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"Lotus" conferences, user groups, and sponsors... changes in store?

Category Lotus/IBM
This last week I've been thinking about the substantial number of Lotus conferences and user group meetings I've gone to during my years of working with Notes and Domino.  I purposely say "Lotus", "Notes", and "Domino", because that's what the branding has been for the vast majority of the time I've been involved, and IBM still hasn't dealt with the rebranding of Notes and Domino contrary to statements of intent.  It's still Lotus Notes and Lotus Domino, for better or for worse.  But that's not the purpose of this post. :)

It used to be that Lotusphere was the big hitter, followed by Devcon and the View conferences.  They were always packed and sponsors abounded.  User groups were mostly lunchtime or after-work affairs in metropolitan areas with local developers and administrators meeting for beer, pizza, and a presentation by someone.  If you could get a sponsor to buy the pizza, you were doing great.  Otherwise, everyone was happy to chip in a couple of bucks for the necessities.

Then (in my view and opinion), ILUG rewrote the rules.  The Irish Lotus User Group decided that they'd try the improbable... put on a multi-day user group meeting that resembled a conference, get some significant sponsors, and appeal for attendees and speakers from anywhere in the world... and charge nothing.  With some incredibly hard work and a few great breaks, the event surpassed expectations and quickly became the model for what user groups could be.  So long as a group could get one or two large sponsors and a handful of smaller ones, attendees no longer had to come up with hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars to get high-end content from the top speakers in the Lotus community.  The community was serving themselves and upping the game when it came to learning.

While this model worked well for attendees and the community overall, it created a major inflection point for paid conferences.  How do you present material that others are sharing for free, charge people to attend, *and* make a profit since that's your business model?  In short, you can't.  Devcon is gone, the View conferences have combined and are in a struggle to survive, and Lotusphere is less than half of what it was during its glory days.  The new user group model isn't to blame for all of that, but it's a significant factor.  Add in the economy, companies spending less to train, the cost of travel, more material available online, fewer technical people needed for cloud-based software, and the loss of market share, and you have a recipe that doesn't bode well for turning a profit to run a Lotus conference.

And then there are sponsors...

In all the conference and user group models, sponsors are the key ingredient.  Without sponsors, you either have to charge people (a lot!) and/or the vendor has to pick up the entire cost.  And let's face it, one of the benefits of an in-person conference is the chance to see what vendors are selling, learn what things might be available to help your organization, and to get cool schwag.  Vendors are important to any conference, and they are the reason the user group model works at all.  No vendor sponsors, no quality user groups.

Usually you have one or two "gold level" sponsors who step up and provide a significant amount of the resources needed to make things happen (the key word is "money").  It's possible to round up a larger number of sponsors at lower dollar amounts, but it really helps if one or two sponsors provide the bulk of the money.  Otherwise, the organizers spend all their time chasing sponsors and collecting money, and much less time coordinating the actual event.  It makes a huge difference.

My concern for Lotus conferences is the key phrase "large sponsor".  All you need to do is look at the backpacks from Lotusphere to see the story.  LS2008 - IT Factory, HP, Blackberry, Nokia.  LS2010 - IBM, Blackberry, Group.  LS2012 - IBM, GBS, HTC.  I have far more backpacks around here, but I think this makes the point.  IBM has always depended on a group of major sponsors for Lotusphere.  How many of those groups listed above are still sponsoring, will sponsor, or even exist?

Group (GBS) has been the go-to money sponsor for the last three years.  They've generously provided money and resources to Lotusphere and user groups.  LS2012 was basically the Group vendor showcase with everyone else around the edges.  But let's not ignore the elephant in the room.  They have lost over 90% of their market value in the last year, and their year-end fiscal report (the year ended March 30 but the report hasn't yet been filed) is likely to show continued (and in my opinion, heavy) operational losses yet again.  I'm confident that sponsoring at the mega-level they have in the past is not even an option any longer.  I'm not even sure that the existence of Group in their current structure is even possible, but that's another discussion.

IBM, for a company that continues to surpass Wall Street expectations and set records with quarterly and annual profits, treats user group event sponsorship like they are on the verge of bankruptcy.  After significant and prolonged discussions and battles, some money usually does end up flowing in for large user group events, but it's sad that they have to be begged and convinced to provide money for an event that is promoting *their own technology*!  What does this say for the support and strategic positioning in the market of their products?  

Looking forward to 2013, what will the IBM/Lotus conference landscape look like?  It'll be interesting.  IBM will continue to run conferences that promote their strategic direction, and they should.  But from the outside looking in, these conferences appear to be more strategy and marketing, as opposed to the "here's how you install software X to accomplish Y" that Lotusphere provided.  There's even been chatter that "Lotusphere" will be a track in a different conference branded with the IBM name.  We'll see how that plays out.  I think that the "Lotus" (and I use that brand broadly to mean what long-time community members often think of) user groups will also have to work a lot harder to get the resources that they need to make things work at the level we've come to expect.  Smaller (relatively speaking) vendors will need to step up and fill the gap that seems to be opening up with the loss of the mega-sponsors, and the topics covered in the meetings might end up being more diverse in order to satisfy a different sponsorship group that might be willing to step up.

