OPINION

Recruiting Your Customers’ CEOs to Conferences

Customer events have replaced trade shows as the big-spend item in many software vendors’ and analyst and advisory firms’ marketing budgets. Implicit in this shift of spending is the precision possible for targeting CEOs and CIOs with relevant content.

The challenge however is getting these senior executives to attend. Deluged with invitations and a bevy of vendor-centric pitch fests, many CEOs rely on their assistants to suggest conferences that are relevant to their business. With the busiest time of the year for conferences nearly here, CEOs’ mailboxes are full of invitations to conferences, but only a select few are going to be accepted.

Coming Up With the Right Event

There’s an evolving set of best practices in this area, and after speaking with a few vendors and analyst firms, here are the key take-aways:

  • Golf is a CEO magnet. Let’s face it, to get a C in your title it helps to have a handicap in the single digits, and if you’re a ringer you may be recruited as a CEO by companies who look at you like their prized draft choice. Some of the most humorous CEOs I know joke they “went high in the golf draft.” There’s an element of truth in this, and the companies who are getting the greatest traction are those that allow for a half day or more in the agenda for golfing at a four- or five-star resort, which is also the venue for the conference itself. For larger vendors, they find a Pro Am is a huge draw that allows CEOs to be paired with golf professionals. EDS uses this strategy very effectively at their Byron Nelson Golf Championship.
  • Outside industry experts and content that supports a trusted advisor role is key. What’s clear from the results of the discussions I’ve had is that the best results come from recruiting industry thought leaders first, then constructing the agenda to fully take advantage of their expertise. This works best with the strategy of creating small, informal work groups where CEOs are contributing their real-world examples of the strategies experts talk about. Experts external to the company are critical for the credibility of this strategy.
  • Create small, informal work groups that include leading experts in the industry and have your CEO head up the marketing efforts. This works very well for one security software company that created these smaller workgroups of five to six CEOs along with industry experts in various areas of security. To get customers and prospective CEOs to the conference, this vendor’s CEO wrote and signed personal letters and made multiple telephone calls to the CEOs to gain their participation 3 months in advance. These workgroups included development, support and services VPs from the company so existing customers had a chance to get their specific questions answered during breaks and in later one-on-one sessions. CEOs appear to like to have their peers contact them personally and with an agenda that stresses insights into current industry issues. These events have turned into knowledge sharing and learning events over sales events. The security software vendor reports that this isn’t a closing event; it’s a bid to be the top trusted advisor with these top customers and prospects. What the vendor did accomplish, however, was an informal needs assessment from its top customers and prospects, which was invaluable for subsequent product direction decisions.
  • The iPod strategy works. One vendor had its CEO record invitations to each customer and prospective CEO on an iPod. This was tremendously successful as it immediately got the attention of the assistants and generated conversations with their bosses. The personalized approach from the CEO, which included specific comments from the executive about his business and its needs, generated a 100 percent response rate with a ground of twenty five CEOs targeted for one session.
  • The vendor had tried using Federal Express envelopes just with the invitation and conference details in it, yet found a low response rate. One CEO’s assistant says that this strategy is so pervasive that through April, May and June over two dozen Federal Express envelopes arrive every week with conference invitations. The iPod strategy cut through all those and ended up on the CEO’s desk. His granddaughter is enjoying the gift and he went to the conference.

  • Rotate top customers and prospects year to year. The vendors who have taken the approach of creating smaller, more intimate and informational events report that rotating customers and prospects’ CEOs ensures their CEO gets a broader cross-section of what’s happening with customers, and provides the same or greater number of slots for prospects. This also makes the event even more exclusive.

These are points that apply to smaller, more intimate and informational events with customers and strategies that work for recruiting CEOs to them, and there are plenty of comparable points for larger events. One vendor reported that taking the perspective of hosting an educational and entertaining seminar on topics of interest for CEOs was far more effective for aligning all the efforts to make these events successful.

When I asked these vendors what the payoff was, they said customers’ CEOs and their CEO would jointly strategize about the future of security strategies in sessions in both companies’ offices often, and eventually customers would become references and re-vamp entire company-wide security strategies based on lessons learned. The vendor became the primary source of security knowledge for this customer and as a result sales increased significantly (over 40 percent year-over-year). This vendor’s road map is more aligned with the market than it has been in years.


Louis Columbus, a CRM Buyer columnist, is a member of the Cincom Manufacturing Business Solutions Team and a former senior analyst with AMR Research. He has worked with enterprise clients on defining solutions to their channel management, order management and service lifecycle management strategies. Mr. Columbus also teaches graduate-level international business and marketing courses at Webster-Loyola Marymount University and University of California, Irvine. He is the author of fifteen books on technology and two books on analyst relations. His book, Getting Results from your Analyst Relations Strategies, can be downloaded for free.


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