Client Summits Are The New Yoga

The news that wasn't news last week was the Google partner and advertiser conference. The event wasn't news because Google slapped a gag order on all partners, advertisers, reporters and bloggers who attended. So what happened there isn't news, but the fact of the event itself IS news: Google has joined the ranks of publishers who have added client summits to their event marketing mix. MSN and Yahoo! have been hosting such meetings for several years, while AOL began hosting partner summits in Virginia for their early Shopping Channel clients as far back as 1998.

Why add client summits to the mix? Many publishers have expressed an interest in producing their own client summits, lamenting their inability to rise above the clutter at shows like Ad:Tech, or a desire to create a high-touch VIP environment for major clients and prospects. But the most common reason publishers feel the pull of client summits is to control the content.

With a custom event expressly for their key constituencies, publishers can identify and edit case studies, afford senior executives featured--and unfettered--speaking roles, and craft panels where sales executives are hobnobbing with brands-you-recognize clients and budgets-you-covet media directors. They can also preview or release new products, demonstrate features or functionality that will increase clients' usage or spending, present proprietary research that demonstrates effectiveness, and otherwise position the company precisely as the marketing department desires--all in a distraction- and competition-free environment. Surely this kind of targeting and messaging control is worth the $100K-$200K investment for a suitably impressive seminar-soiree.



I couldn't disagree more.

If a publisher's objective is to deepen relationships with clients, spur greater usage and spending, differentiate in a meaningful way, and position its organization as a long-term partner, a client summit affords an unrivalled opportunity, but not by controlling the content--rather, by relinquishing control of the content.

Not a mini-expo, but a macro focus group.Patterning a summit after an industry event is dangerous, as no single organization can achieve both of the two things that industry events must do well in order to succeed: 1) present a spectrum of objective and educational content; 2) foster a productive peer-to-peer networking environment. It's true that client summits can present educational content, but it's rarely objective and can't possibly be as varied as at an industry event.

But the networking is the greater potential pitfall for client summits, as publishers and clients have very different definitions of "networking." For clients, it means exchanging ideas with peers and, occasionally, even competitors. For publishers, networking means selling, or at the very least interacting with buyers. Clients and media directors have no shortage of opportunities to walk into a conference teeming with salespeople who want to "network" with them. Rarely do they find themselves able to speak freely with each other about a specific vendor or partner, or directly to a vendor or partner, where the primary agenda is theirs, not a salesperson's. Metaphorically speaking, at client summits salespeople should remain behind the two-way mirror.

Tactically, this means that client summits should be programmed to feature clients. Let them present the case studies they're excited about, and the ones they're disappointed in. Poll them before the event to see what they want most to discuss, and create lunchtime roundtable topics around these issues.

Resist the urge to have your CEO or vice president of sales give a keynote presentation. Opt instead for an author or a pundit or other objective voice who speaks to your clients' interests, if not directly to your products.

Use every touch point in your programming, operations, and even marketing as an opportunity to learn what is on your audience's mind. Measure your success not by how many people attend, or by spending increases in the weeks following the event, but by the insights you gain, the changes to your existing offerings you feel compelled to make, and the pieces of constructive criticism you've received.

Not marketing communications, but market research. At industry events, most of the pre-event work is focused on the content and the speakers. At client summits, equal attention must be given to the attendees--not just in marketing the event to them, but in thoroughly identifying them so that the insights collected at the client summit can be appropriately categorized, analyzed and evaluated.

Look at the event as an opportunity to conduct not only fly-on-the-wall market research, but qualitative research as well. Learning in feedback forms that 13 percent of your attendees spend more with your main competitor than they do with you is interesting. Cross-referencing those feedback forms against your attendee profiles to learn that this 13 percent is responsible for 45 percent of your revenues for a certain product is mission-critical. Give yourself every opportunity to find something actionable in the data you collect, and get your market research staff involved from the very outset.

Not football, but yoga. Industry events are largely spectator sports. The objectives of most publishers who sponsor or speak at them are driven by competition - to gain an advantage over a rival, to win new fans through a display of strength, skill, leadership, strategy. Publishers say "it was a good show for us," if their executive spoke well to a full room, and their sales staff collected a pocketful of new business cards. And in truth, industry events do deserve a prominent place in publishers' marketing mix, for these very reasons. But crafting client summits to achieve consistently what industry events do occasionally is like mowing with your weedeater when your lawnmower is broken. Sure, you can do it--maybe once, after which either your weedeater or your back will surely give out. (Better to fix the lawn mower--but that's another column entirely.)

No, client summits are more like yoga. Not just because they are popular bordering on trendy. They're also ideal for self-examination, introspection, and brutal self-honesty, even if (especially when) holding a pose too long becomes uncomfortable, even painful. Use these unique opportunities to let your clients drive the dialogue, instructing you on what they need and what you don't do well. Create an environment where they feel listened to and clearly heard. You may feel they are punishing your good deeds by venting at you, but be patient--they'll inhale again.

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