As with all predictions (and you can make the case that I'm doing just that), reality will be different than what was put forth as a foregone conclusion.  It's why Italy is playing Spain for the Euro2012 championship instead of the "certainty" of Germany playing Spain.  But if this causes someone to stop and think about what they might need to do if things are not "business as usual" going forward, then it's been of some value.

Comments

Gravatar Image1 - Thanks Tom! I don't think that I disagree with anything in your post. Great summary and I agree that IBM needs to step it up or these will struggle in the future.

Gravatar Image2 - I think you are undoubtedly right about the importance of sponsor money to the big user group meetings and I agree with your main point, but I think you are over-estimating the importance of sponsors to Lotusphere from a financial point of view. I have some awareness of what HP paid for major sponsorships back when we were on the backpack, and it amounted to the revenue equivalent of somewhere in the range of 50 to 100 attendee registration fees. And of course, we got a boatload of badges as a sponsor, so you've got to subtract that from IBM's net. I think the decline in attendee registrations and in non-sponsor vendor booth registrations, along with what I'm sure are increased costs and decreased discounts that IBM is getting from the Dolphin will be the much more important driver for any major changes to Lotusphere that come along.

BTW: Didn't DNUG come along well before ILUG?

Gravatar Image3 - I can go along with that, Richard. My main thoughts when I was putting this together centered more around user groups and private conferences that had to show a profit. Lotusphere, as an IBM conference, will always have the ultimate "sponsor"... themselves. But given IBM's reluctance to sponsor non-IBM events without turning it into a marketing and lead generation channel, it leaves the notable user group events without that deep-pocketed company who will sponsor for the good (and goodwill) of the community.

Your point about DNUG is correct. But in my mind as someone who was not as "inside" as others in the early 2000 timeframe, DNUG seemed to be more of a replacement for Lotusphere Europe with full IBM approval and direction. In my mind, ILUG stood out as the first community-driven event that attempted to rewrite the rules of what a user group could be, and then pulled it off without being told what they could and couldn't do by IBM.

As always, your own recollections and memories may vary (and be just as valid)... :)

Gravatar Image4 - It is an interesting theory. Now we would just need another theory how free user group events cause revenue losses for IBM Partner business.
Let's face it. Your very own company seems to be moving, many others do. I would say about half of the existing customer base still don't care about XPages and there are hardly any new customers.
IBM is not doing much these days either and I don't see why they need to step up. Maybe IBM could do more and extend this for another few years but I am not even sure I want this (but I understand that people ask for it).
Without IBM putting more love, money and resources into their products this cannot be stopped. We would need an even more open, fast and modernized platform that fully embraces other technology stacks and/or open standards. And it would have to grow beyond creating social/collaborative applications because money makes the world go around not only social. And all this would need to happen at a much faster level because the world stopped waiting for IBM some years ago.
If you have a good platform and are as big as IBM (so for sure they could do it) the Partner channel could grow again. If you gain new customers, partners and developers you could even do many more free user group events and it would not matter much.
At least my opinion.

Gravatar Image5 - Henning... I agree with your observations about IBM, new customers, and XPages. I'll admit I lost you when it came to free user group events causing revenue losses for IBM Partner business. It may be a language issue or my lack of being a business partner, but I would think that free user group events would *grow* excitement about the platform and bring potential new customers, not drive them away.


Gravatar Image6 - The recent AusLUG in Melbourne was a run away success in terms of attendees and feedback. The largest Lotus event outside of Lotusphere. This coming from one of the smallest markets, (and the most distant from Armonk). As a sponsor of that event myself, i took special interest in the management and feedback of the event. It generated some leads and we managed to be seen in a way that was not possible otherwise. IBM played a big part in being a primary sponsor at AusLUG and it couldn't happen without them. So the approach in this instance was that IBM provided "back up" to the LUG community organisers who worked feverishly in their own time. This is not a criticism of IBM, nor dismissive of their contribution as they also had people assisting to, and there would been other wheels turning I was not privy to. This conference is firmly promoted on 2 levels, networking (aka "socializing"), and learn.

Lotusphere is different in that it's driven by IBM rather than the community, but has the same requirements for participation. Tom, what your suggesting, if I can be so bold, is for IBM to have less marketing and more "GTD". Clearly the later works if recent experience is any indication. If one can propagate this "magic" to LS13 you would exceed expectations. I would like to make 2 recommendations, firstly, the LUG committees collaborate more closely with their counterparts in IBM for setting the agenda and be actively involved in operational activities. I'm sure the LUG team would be happy for me to volunteer them for more sweat and tears at organizing LS13 ;) Also, reduce the price for attendance. The pain barrier seems to be under $1000.

