9 tips for creating a great customer collaboration session

WordCamp Dallas - 2008

Last week’s trip to Seattle for the Microsoft for the Microsoft Technology Summit 2008 got me thinking about the power of bringing customers and employees together for open discussion. There’s been an up tick in both the creation of events like this, as well as the debate about whether they yield any real value. As someone who has created many, many of these types of events over the years, I absolutely believe in their power. That said, it’s also crucial to design and run the event effectively in order to gain real value.

Inspired by, but not based on the Microsoft event, here are my top 10 tips for building a great customer collaboration/engagement session

1. Define your objective
I don’t care what anyone tries to say, you can only have one first priority. In the case of these sessions, you have to choose whether your first priority is to gain ideas and feedback about the development (current and future) of your products, or if it is to generate excitement around your product line. Every other part of the event is based on which one of these two options is the priority of the event. This isn’t to say you won’t do both, but your decisions about the second priority will be driven by the first priority.

Here’s a simple example: If your first priority is to showcase the latest products to a group of influence and you’re only secondarily interested in their opinions of these new products you’ll likely keep a tight rein on the event schedule in order to ensure you pack in everything you planned. If, on the other hand, your first priority is to gain customer feedback and insight into certain products you’ll be much more inclined to let the schedule flex according to the level of participation.

2. Set the expectation on Day 1
From the first moment of the session, attendees should be told specifically why they’re there, the hoped/expected outcome of the event is, and why each one was chosen. It’s surprising how often attendees are just excited to be invited and never stop to think about (or ask) what they event is about. If done correctly, attendees don’t feel like they’re being used when they hear this info, they get excited to get started because they understand what is needed.

3. Choose the attendee list with purpose
A great session starts with a great group, and there is perhaps no greater decision to be made than who to invite. A great group will connect with each other, build off each other’s discussions, and perhaps even continue to work together after the session. Build the session with the smallest appropriate number of attendees, and make sure you know enough about each attendee to determine whether they will gel with the rest of the group. Create group diversity, but only with a specific niche. It sounds like a great idea to get stay-at-home moms together with C++ coders in order to gain a wide range of opinion, but in truth this range is too wide for anything effective to develop

4 Learn the group in advance
Hopefully you’ve already built up a connection to your community such that you know the attendees in advance. If not, make sure to do your homework on each one of them. Learn as much as you can about each person in order to understand their hot buttons, pet issues, and other relevant issues. If you have a small group, call each person in advance and talk to them a few minutes about what their interest are, what they hope to see at the event, and how their personality works. If you have a big group, put together a short web survey that asks both on and off-topic questions. The goal, as the event manager, is to understand when to bring up certain issues, and when to avoid other issues.

If you really want to be good, put together a “briefing book” for the colleagues that are attending that outline each attendee with a brief bio, a photo, the list of URLs where they can learn more, and a short overview of why they were invited.

5. Find a good facilitator
Hopefully the task of running the event falls to your community manager, someone who already has a known face to your community or who will have a lasting connection afterwards. What’s that? You don’t have a community manager? (You really should get on that) Find someone who has a good MC quality to them, someone who can not only keep things light and fun, but be one hell of a task master. Make sure they understand how to get a derailed conversation back on track. Make sure they can read an audience and understand the “bigger question” they’re really trying to ask. This person should be include in every stage of the event design.

6. Design the event
Customer collaboration events are something far grander than the last team meeting you set up. You’re trying to not only generate something specific during the session, you’re trying to build a relationship to the larger community through this small group of attendees. As such, every part of the event is a “design element”. Lost a lot of money last year? Probably not wise to cater in caviar.

While every element of the event warrants attention and care, here are two crucial areas that are too often overlooked:

  • The room: Are you hoping for open discussion? Set up the room in the round, with people facing each other rather than the front of the room. Subconciously, tables/chairs facing a single speaker says “Please don’t talk until the end of my presentation”. If the group is too big to set up a circle of chairs, think about breaking the group into smaller working sessions.
  • The goodies: If you have a company store, work in a trip. If you are putting people up in a hotel, have a goodie bag ready to go when they check in. Shuttling people around with a bus? Put a bag of M&Ms on each seat before they board. These small things have a huge impact on how well paid attention to each attendee feels. And the more pampered they feel, the more likely they are to share the experience with the larger community after they leave. (Microsoft had an inexpensive gift bag with an agenda, welcome letter, water, M&Ms, and breath mints when I checked in – Photo 1, Photo 2)

7. Invite colleagues, then train them on expectations
Unless your event design specifically calls for it, don’t stick your attendees in a room only with your team for the entire session. Invite your colleagues to come present what they’re working or participate in the session as members of the group. Just make sure to tell them in advance what the purpose of the group is and what you specifically want to see from them. (Share the briefing book too, if you’re created one)

8. Social events rule the day

More than just giving attendees a much needed break after a long day, social events serve several crucial functions. First off, they allow attendees to process the information they received during the day. The discussions that happen over dinner and beers will help each attendee understand the bigger picture, highlight things they didn’t catch during the event, and perhaps raise questions for the next day. Additionally, the social events give the attendees time (mostly) away from you to talk through their conclusions in a way that will improve the larger distribution to the overall community after the event.

Notice anything about those activities? They require talking and comprehension, so be sure to pick a social event venue that isn’t so loud it renders decent conversation unattainable.

9. Create a method of follow-up
No matter what style of event you put together, and no matter what the core purpose was, each of these events should drive a better relationship between the company and the overall community. The attendees of this event are community ambassadors, and they should be encouraged to take what they’ve learned and share it with the community when they get home. It’s important to clarify from the first moment of the event to the last what is and is not acceptable to talk about publicly. The default from attendees will always be to not talk about anything. If you ask them to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA), they’re likely to not share anything at all out of fear, regardless of how much you tell them they can share certain things. (One of the many, many reasons to skip the NDA)

Additionally, before the event starts think about building a Facebook group, an email list, a Ning community, or any number of others mechanisms where people can connect after the session. Introduce this connection on Day 1, and remind them on the way out the door. You’ll need to apply some basic community management skills to start and maintain the conversation, but getting people to continue collaborating is well work the effort!

Above all else, remember two things: You can’t plan enough, and your plan will need to flex the first moment the event kicks off. These session can yield some fantastic results and are great fun. What are you waiting for?

Update: John applied my tips to a recent experience he had at an Adobe event.

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