A growing vendor asked me about when and how it should consider hosting its first user group meeting. I surveyed readers for their opinions and received 44 responses. Thanks to all who responded – I’ve read every word carefully and summarized below. I think it’s fascinating.
Attendees attend UGMs to get education and to network with peers. Company interaction isn’t nearly as important.
Most respondents preferred an event produced by the company itself rather than by a user group.
Most Valuable Education Sessions
These were freeform responses, but the majority of respondents expressed a strong preference for allowing customers to present rather than the vendor. Some ideas:
- Big picture company strategy
- If I had to do it over again ….
- Customer roundtables
- Regulatory compliance training
- Tools and tricks
- Workgroup sessions for customers with a shared market challenge
- Hands-on customer sessions, such as best practices
- Customers describing how they use and derive value rom a product – are they using it in a way I’m not?
- “Did you know” sessions from the vendor
- Training sessions delivered by customers, but with vendor assistance to make sure the information is correct
- Information about upgrades and how to use new functionality
- Product road map sessions from the vendor
- Implementation lessons learned
- Integrating the product with other solutions
Fun Session or Event
- Customer panel
- A concert
- Beach party
- A casual wine tasting the night before the main session
- Closing down an attraction just for attendees
- A session just for newbies who need tips on how to network, how to join a conversation, what not to say
- CEO new feature rollout
- Dinner out with groups by individual signup – large enough to provide networking, but small enough to force interaction
- A general session with a hired speaker to motivate the audience
- An evening at a local farm with homegrown local foods and wines
- Sporting event
- Competitive events
- Team building exercise, such as group drumming
- Breaking out into groups and being asked to design new functionality
- Company party
- Attendees brainstorm new features and “sell” the idea to the vendor
- Panel session where the company was “roasted” in a professional and non-personal manner
- Theme night dinner
- Surprise slumber party – guests received a tee shirt and slippers, just a few tables, a room full of games like Twister, and finger food — the common dress and surprise nature made networking comfortable
- Group activity to support local charities – build bikes, create care packages for troops overseas, work in the local food bank
- Square dancing and dinner on a farm
- Learn more about product capabilities
- Specific product workshops by users
- Customers create the agenda and run most of the presentations
- Focused networking, like tables by topic
- User case studies about problems solved
- Every best experience involved networking
- Being invited to present about lessons learned and having prospective customers asking questions afterward
- Getting confirmation from other users and presentations that we’re on the right track with our use of the system
- A good keynote speaker from outside the company who presents a motivational message always sets the tone for everything else
- An EDIS competition among top competitor products
- Hearing gotchas from customers so I could avoid them
- “Seeing 30 kids being told they were to become ‘bike testers’ – after ‘testing’ the bikes they were told they could keep them. The squeals of joy, kids tears of happiness, parents of the kids with tears of gratitude, attendees with a lump in their throats seeing what they could do working together to bring happiness to someone else.”
- Vendor taking control of the meeting
- Standardized lecturing by company employees, more like a trainer session for “one size fits all”
- Company rah-rah at every session – get on with your discussion
- Boring speeches by executives telling me how great their product is
- Company-run presentations that turned it into a two-day sales pitch
- Go easy on trying to sell me something
- Rooms that were too small to hold everyone
- Execs talking about how great the company is and how lucky we are to have them as a vendor
- A pompous executive telling us the same thing every year – if you’re going to share your roadmap, make sure it’s paved
- Hard sell by the vendor of vaporware
- Bad presentations or poorly prepared presenters
- We present real-time issues and company leaders dismiss their significance to healthcare
- Vendor using their “top” customer as a mouthpiece – you attend a session thinking it’s a customer speaking and then learn they’re in bed with the vendor
- Networking events with music that’s too loud and everyone (especially the company’s employees) drinking too much free alcohol
- Sessions that weren’t as advertised
- Condescending speakers
- Lack of signs to get to rooms on time
Any city that’s easy to get to an inexpensive was the clear choice.
Case studies win, followed by informal chats and roundtables.
Offering CE credits isn’t essential.
When is it Time to Have the First User group Meeting?