Gravatar Image7 - I run the BLUG in Belgium for the past 4 years now, with increasing success. Organizing a (multi-day) event is indeed not possible without generous contributions from sponsors. We can't complain. IBM is also our major sponsor, but we get less from them every year. And indeed Tom, LUGs helps them sell and maintain their products. I think too that they need to step up money wise.
On the other hand, they do provide some very good speakers too, which is an investment by itself.
Lastly I want to point out that a big reason why we can organize events like this, because the community is willing to spend hours of preparation and present for free! It is the quality of the speakers/sessions that attract attendees and sponsors too.
We got an incredible community (speakers/users/vendors/IBM), and they all make LUGs work.

Gravatar Image8 - There have been more DNUG conferences than Lotuspheres. IBM only got recently (read: a few years ago) involved. DNUG however is struggling as well. They have staff on their payroll and have financed themselves through conferences. Attendance by IBMers is up, partners are somewhat stable, customers are way down. Since you cannot sell to IBM and partners, sponsors are at an all-time low.

Notes is no longer a focus for customers. That's why IBM tries to sell them on "Social business". It's a disruption for the eco-system, and user groups have to adjust. It's not yet clear, if that will succeed.

Gravatar Image9 - Snide remark: going through the list of companies on Lotusphere backpacks, it looks like you don't want to be seen there. Some are in trouble, some don't even exist anymore.

Gravatar Image10 - Thanks for all the comments and input. Let me see if I can catch them all here:

Giulio - I know that AusLUG has done great. Truth be told, I've tried to justify going myself. :) I'm glad to see that IBM has been closely involved with Matt and company for that event. It seems that some IBM regions "get" the LUG support concept and help without trying to take it over. Unfortunately, others do not. In either case, the people who organize the event work their butt off. I've been close enough to see what happens and to have a small part in helping on a few. It's a daunting task, yet an intensely satisfying one to see the community pull together to make it happen. For LS, there is input and support from members of the community to help choose some sessions in certain tracks. This involvement has helped change the perception of LS being marketing over GTD. The task now is to keep it that way.

Theo - Yours is another LUG I'd love to be part of some time. It's just a matter of looking at the credit card and trying to figure out if I can justify it to myself. :) You're right... our community does some incredible work for each other, and asks very little in return.

If karma could be measured in terms of currency, we'd have some very rich people among us.

Volker - Thanks for the info on DNUG. I didn't know their history, and your explanation helped fill in the gap there. You point out how important it is to maintain a healthy ratio of attendees (who are customers) to sponsors (who are not). If that gets imbalanced, the death spiral begins. Having 1000 in attendance is great, but not if only 150 of them are actually paid attendees.

And yes, having your name of the Lotusphere backpack *does* seem to be a kiss of death. :)

Gravatar Image11 - Just a small comment. I agree with what you wrote but wanted to de-emphasize the influence of the free events for paid conferences like Lotusphere or The View. That is what I intended with my Partner Business comment.
Maybe IBM will change focus for Lotusphere but no matter how many IBM employees are filling the rooms, I think Lotusphere is still one of the most successful IBM events worldwide. This should be an opportunity not a burden.

Gravatar Image12 - I agree that Lotusphere is *the* most important "Lotus" conference from IBM. We'll have to agree to disagree on the influence of free events on Lotusphere/View attendance, though. :) When an employer looks at a bill of over $5000 to send someone to Lotusphere vs. possibly $1500 (or less) to send someone to ILUG/UKLUG/AusLUG/IamLUG/etc., it's hard not to argue for the LUG if the employee will get value from the advertised content. And that's also assuming they'll pay AT ALL.

If you're a business partner, I *completely* agree that Lotusphere is a much better event for you... access to countless IBMers, a large audience to talk with, etc. Even if you're not sponsoring, you can likely "do business" and make the event pay off for you.

My argument is made by and comes from the perspective of a customer who isn't going to generate business by attending a technical event. I'm being educated and "sold to" by the sponsors. If I don't show up (regardless of price), then you don't have a conference. At best, you have a meeting between IBM and other vendors.

Personal story (and yes, I'm droning on... you can stop reading if you want.) Emoticon

The last Lotus event that I went to that was reimbursed by my employer was probably LS2007. Even then, it was covered because I was a speaker and they were only going to have to pay for air fare and hotel. Since then, *every* Lotus event I've attended has come out of my own pocket. If I hadn't been a speaker, Lotusphere would have stopped for me around that same time. ILUG, UKLUG, IamLUG... pretty much all out of my pocket. I do that because I get value for reasons that are important to me (and I can justify it against my writing activities). I'm assuming that's not possible (or even desirable) for many others. In that situation, having a large LUG that you can possibly drive to and/or share a room may be the *only* chance that a person has to actually learn and network in person.

