Measuring the Value of the ESRI User Conference

I spent this past week in San Diego at the ESRI User Conference with approximately 12,000 other GIS users.  This is my 13th User Conference and I always find it an awesome experience.  It provides me with the opportunity to learn about new software capabilities and best practice technique.  It allows me to reconnect with my network of ESRI staff, partners, and customers.  And it provides me with a venue to introduce new potential customers to our software and services expertise.  The ESRI UC is always a wild cacophony of learning and experience sharing and tremendously enjoyable.

But how much is this experience worth to me and to my company?

I have been thinking a lot about this question lately.  We are, after all, in the grips of the most pronounced economic contraction in my lifetime.  When every nickel counts, how do I measure the return on the financial investment required to send six people to San Diego and rent space for a booth?

I my last post, I discussed my opinion that closed sales or even qualified sales leads are not the right metric to measure conference value.  A conference is a marketing investment, not a sales exercise.  The purpose of marketing is to raise awareness of our business value to the market and to our partners who may be able to refer sales opportunities to us.  The most effective way to communicate this marketing message is through one on one conversation.  This is why a conference booth is an effective marketing tool.  It provides a graphical focus for your marketing message and an established presence where you can schedule specific conversations or strike up conversations opportunistically with trade show attendees.  The high value piece of the message delivery, however, is always that one on one conversation.

This year, I have tried an experiment with my personal conference experience.  I wanted to try to quantify the number and character of significant conversations that I had at the UC.  For the purposes of this experiment, I considered a "significant conversation" to be a conversation that lasted at least 15 minutes and discussed our capabilities.  I broke the conversations into four categories: ESRI Staff Members, Partners, Existing Customers, and Customer Prospects.  As an added wrinkle, I tracked where the individual that I talked with was from.  I think that the results of this experiment are pretty interesting, I hope you will too.

First of all, lets look at the overall volume of interactions and how they are distributed.  The table below illustrates the volume, timing, and classification of my various conversations throughout the week.













































It should be obvious from this table that it was a pretty busy week.  It is an average of about 20 conversations each day.  Remember that my criteria was that in order to be counted, the conversation had to last at least 15 minutes.  Some of these conversations were in the context of meetings with up to 10 people and lasted over an hour.  Others were more focused one on one discussions for 15 minutes to a half hour.  There were many, many more 5 - 10 minute introductory conversations that happened in the booth that I have not included in this analysis.  Any way you measure it, this analysis indicates a very heavy level of activity throughout the course of the week.

The next thing that is immediately apparent is that almost three quarters of the conversations were happening with ESRI staff or other business partners.  This is not any surprise to me.  We have been an ESRI business partner for over 10 years and have a very close relationship with several of the regional offices as well as the ESRI Europe and ESRI Singapore offices.  Our relationship with ESRI is a significant source of leads for us and it is very important that we keep a "front of mind" position among the ESRI marketing industry managers and regional account reps.  We also do a lot of teaming in the course of our business so it is natural that a large number of my conversations would be with teaming partners.

Next lets take a look at the geographic extent of these conversations.  The map below shows home cities of the people involved in the conversations we have been talking about.

ESRI UC Conversations ESRI UC Conversations

You can see immediately the wonderful geographic diversity of the folks that I was able to engage during the conference.  What may not be so obvious is that often a single meeting would involve people from different parts of the world.  One conversation I had included people from Paris, Brussels, Boston, and Washington DC.  Another had people from San Diego, Santa Barbara, Minneapolis, Charlotte, and Boston.  Having a venue that has people assembled from all over the world in one single place offers a unique opportunity to have conversations that would be extraordinarily expensive in any other way.

So, is there any way to put a financial value on these conversations?  Well, one way would be to estimate how much it would cost for me to travel to each of the source cities to have a conversation with these people.  My "back of the napkin" estimate is that it would cost me $40,000 to do this.  Of course even if I was to take this approach, I would miss out on the ability to have people from different regions in the same physical conversation and would have to struggle to make everyone's calendar align.  How often to you suppose it would be possible to get Kimon Onuma (Principal, Onuma Associates), Eric Wittner (3D Product Manager ESRI), and Eric Maxfield (GIS Lead, Archibus) in the same room to discuss 3D GIS requirements?  Answer = Impossible.  These are the kinds of conversations that happen organically and spontaneously at the ESRI UC.

I am no economist, and I am not able to estimate the financial value of meaningful conversations.  That said, it seems to me that this concept of meaningful conversations is a better metric than sales leads to represent the value of the ESRI User Conference to me.  The fact that I am able to assemble meetings with participants from all over the world in this one venue magnifies its value tremendously.

It has been an incredible week.  I learned a lot.  I was able to connect to a wide range of partners, customers, and prospects to further the market understanding of our value proposition.  I was able to participate in meetings with people from all around the country and the world to move specific initiatives forward.  There is no other single venue in the world during the year that I would be able to achieve the same results.  I will certainly be back next year.

So what do YOU think?  Is "meaningful conversations" a useful metric for your UC experience?  I would love to hear your thoughts.