Anthony Kennada, VP Marketing at Gainsight on building community and conferences

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we held our first conference less than 60 days on the job. And we had I think 3 or 4 customers at that time. The reason we did really was, in our case at least, this new market really had some excitement around it and so folks are really hungry to help find community and build community.

Gainsight is building and leading the Customer Success industry. Anthony Kennada, VP Marketing at Gainsight is responsible for managing Gainsight’s entire marketing funnel from brand development to customer marketing.

Anthony is credited with creating the Pulse community of Customer Success leaders. Today, over 2,000 executives attend the annual Pulse Conference in San Francisco and the over 25 chapters of PulseLocal communities across the globe as well.

Anthony was a guest on The SaaS Revolution Show podcast where the topic of conversation was about building Community and Conferences. The Podcast is available to listen to now on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher.

Below is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation published as a Q&A. A must read for members of the Customer Success community and for B2B SaaS companies looking for insights in building community and your own company conference.

These days there’s so many conferences. There’s conferences for growth. There’s conferences for hyper-growth, traction, for inbound, for outbound, social selling. What’s your view on this explosion of conferences for everything?

I think one of the big, overall trends that has led to the rise of conferences into the marketing mix of most SaaS companies is no longer are we shipping products and then removing our financial success from the success of our individual customers with that product. When you sign up to become a customer of a SaaS product you’re really kind of joining a country club, for lack of a better term. There’s rites of membership and there’s different things when you’re in the club of that one particular vendor. There’s emails, there’s webinars that are just for your customers. There’s a lot of value-added service that SaaS companies are really putting in front of their users.

I think they’re doing it for a number of different reasons. One is to really help drive their adoption of the product. One is really brand, to help stay front and centre of the community. And the third is probably just overall the typical customer marketing mix of driving more referrals or driving a higher NPS.

Conferences really have become a great value-add to membership of becoming a customer of a SaaS business. It’s a great way to meet with your customers in person, to celebrate and to learn and develop best practices. I think a lot more vendors are really starting to put this even further up the funnel and say, hey, if we’re delivering this celebration of our customers and value that we’re ascribing to the product, it’s really also providing a lot of value to drive new customers in and showing them how our customers are really engaging with our solution and then how happy our customers are.

That’s what I think has really led overall to conferences seemingly popping up for every SaaS business. Today, it’s becoming almost a default. It’s part of the marketing mix.

This year about 150,000 people attended Dreamforce, over 4 days. What were your key takeaways from this mega-conference?

Conference is almost the wrong term at this point. They bought San Francisco for a week. I think the average hotel rooms were going something like US$900 a night, which is probably 2-3 times the normal cost. And you hit the nail on the head. They brought in a ship to host people just because of the capacity met on hotel rooms.

Honestly as a marketer, it was pretty awe-inspiring to see just the community that Salesforce has built. And the way they positioned their event is less of a product-oriented event but more of a community-oriented event for anyone that’s really building Cloud products whether it’s, In the past, their real focus is on B2B but today, connected devices, IoT, consumer-oriented tools. Really anyone that’s building a business in the Cloud has a seat at the table at Dreamforce and that’s pretty awe-inspiring.

To your point you have to really be careful. If you’re a CRM customer and you happened to work for a company who used HubSpot over Salesforce, you would have been in Boston the week before at Inbound. There’s certainly a calendar challenge issue as you mentioned it because of the availability of so many of these types of events.

But I think the focus is really going to be on the vendors. And I guess the pressure would be on the vendors to really build a compelling event that can win over both customers and, as mentioned earlier, steal some folks from Inbound, get them to Dreamforce. Or steal some folks from Dreamforce and get them to Inbound and sell the value proposition there.

It’s going to be really interesting to see how this plays out over the long term, but certainly I don’t think as we look at the calendar next year there will only be more and more events, more and more conferences oriented around the technology businesses for sure.

If you’re a B2B SaaS company, can you afford not to be at Dreamforce?

One reason is the opportunity cost of not being there is way too high especially if your competitors are. As we looked around the Cloud Expo, which is the sponsor hall at Dreamforce, there were I think 400 or so vendors exhibiting. It really is a prime opportunity to get in front of the potential customers, really evangelise your brand. That’s certainly a reason why.