As a point of contrast, I attended my first SharePoint Saturday held in Portland a few weeks back. It's like a one-day LUG, well-sponsored, locally organized, and well-attended. Oh, and free... AND they happen all over the world on a weekly basis. I'm even considering trying to speak at one with a co-worker for the SharePoint Saturday in Bend, Oregon later this year. Also, I got approval from work to attend the big SharePoint conference in Las Vegas in November (think Lotusphere for SharePoint). I'll be very interested to compare and contrast my past experiences with the new ones.

Gravatar Image13 - Well if free events have a big influence then Sharepoint Las Vegas 2012 should have low attendance. Pricing is comparable to Lotusphere too.
My guess is that the rooms will be packed and things will be quite busy.
When Lotus was strategic at customer sites it was quite easy. You went to Lotusphere and afterwards changed the world (well at least some kind of). New products, great tools, new stuff that moved your company forward. It was easy to invest a few thousand dollars because you could get enormous value back from visiting Lotusphere. While the personal value is still high the overall message became a bit more complicated. And if your employer put a stop sign on IBM products changing the world becomes even harder.
So to follow your personal story. Your employer has money to send you to Sharepoint 2012 but denies sending you to Lotusphere since 2007. The money is there but it just is not spend with IBM Lotus anymore.
In some way I even think this will have a long term effect on IBM as a whole as more and more companies become IBM free. At least they will have to spend much more money in marketing and sales.

Gravatar Image14 - Definitely true about the marketing...

Gravatar Image15 - We were a sponsor at ILUG a couple years ago and it was awesome!! From our perspective, the speedsponsoring session gave us a tremendous opportunity to show off our product to virtually everyone there. Also, the arrangement was such that all breaks and meals occurred where the vendors were set up so people were stopping by during the whole conference.
We were a sponsor at another conference recently and the set up was similar. The sponsors were set up in the middle of the dining area and it was only open when participants were in there. The number of attendees that came by was also impressive.
If IBM could do something similar at Lotusphere this would help out the business partners/sponsors get the message out about their products and services.

Gravatar Image16 - @Jonathan -I suggested it for Lotusphere already. Scale may be an issue but there would be ways to mitigate that.

Gravatar Image17 - I'd just like to amplify something about business partners. Less customers means less business partners. We've seen some major business partners move away from what was their core business, and we've seen others move completely from Lotus.

Less Business partners means less sponsors.

Its all about the mindshare. No Marketing == No mindshare == no marketshare. And I wish IBM would do something about it. Its not like they've not had people like me pointing it out since about 2004.

At one point, I personally spent more money marketing Lotus Notes than IBM here in the UK did. And thats a terrifying observation.

---* Bill

Gravatar Image18 - Hey Tom, great topic, and (as usual) many, many intelligent comments.

One point I think you didn't address in the economics of the LUG conference model (which I think is terrific and innovative), which applies to the "paid" conferences as well, is that in most cases, the speakers pay their own way (that's not true for The View cons or for RudiCon, but it is true for most of the others). They pay their travel expenses, and are usually not compensated for their sessions.

That's certainly true (except for some special cases in a couple of long-ago instances) of Lotusphere, too (except, of course, for the IBM speakers, who are speaking on company time).

Why do they (we, I think I'm entitled to include myself in this, having spoken at a few dozen of these things) pay to show up and perform?

Part of it is just whiffie, the enhancement of credibility and the garnering of admiration amongst our fellow yellow-bubblers. But a lot of it is also the hope that we will garner business thereby -- that people who attend will want to hire us, and/or that people who don't attend will view "Lotusphere/DNUG/ILug/3SLug/View/whateverLUG" on our resumes and lend it some credibility. And then hire us.

The problem (for me, and of course I can't speak for others) has been (lately) that it's become harder and harder to justify the cost of doing it. The business is drying up, and the cost of us showing up is increasing year by year. The number of attendees (and, by some mapping function, the number of potential customers) is a declining curve.

I *might* pay something just to promote IBM's product, if I thought it would expand the market for my services, but that ain't happening anymore. IBM no longer expends the effort and investment it used to, should it be up to people like me to fund the gap? No.

The fact that Lotusphere and similar events are *fun* is definitely worth something. Seeing people I hardly get to see otherwise, trading ideas and schemes, planning new bizmodels...(drinking), that's great. But it's a hell of an expensive way to have a party.

I'm not doing it anymore, can't afford it. Yes, it's sad, I miss the "conference season", the travel and the people. But as the French would say: "tant pis pour moi", too bad for me.

Things change. I think the trend is clear, much as I don't like it.

Tant pis pour nous.

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