Take it From a Former Road Warrior: User Conferences Have Come of Age

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When Dorothy told Toto, “I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore,” we all got it. When the ball players in Field of Dreams kept asking Kevin Costner, “Is this heaven?” we got that too. And when software road warriors caught themselves wondering aloud what they did to deserve a sentence to trade show hell, well, you don’t have to be a salesman to appreciate the point.

Having spent more than 30 years in the software game, I thought I had reached my fill of trade shows and all of the related logistical nightmares. For years, user conferences were saddled with similar baggage (sheep in wolves’ clothing). But not anymore — at least not based on my experience of the last few years. Done well, user conferences bring customers and qualified prospects together in increasingly engaging formats. They have become staged, anticipated events, if not exclusive, peer-to-peer gatherings.

The best conferences you’ll attend happen as a result of the host company having first and successfully developed its user community. Throwing the event isn’t just about getting everyone together but cultivating their energy. It’s not only an opportunity for the host to reveal a bit of its soul but also a way to turn an already happy customer into a passionate evangelist.

I experienced it at Coupa Inspire earlier this year, and I happen to be writing this post while headed home from a user conference hosted by Prodigo Solutions, held this year at Boston’s Partners HealthCare.

Prodigo has developed an internal “marketplace solution” designed specifically for acute health care providers (i.e., large hospital systems). With several of the nation’s top systems in tow, it’s fair to say Prodigo is generally regarded as the dominant player. And as much as Prodigo hates being described as the “Amazon of healthcare” (the solution suite delivers so much more), it’s a quick and dirty way to generally describe the company's core capability.

For example, beyond driving compliance by automating and controlling the requisitioning process, Prodigo effectively extends ERP, supports integration schemes that automatically update electronic patient health records and provides health systems a point of service-driven way to manage their performance against heavily negotiated direct distributor and GPO agreements/contracts.

As a result, the company has the opportunity to bring genuinely like-minded people together who share a common bond over the work they do. Everyone seems to enjoy it, and it shows.

Prodigo stages its event in a way that encourages users to share experiences and techniques. In addition, it moves its annual event from one major customer venue to the next, allowing bragging rights for its hosts. And that’s a great thing, because in healthcare, there’s a shared altruism that is unquestioned, serving to keep all care providers pointed in the same direction: improving the lives of patients.

That said, about 7,500 user conferences will happen this year. So what do the great ones have in common? They will cater to their designated tribe, deliver content ranging from shoptalk to social factors — maybe even deliver an appeal to everyone’s inner nerd. And naturally, they will serve up a little adult fun. By no means am I an expert, but when these things go well, it’s hard not to notice it. Call me a conscientious observer.

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