Also, because in our technology and the world we’ve chosen, I guess, here in technology companies, there is a geographic bias sometimes a little bit to the Bay Area. When Dreamforce host their events in San Francisco, whether or not you’re even coming to the conference, your customers are probably here, or some of them are at least. So there’s now become this whole ecosystem around the conference where a lot of companies aren’t sponsoring but they’ll do a buyout of a restaurant across the street or a pub down ways a little bit. And they’re picking folks that are in town for Dreamforce and they’re having conversations there.

I think if you are a B2B SaaS business you have to have some type of Dreamforce strategy or a major conference strategy whether that’s direct sponsorship or otherwise a more guerrilla marketing approach.

Moving from the large end of the spectrum, Dreamforce, to the smaller end, how important is it for SaaS companies to be involved in communities and smaller events such as local meetups like PulseLocal? 

What we really sort of learn a lot from was what the folks in the marketing automation world have for quite some time now have been advocating for. It’s this concept of the informed buyer. People come to your website and before they ever click the contact sales button, or whatever the case may be. They’ve already read two articles, they’ve downloaded an ebook, they have a pretty good sense of who you are and your kind of core value proposition.

There really exists a focus, a need for a focus on what the folks at Marketo call earlier-stage content. So talking about best practices and a lot of core-operational conversations versus technology use cases. That tells us folks are really wanting to have conversations on strategy before talking about buying your product.

What we at Gainsight have done is we’ve been really focused on building and evangelising this new market called Customer Success. And with that, there’s been a focus to answer a lot of questions like, “How do I compensate my CSMT?” “What’s the job profile of Customer Success Manager?” “How do I build the right internal processes or justify the case for an investment in customer success?” All these questions, what we wanted to do was to help build and facilitate the networking opportunities for those around the globe.

It started with a conference that happened in San Francisco, as we had mentioned earlier. But really there’s a need for folks that both come to the conference wanting to continue that conversation when they get back home, also for folks that honestly don’t come to the conference and it’s a chance for them to connect with their local community, meet other folks that are just as passionate about customer success and compare notes and share their scars and together build that core strategy.

For us as a vendor in this space, we think it’s a win-win in that we can help kind of leverage our database and our best practices and a lot of the conversations we’re having to help provide value to those communities with the hopes that one day customer success is just as big of a space as sales and marketing and some of the other core parts of the business. So it’s a long-term investment for us. Honestly, we think about it sort of as an offline content marketing play.

We’re super excited about PulseLocal, 25 chapters so far and growing in EMEA as well.

Is there a good benchmark for B2B SaaS companies to start thinking about when they start to build their own Pulse conference or their own PulseLocal? Should they be doing it today or when they have 20 customers or 100?

I have a controversial approach to this. So I don’t know if everyone would agree with me on this, but we held our first conference less than 60 days on the job. And we had I think 3 or 4 customers at that time. The reason we did really was, in our case at least, this new market really had some excitement around it and so folks are really hungry to help find community and build community.

Tactically, the way we did it honestly was we gave our customers stage time to really be able to share their knowledge. We looked at our prospects and we offered them the opportunity to be a part of it as well on stage as well as tapping the network of our executive team and our investors to help build a one-day event. Or for some businesses a half-day event could really do.

And it did a lot of things. First of all, it helped to line our brand with the movement very early on. It showed our investment in thought leadership and category marketing from the early days. It also helped us, our customers really appreciated the opportunity and then honestly it helped speed along our conversations with a lot of our prospects in the early days.

From my perspective, I don’t see a net negative to doing it extremely early being bold. Certainly there’s budget constraints but I think there’s a way to do it in a very cost-effective way, but ultimately getting both brand and demand gen as well as customer success value out of the investment.

Gainsight’s conference, Pulse, is now it’s in its third year. It’s grown from 300 to 2,000 people this year?

Yes. We just finished our third year for the U.S.-based event. Just over 2,000 people here. And excited to have our first event in Europe in the U.K. happening on October 29th.

What can we expect from Pulse Europe and who should be attending?

We’re definitely excited. I think the Customer Success community is burgeoning in Europe. Everyone, I think, has the same degree of excitement that we see in the States.

