Building community

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Jeannine Edwards, director of the ConnectWise community, spoke to ITM about the role that events play in building rapport with the software firm's partners. The company hosts traveling events for its user groups that culminate in the annual IT Nation user conference. This November, the conference attracted more than 1,600 attendees to Orlando, Fla., and provided an anchor for nine events organized by partners interested in reaching out to the same attendee base. ITM: What is ConnectWise's overall events strategy? Jeannine Edwards: A lot of things that you might find under my department would fall under the traditional marketing umbrella, (but) we do things a little differently. When we decided at ConnectWise that we were going to focus on building a community of partners that would ... help us bring our brand to the next level, we knew we needed to have a department focused on that. The things that allowed us to do that included conversations with our partners in various conduits, and one of those conduits was face-to-face. Whether we were going to other events or our own user events, we knew that was an important piece of the strategy—just as important as having a consistent pulse in the social media world. We had seen that the concept of user groups had become popular but that there (often) was not a “tribe leader” of a user group or (that the group) wasn't funded. It typically would lapse, so we thought, “Why don't we create a platform for user groups, underwrite the user groups and allow our partners to come together and meet regionally to talk about this software and receive training.” That culminates at the end of the year in this user conference. Over time, we realized that we wanted it to be the meeting place for anyone—whether they were ConnectWise-related or were using some of our complimentary vendor solutions. I think a lot of people understand the importance of trade shows, and events and PR; but not a lot of people are putting it under an umbrella that is focused on building a community. The face-to-face piece is so important because, when someone buys a product that is imperative to what they do on a daily basis, they look for people who are facing the same challenges. And they look for a company to have a voice out to that customer base but also allow someone in that company to represent the customer base back to the executive management in the company. That is what our strategy is. ITM: The annual user conference is regularly sold out; what have been your growth strategies? Edwards: We used to do a free event. We started hitting critical mass, and event planning doesn't scale: The more people you have, the more money you spend. (Now) we have a room commitment, (and) we include the room charge together as a package with a small attendee price. We had organized the event for 5 years without doing that; but, as the event grew, we couldn't afford to do that anymore. As long as we focus on raising the bar on content, it makes sense to assess a small fee. It was scary to do that, but it segued fine. Last year, we had 20% growth; this year, we had the same price point and another 20% growth. The trick is that once you decide to do that—once you say, “I'm going to charge you”—you have to make a promise to keep on raising the bar on content. That keeps me up at night. Surveys are the most important part of an event (to the organizer). You learn so much. It's a big piece of how we grow and evolve over time. Throughout the year, during (events for) our regional user groups, we talk about IT Nation. About 1,000 people a quarter come to these user groups. It's an expensive proposition. It's not the users coming together and organizing; we're organizing. ITM: But it pays off? Edwards: There's a lot of talk about how you build a community. It's not about building a community; the community is already built. The community is your customer base. They're looking for conduits to bring them together. The trick is that, if you commit to that, you're also committing to a budget and resources—which is one of the reasons we pulled it out of the marketing umbrella, so it doesn't get lost.
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