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Microsoft ISV Invests in Community with User Conference

As independent software vendors (ISVs) look for ways to sustain growth in a changing market, building a strong community of partners and customers should be at the top of the list.

By investing in experiences beyond software, ISVs can create customer advocates and a deeply committed channel. Getting people together face-to-face for learning and a bit of fun is a proven way to build those connections and community.   

Over the three years that Solver Inc., a Microsoft gold business intelligence ISV, has been holding its annual user conference, attendance has continued to build. "Last year we had 170 attendees and this year we're expecting 200," said Matt Felzke, communications and event marketing manager for Solver. "We have a combination of partners and customers -- about 70 percent are customers."

Initially launched as a customer event, Solver's BI360 Focus conference has evolved to include both customers and Solver's reselling partners.

"We take a lot of pride in our partner ecosystem," Felzke said. "We added a full day of partner training last year. This year we are adding a consulting team track to the sales/marketing and developer tracks that we offered last year."

Sponsorships have also evolved over the tenure of the event. Originally, sponsors were selected based on how their solutions complemented Solver's BI360 business intelligence add-on for leading ERP solutions. When additional ISVs expressed interest in gaining exposure to partners, it was a concept that the Solver team had not considered. That interest led to a second level of sponsorships.

Based on his experience, Felzke recommends being highly adaptable as you plan and organize a complex event like a user conference. "Don't get locked into anything. Be ready to adjust to new ideas like the new sponsor level. Be open to expanding the experience based on ideas from customers, partners and vendors," he said.

Planning for the next year's event starts immediately after the conference. Dates are set and a venue selected so that people can put the conference on their calendars. Registration fees are set to approximately break-even with Solver's out-of-pocket expenses for the two-day event.

To plan educational content, Solver's executive team meets soon after the conference ends to brainstorm. A top goal is to offer unique content that will keep attendees coming back each year. While popular events are repeated, keeping the content fresh is important to give attendees a reason to return. Session evaluations help Solver to continuously improve the quality of content and presentations.

Sessions are taught by Solver's consulting team and internal experts, including developers and the support team. Combining classroom presentations with hands-on labs gives attendees a choice in learning methods. Solver employees feel they learn as much as attendees through the added insight they gain from face-to-face interactions with customers and partners.

When planning a user conference, Felzke recommends that you balance education with fun. "Make sure that the conference you are putting together has a good balance of learning and socializing. The networking and social function of the event is very important," he added. "Our event includes beach volleyball and an amazing race. It's important for your attendees to feel like they got out of the office for more than just hard work."

Committing the resources to support an event of this caliber requires management that sees past immediate returns. "While the return on investment for the event is hard to quantify, the benefit to all involved is clear," Felzke said. "Helping our customers use our solution more effectively is very important. We see more revenue from our participating partners. But the event really builds the energy and momentum of our community -- that's the biggest win."

Personal relationships go a long way in building a strong user community. There's no better way to establish and strengthen those relationships than in person, outside of the office, sharing experiences with professionals who have common interests and goals. For those partners willing to make the investment in sizable customer and partner events, the payoffs appear to make it all worthwhile.

How are you building community with your partners and customers? Add a comment below or send me a note and let's share the knowledge.

Posted by Barb Levisay on August 12, 2015