I think what we really want to do is to bring all the folks in the community together, as many as the London Hilton will let us bring, and really do three things. One, just have a conversation around the best practices.

And by the way, it’s not Gainsight on stage. It’s folks from the community. So we have great speakers from DocuSign, from a company called Bynder, from a lot of different leaders in the local Customer Success community there. Have those discussions on stage.

The second is to really facilitate live networking opportunities. So we’re going to turn the mike back into the audience a few times and create a lot of discussion with folks in the audience and then have a number of sort of social events surrounding the event.

Then the third is celebrate. Honestly, this is maybe weird, but I guess it depends on what conferences you’ve been to in the past. But we like to have a little bit of fun as well. The reason is all the folks today with a Customer Success job title we think about it are pioneers in this new industry. We’ve had 2,000 pioneers I guess in San Francisco and now we’re hoping about 300-500 in London.

But in the future, these are the future Chief Customer Officers. These are the future VPs of Customer Success who will point back to the early days of this industry and say, hey, I was one of the first to be a part of this. So we’d like to have fun and celebrate and find ways to really help together build this community.

Those are kind of the things that we’re hoping to bring to the conference in London and we’re just thrilled at the opportunity to be a part of the conversation there.

What is more important at a conference: To do business? Learn? Or to have fun?

I mentioned earlier the big reason we do this is to help educate the community. So I’d have to say that the learning from each other is really the key important value here. There’s not going to be a Gainsight sales pitch. There’s not going to be any of that going on. The conversations are really around some of the core problems in customer success today and how can we as a community together help build the stories.

And by the way, some of that conversation is completely different in Europe than in the States. Our intention is not to really package up the conversations from the conference in May and then deploy it here but really have very targeted conversations around what is the state of the union of the industry in EMEA. What are some different local challenges around maybe languages for success and support, data, residency and some different kinds of issues there? How do we build and scale a team? What are the differences between a U.S.-based company with a regional office in EMEA versus a pure-play startup, kind of born and raised in the U.K. and in EMEA. These are different nuances to how we deliver customer success.

Learning those, having a conversation around those, and really anything else that dovetails out of those core conversations is what I would say is the key reason to come to the event.

How long does a conference like Pulse take to put together?

Not 60 days anymore. Yeah. A long time. So I’ll say this. We’re already well into planning next year’s event in May here in California.

So we’ve gone from a place, I think, in our first year where we drove 300 folks there where it took honestly 60 days. That definitely wasn’t by design. It was I think by happenstance that we’re able to kind of pull it together.

The second year took about I would say probably 4-6 months of planning and we drove about a thousand people there. And then this past conference probably was a similar time scale of where we are today to drive 2,000 plus. Honestly, it becomes a full-time job for someone at the company.

So we have someone now who’s on staff that runs the May conference year-round. I think you get to a place where if you’re looking at hosting your own conference and then scaling that event not just as a customer event but as an industry conference, then certainly that’s a 12-month process at least. If you can add more time on the calendar as a marketer you can kind of hope you could.

What is your favourite conference, outside of Pulse and why?

That’s a good question. I think answering Dreamforce would be a cliché.

There’s a company based in Toronto called Influitive. I’m not sure if you guys already know them but they’re really in the customer advocacy and advocacy marketing space. They do a phenomenal job with their event. It’s called Advocamp. They held their first one last year out here in the Bay Area and I think the second one is already on the calendar for next April, I believe.

What I love about them is they follow the same type of approach that I think we do with Pulse is that there’s a ton of great content and that really ought to be the central focus of the event. But business folks are people too, right? Like we’re not just on all the time. We have this human desire to want to be entertained, to have fun, to not take ourselves too seriously.

They do a really good job of bringing in a lot of different brand components like… I have a quick example. The stage at Advocamp was built around to look like a camping sort of with a tent and a fire and all the fireside chats where campfire stories with folks gathered around the fire.

They’re cute little things but I think those things help differentiate from stodgy events of our sort of the generation before. I’ll say the airport hotel with the basic lighting package agenda, coffee on the hotel menu.

Things are different and Influitive really takes that seriously and really I think that helps play to their benefit of having a memorable conference experience and not just a run-off-the-mill conference experience.

Anthony Kennada was interviewed by Alex Theuma

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