Vendor conferences let them control the message


As I write this week's Editor's Corner, I'm on the way to San Francisco to cover the BoxWorks Conference. This is significant for a number of reasons, but certainly the fact that a relatively small player like Box is holding its very own user conference is one of them and it shows how popular these vendor-driven events have become.

In fact, it's fairly remarkable that this is the second BoxWorks Conference. Aaron Levie and Dylan Smith created Box in the proverbial dorm room while in college in 2005. By 2010, Box began to focus on the enterprise in earnest, and Levie and Director of Communications Ashley Mayer showed up at the AIIM conference to meet with analysts and the press. Over the next 18 months, they continued to gain traction and funding. Last year, they added the first user conference.

I've thought about this trend away from the general conference where lots of vendors contribute, to the ones where a single vendor is the entire focus. From my perspective, a single vendor conference is not ideal, but from the vendor's, they get to control the entire message. That's why we've got EMC World, The SharePoint Conference, Oracle Open World and's Dreamforce conference--and some of these are huge affairs. At their recent conferences, Salesforce had 90,000 attendees; Oracle 50,000.

And it's not just the big vendors, as Box shows. Just about every content management and enterprise social vendor out there has a user conference now, a chance to get their most loyal customers in one place and bombard them with their company message for a couple of days is too enticing to ignore.

One of my complaints last year when I attended the SharePoint Conference was that there were no outside voices. We heard from Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) executives, partners and SharePoint customers, but not one independent voice. It's all well and good to try and get the most loyal customers revved up about what you're doing, but when a person outside the organization, who is not directly affiliated with your product or services delivers a high-level message about the overall value of your approach, that's even more powerful.

To Box's credit, they seem to understand this, so in addition to keynotes from CEO Levie and GM of Box Enterprise Whitney Bouck, they are also having former Apple SVP and Nest Labs CEO and founder Tony Fadell, Fortune writer Adam Lashinsky, and Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen. These people will likely not be there to fawn all over Box products and services as much of the rest of the conference is likely to do.

I don't know for sure what their message will be of course because I haven't heard their presentations or been privy in advance to their topics, but at least the potential for another message is there and that's a heck of a lot more interesting to me than all Box (or any other vendor), all the time.

While I'm at BoxWorks, I will interview Levie and Bouck and I'll talk to some customers. I'll cover the major announcements--and I have to assume there will be at least one or two. What's the point of gathering all your users in one place and not give them something new and exciting to take home with them to push the platform to wherever it's going next.

I'll attend some sessions too, and I'll look for the stories hidden in the seams of the conference beyond what's obvious, but like all vendor-driven conferences, I'll have to sort through the propaganda to find the stories behind the stories.

The days of the general conference may not be dead, but they are not resting comfortably either. That means, for better or worse, we need to deal with vendor-driven affairs. And that just forces me to work a bit harder to find the meaning behind all the messaging. - Ron