways my world now revolves around VMworld.  Before one VMworld is over I’m already working with clients to plan for the next.  Everything in tech marketing seems a sprint from one major conference to the next, but VMworld is the big one.

Looking back on VMworld

I spent an awful lot of time analyzing VMworld 2013 from an intellectual standpoint.  “What does it mean to your career” or “what does it mean in terms of making connections with vendors/the community/etc.”  I think I’ve been asked to write that schtick at least a dozen times since then.  It has been analysed and reanalyzed so many times that I think to rehash that from an intellectual level is pointless.

So instead, I want to analyse VMworld from an emotional standpoint.  Without allowing myself to head too deep into things, what are the surface memories?  The bright, sharp emotional moments that float to the surface?

My clearest memory of VMworld 2013 is vBeers.  It was a tweetup held in this hot, cramped bar called the Chieftain.  I remember sweltering.  I remember ordering too much to drink…and I remember encountering some of the best people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting.

The counterpoint to this would be a vendor party I attended that was absolutely flaccid.  There were very few attendees, a lot of marketing and chest-thumping by one of the company founders…and not a lot of prominent community members.

The entire event was basically some hoary old executives who all used work together way back when pretending they didn’t despise each other.  They managed it just long enough to see whose  social status had changed in the interim since the last phallus measuring contest, then it was back to trading pointed barbs and a quick evacuation of the premises.

I remember the worn, harried look on the faces of Matt Stephenson and Rick Vanover.  Normally possessed of boundless energy, the event sucked the life out of them and by the end they were mere shells so obviously needing a good vacation that I wished I could do something to help.

I remember certain influential individuals engaging in name calling on Twitter, where they attacked a startup full of good people for no better reason than that this startup had the termidity to compete with a startup their friend worked at.  I remember the sinking feeling of losing respect for those individuals who – until then – I had held in the highest of esteem.  It felt like having your childhood heroes die.

There were booths; so many that they blurred into insignificance and there were interviews and food that I wasn’t sure was food.

Above all, I remember the friends I made.  For all the exhaustion and the heat, the too many parties and the overdoing it on multiple fronts, I made some great friends at VMworld 2013, and that made every moment worth it.

How to succeed at throwing VMworld 2014 Parties

If you are running a VMworld party, let me give you some free advice: nobody cares about your product or your company.  What they care about is meeting and greeting the people they know, or have only “met” on social media.  They want to meet their friends’ friends.  They want to talk, and socialise and that has some very real consequences for how to design your party:

Make sure you have some “key influencers” going. I don’t mean “key influencers” in terms of “these people have highly read blogs.”  I mean “people that other people actually want to spend time with.”

You can have one of the top read blogs of all time but still be an arrogant, egotistical douchecanoe.  Don’t invite these people.  They probably feel they’re too good for you anyways and so you’ll just expend innumerable resources trying to get them, only to have nobody show up because – in truth – nobody can stand being in the same room as these guys.

Instead, troll the vExpert pages and do some research on twitter.  Who are people that other people seem to be eager to meet up with?  If you’re in a bind, reach out to other marketing types who know the VMworld scene for who the charismatic friendly types are.  The community is great, you will get helped.

Don’t try to talk about your product at the party. If your party is bumping, people will remember who you are.  Make sure you give away a bit of swag to all attendees that helps them remember who you are, maybe with a little “thanks for coming” note by your CEO and a very brief blurb about what you do and why people should care.  Give them a link to follow what will contain some nice short intro videos and your various whitepapers.

Don’t crank the music up to 11.  People don’t go to these parties to be deafened.  They want to talk to their friends.  To you.  To everyone.  They want to socialise, and they can’t do that if they can’t hear themselves think.

Don’t cram the place so full that people can’t move.  You want people to move, to mingle.  You want them to make friends and to associate your party with positive emotions a year down the line.  Those positive emotions will become associated with your company, and that right there is the holy grail of marketing.

Consider adding a panel discussion or two to your party.  You are at an event full of nerds.  Believe it or not, inviting a bunch of them to a place where you will give them intellectual stimulation in their chosen profession, food and tasty beverages pretty much guarantees they will like you.

