Monday, April 21, 2008

The RSA Party Scene

Every conference has parties. I've been to thousands of them. They're always at the same restaurants, bars and hotels, and they always have the same food. But what makes these parties worth attending? What separates one vendor soiree from the next? In truth, it's the people.

I hold the enviable position of “someone the vendors want to talk to.” That means when I head into these various parties--and for the purposes of allegory, let's focus on the just-finished RSA conference. When I arrive at one of these parties, invariably, I am introduced to the PR manager, communications director, CEO, CTO, or whoever the folks at the front desk have been told to send the press to.

These meetings are always pleasant, rarely caustic, and frequently involve alcohol on both sides of the table. But no matter what the subject, I can usually tell right off the bat if this is going to be a good party, or a bad one.

At the good parties, the CEO/CMO/Engineer is talking about the show -- the people they've seen, companies they've worked for, or interesting talks they attended. At the bad parties, the PR/Marketing/manager immediately launches into a memorized speech detailing all the bullet points of importance on their product.

It's not exactly surprising. If you were at a dinner party, or wedding reception, would you want to talk to the guy who's chatting about the Mets or the guy who's discussing his company's new meat mincing solution? Parties are a time to get to know people, not a time to make sales.

Thus, companies like Voltaic, Vormetric and Splunk succeeded at their parties, because the folks in attendance were simply themselves. These three events, at RSA, were basically cocktail parties in pleasant venues. Meanwhile, other companies tried to run their parties like businesses, with sales reps moving through the crowds, and Power Point presentations being regurgitated over sushi and carrot sticks.

Selling is for the show floor. If you really want to make a connection with your customers and the press, be yourselves. I know I can't stand being pitched while I have a mouth full of crudite, and I'd imagine most of the systems administration managers these companies hope to woo are just as uncomfortable in such a situation.

When it comes right down to it, the best business relationships are founded in personalities. They're based on the guys in one organization feeling at ease when they pick up the phone to call and make a purchase at another organization. The best clients are ones that call up and talk like friends, not like robots.

If there's one way to endear your company to a customer or a media type at one of these industry events, it's to give them plenty of good food, good drink, and good toys.

-- Alex Handy

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