- Size of install base and maturity of product
- Vendors need to lead their customers to what the marketing is doing – if you have multiple products and services, then get your act together and design the meeting
- Sufficient user size where the cost will benefit an expected number and quality of attendees
- User requests
- Number of users, demand for training, frequency of new products that require training, established groups at beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels
- When customers ask for peer references for best practices and when product complexity and changes can’t be explained in an email blast
- If your customers aren’t involved, don’t start one
- Multiple users that are geographically disparate
- At least 20 installs
- Clients are meeting informally on their own
- If at least a third of the user base is asking for it
- If the company doesn’t have a formal process to gather and respond to customer enhancement requests
- Size of the customer base – maybe 30-40 percent will attend
- In the first year, do it close to home so you can learn and get back to the office quickly to make changes
- When there are enough successful to-lives to make sure it doesn’t turn into a giant gripe session – there must be enough true believers for critical mass
- After 2-3 major updates or the first all-new release of the software, especially if the updates coincide with government, payor, or industry changes
- The vendor has at least 20 customers and actually cares about them
- When it seems customers are asking the same question over and over
Should The Meeting Have an Exhibit Hall?
Yes, it should.
What Can a Company Do to Create a Great User Group Experience?
- Keep it orderly, timely, and on track
- Keep the meeting to 1-2 days
- Make it easy to register and attend
- Have a customer panel for Q&A
- Make sure the company staff interacts with customers
- Have engineers attend – they will learn a lot about customer use
- Get topic ideas from customers
- Offer varied events, not just lunches and educational sessions, and include after-hours events
- Crowd source the venue and sessions from active users
- Make sure space is big enough for all attendees
- Repeat popular sessions
- Always offer vegetarian options
- Offer CEUs if possible
- Make it about edification of the current customer base, not a sales pitch
- Choose a location that’s travel friendly and inexpensive
- Make staff available, which is why you have it near your headquarters
- Advertise well in advance so customers can budget travel
- Provide hands on experiences
- Give customers something they can use to make their organization better
- Have good food!
- The company should provide support resources but not control the group
- Fewer sales staff at the meeting and more support and technical staff
- Less pitching of new stuff
- Use an advisory board to set the agenda
- Make sure the people behind the scenes who customers talk with but never in person are there
- Arrange good, clean, and safe accommodations
- Include a lot of case studies
- Allow customers to interact with each other and the real developers in the company
Advice For a Company About to Launch Its First User Group Meeting
- Designate resources to ensure smooth delivery–1 person can’t do it all re strategy, planning, communications, positioning, event aspects, as well as internal communication to staff involved. And don’t assume because the company launches with an email communication that customers will read it and understand what’s in it for them. Customer’s are spending money to attend and time out of their medical practice. Make sure there’s plenty and frequent advance notice and easy registration and staff available to answer my questions–pre and during the group meeting. Seek continual improvement–do a electronic post event survey–both to customers and internal staff.
- Make it as central to your user community as you can to reduce expenses for attending and announce it in enough time for me to get it funded to go.
- If you are going to hand out free swag, don’t make it too cheap. Better to not give anything at all. Also consider location carefully. A mix of a tourist area, easier to get to gives folks a nice excuse to attend. Forget Fargo in winter or any combo of Verona and cheese curds.
- Invite small group of active users (each should represent all regions of the country) to act as ambassadors/advisors to provide recommendations on sessions, venue, fees, etc. This group should also be encouraged to promote event to colleagues via social media channels.
- Try to imagine yourself as an attendee and what kind of service you would expect, and then go beyond that to knock their socks off…in other words, treat your customers like royalty and they’ll respond with loyalty.
- If you don’t already have an enthusiastic group of users who are willing to share ideas – don’t expect it to magically happen at your first event.
- no hard sales pitched. sell via education and solving client problems
- Start planning & advertising to base early. Make sure the location is experienced with handling such events.
- Be a facilitator, not just a presenter. Remember this meeting to to let clients learn from one another, not just from you. Manage the process to insure constructive feedback, not just bitch sessions. Have fun.
- Ask for your users to be active partners in the process. They know & use the product in ways you won’t expect.
- Get at least some of your frontline staff to the meeting, not just marketing. They are your day-to-day contacts with your customers, and they probably want to actually meet the people they spend a lot of time on the phone with. Your customers also want to put faces to names when they can.
- The lower the cost, the more users they will attract. Don’t make it free, because "you will get what you pay for".
- Select users to help set the agenda and overall experience goals of the conference. Select a mix of; great and not so great users; large medium and smaller organizations; encourage networking opportunities; Keep the message clear, simple and honest.
- Plan, plan, plan. Don’t expect to make money – it is an investment and will take several years to break-even.
- Pretty simple. If you make it a big company sales pitch, it will be the last UG meeting I attend. Your goal should be to increase customer loyalty by showing off a community and ideas. Your goal should not be to upsell.
- Re-evaluate if you really should. Make sure you have enough client support.
- Keep costs in line with expectations created, follow the old adage to deliver more than promised.
- Get a major client to host the first few meetings at their location.
- Get input from your customers using a survey or direct calling to gauge interest and get input on the agenda.
- Do It!