Parting thoughts

People are tired, harried and stressed out at VMworld.  It is their natural state.  Try to work around the other parties going on during the event, and the major items at the event itself.  Many people will want to attend both your party and those of other vendors…even your competitors!  Consider pre-arranging transport not only to and from the event but also to and from other major parties.

Special needs should be taken into account.  Someone with a wheelchair might not be able to take a regular taxi (though a towncar or most of the vans will generally work.)  Someone with special food considerations might be a little upset if the only food on offer is yummy, yummy bacon.

What will really set you apart from the hundreds of other companies that blur into insignificance – either at an after party or in the event itself – is to make the people you are reaching out to feel special.  Virtually every vendor treats attendees like so much chaff to be sorted in the desperate search for wheat.

In the age of social media, remember that even that “chaff” that you dismiss and discard as not relevant to your short term tactical requirements can have far more influence than you suspect.

The goal of VMworld should not be sales.  Very few people attending VMworld are in a state of mind conducive to making rational purchasing decisions.  Your goal should be to raise awareness of your company amongst those who attend, and amongst those who don’t, by means of social media amplification.

Focus your resources on one singular question: “how can I make the lives of the people attending this conference less stressful?”  Succeed, and you will have turn a random bit of “chaff” into a staunch evangelist for your company.

Pull that trick off enough times and, instead of leaving this spectacularly expensive industry event with a handful of new customers and a few thousand e-mail “leads”, you’ll walk away with an unstoppable army of believers.

Addendum

Chris Dearden has a dissenting view to offer:

Its a great Article & I agree with many of the points in it – working for a vendor that I believe does VMworld pretty well ! It all comes down to knowing your audience-being able to staff a booth with smart people to talk technical, to providing something a little higher level for the less technical but influential people – many delegates will have come along with their boss, who ultimatly may hold the purse strings. If you can sucessfully connect at both levels that you have a really sucessfull event.

Panel sessions at a Vendor party ? possibly a little far for me ( personally ) There is a lot of info to take in at these things, so I’d personally want a little bit of time to let my mind rest.

I absolutely agree that “knowing your audience” is the key to victory, be it in love, a military campaign or in technology marketing.  My personal experiences and understanding of the VMworld event state that “non-technical individuals” are in the distinct minority at these events.  That said, I could be wrong.  Alternately, you could be desiring to target “non-technical individuals” instead of – or in addition to – technical ones.

In my opinion, there is no party or booth design, no marketing campaign, no sales pitch that is universally effective.  It is a statistics game.  Who are you targeting?  Why are you targeting them?

Are you targeting the exact same people or companies that every other startup – and all of the majors – are targeting?  Are you irrelevant in the face of overwhelming competition, or have you found a niche where you can be profitable, and expand outwards from there?

There is an old Native American saying that goes “if you chase two rabbits, you will lose them both.”  No individual or company can please everyone.  You must decide whose affections you need to draw.

Where my advice differs from traditional marketing, sales and the established mantra of extant vendors and startups is that I honestly and earnestly do not believe that targeting the CIOs of the Fortune 2000 at conferences with slavish obedience is going to net you victory.

Every single vendor, sales geek and marketing nerd at every single conference wants a piece of those same individuals.  If you blur into insignificance for me, a nobody, imagine how antlike you appear to them.  How many times have they had the same pitch? Seen the same fevered desperation in someone’s eyes?

How likely, really, are they to leave their established “preferred vendors” and pick you…and do you honestly and truly believe in your heart of heart that it is the hurried pawing at them during a conference that will win the day?

The above reasoning is why I recommend a different, more community focused path.  It will help you reach out to more than just the same Fortune 2000 companies that everyone else is targeting.

This could well help you find a profitable niche.  But also because it could well help you create trust and respect amongst a community of vocal evangelists that could translate into a grassroots movement around your product…or even your community managers.  (See; Veeam, Unitrends and even VMware itself.)

I respect Mr. Dearden’s opinion in this matter, and I respect him as well.  He has a great deal of experience and knowledge, and – quite frankly – he plays in richer waters than I do.  For all my florid prose, I am still small time, and still a Silicon Valley outsider.

Consider both opinions.  Consider the evidence of your own experience.  Discuss with your coworkers and even your competitors.  Choose for yourselves the best path, and good luck to all of you.

Enjoy VMworld 2014!

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