Why B2B CMOs need to attend tech conferences – and 4 picks for 2015

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If you’re experienced enough to remember B2B tech lead-generation pre-Internet, it was the dark ages of marketing. Tiny budgets. All direct mail, trade shows and conferences. Little influence. It was difficult to make any connection between leads and sales. The marketing function was typically so divorced from strategy and relegated to a pure marketing communications focus that it got extremely little respect, often (justifiably) referred to as the Swag Team, primarily viewed as responsible for brochures, tchotchkes and golf tournaments. The relationship with sales consisted of frequent (but ad hoc) complaints from reps that all leads were terrible. It was not an exciting career path.

imageThe B2B marketing space and the work being done today could not be more different. Being a B2B CMO is far more exciting and challenging, thanks to advances in marketing technology and the rise of content marketing allowing B2B to flex its creative and analytic muscles. Now, it’s the rapidity and complexity of the B2B marketing world that is the challenge, not getting a seat at the table. CMOs are working hard to adjust to the changes and keep up; the pressure to understand a suddenly vast and changeable technology landscape is intense.

And it can be tempting to sit back and interact with peers from the comfort of your keyboard, but there are excellent reasons why it’s more important now than ever for senior B2B marketing executives to attend tech conferences in person. Why?

– martech is changing extremely quickly right now and it is easy to get tunnel vision, especially under so much pressure to deliver results using it. Understanding how peers are doing so means significant shortcuts.
– in person conversations and experiences allow you to get a feel for where the industry or a company’s position. Sponsor quality? Keynote quality? If you are at events repeatedly, or attend several vendor conferences a year, you get a sense of unspoken shifts and differences in momentum and direction.
– networking at content-based industry events is better than ever and one of the few organic “non-performing” opportunity senior execs have to do it at scale. Concentrated feedback and networking equals effciency!

So which North American events should B2B executives strive to attend in person? Here are our picks for 2015 and why:

Pick: Sirius Decisions: Our selection for the best B2B conference of the year, hands down. The value of what the team at Sirius Decisions produces every year is awe-inspiring. B2B conference goers who make it to Arizona say the conference offers both executive insight and practical lessons, and that the practice of B2B marketing and sales alignment has been one of the more positive transformative forces in B2B in the past five years.

Pick: PSFK and BIF: Why? While not pure tech, these two smaller, more intimate events are about the application of technology. Founded by legends Piers Fawkes and Saul Kaplan, held in NYC and Rhode Island respectively, these two events are showcases for the interesting work of the businesses behind them but have come to be destinations in their own right. Attendees talk about inspiration and focused innovation; they can really jumpstart a tired brain that’s been looking at spreadsheets for too long. Expect business-centred innovation and conversations (vs the humanist focus at global conference superpower TED) with a focus on retailing products and ideas (PSFK) and storytelling (BIF).

Pick: SAPPHIRE: Why? Understanding how the software that plays the role of enterprise backbone is changing is understanding how the enterprise is evolving, and there’s no better place to do that than at SAP’s SAPPHIRE, held annually in Orlando. SAP is undergoing an accelerated tranformation as well, with an increased focus on marketing technology and supporting CMO decision-making, leaping into new ways of delivering its manage-your-entire-business-from-back-end-to-retail value proposition. It’s grabbed the cloud with both hands, and demonstrating its commitment to innovation in technologies like HANA. It’s an enormous event with thousands of attendees, and a lot of business gets done. Caveat: If it’s your first time, it can be a little overwhelming; do your research and plan the conference like a military campaign. (disclosure: SAP is a corporate sponsor of B2B News Network).

Other conferences of interest to CMOS:

Inbound: Why? The rapidity with which B2B marketing has transformed to a data-driven, targeted science has been dizzying, and few have championed the change like HubSpot. Part marketing conference, part smaller-business cheerleading and motivation event, it’s true to its principles and more about the community and the learning than about HubSpot itself. If your target is SMBs or you want to better understand inbound marketing, this is the conference for you. Caveat: it is also enormous (though very friendly) and can feel a bit cultlike at times.

TED: Why? The cultural behemoth is amazing for its brain stimulation, and deservedly world famous. Caveat: is the format getting tired? The premise of showcasing under appreciated human ingenuity will never get old,  and TED’s curation and speaker sourcing is as visionary as ever. We talked to two attendees who said as much, but that with so much local TED, some of the mystique had disappeared, diluting the intellectual energy, and suggesting that new ways of showcasing speakers and their content could revitalize the event.

SXSW: The conference of choice for the hipster digerati. A cultural experience more than a conference. The interactive portion is a crazy chaotic free-for-all, primarily consumer-focused but with increasing B2B content every year. Caveat: Be prepared for chaos, book early, stay downtown, and truly enjoy crowds.

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Jennifer Evans

Jennifer Evans

President at B2B News Network
President, @B2BNewsnetwork (launched Nov 2014). Content, community and analytics obsessed. Inventor @squeezecmm. Past chair, @itac_online @whiteribbon
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