Many leaders love conferences. They're hotspots for networking, brainstorming and getting a feel for how an industry's changing. But with so many brands competing for the spotlight, conferences can also feel like chaotic wastes of time. 

That competitive atmosphere is driving hosts to a new model: user-specific conferences. User conferences are commonly focused around the users of a technology platform, whereas other conferences are organized around industry associations. Conferences that focus on users benefit both hosts and attendees: Hosts have the opportunity to provide true value to their users, while participants walk away with personalized advice. 

As someone who's played a consultant role many times over, I highly recommend experiences where people can gather unbiased advice. Because leaders already use the technology at user conferences, there's no upside for dishonesty. I've taken away knowledge that instantly made my team more productive and profitable.

That's because attendees can benefit in five ways.

1. Swap strategies.

Like most events, user conferences offer networking opportunities, like happy hours and dinners. But because everyone in attendance uses the host's product or service, those interactions go beyond meet-and-greet basics.

Typically, the company hosting the user conference gets its whole team involved. At Salesforce's annual Dreamforce conference, for instance, co-CEO Marc Benioff always delivers the keynote address. Attendees get a sneak peak of what's coming, as well as insight into strategies Salesforce itself suggests.

Just as importantly, user conferences let you learn from other users. Inevitably, users come up with unique applications you could benefit from. User conferences engender a sense of community that can't be found elsewhere, leading attendees to share unconventional strategies openly.

2. Build a better user experience.

Although CRM provider Ontraport has hosted its Ontrapalooza (OPLZA) conference for years, its 2019 event was tailored to its user community. The reason: CRM users recognize the importance of their own user experience for customer acquisition and retention.

By interacting with users directly, companies like Ontraport can convey their tool's ideal experience. Users who have a great experience with the tool will use it more, passing the UX advantage on to their own users.

Don't be afraid to ask someone from the host company to play the part of your user. Use the tool as you normally would. Ask them to take silent notes. Once you're finished, give them the floor to suggest UX improvements.

3. Get personalized assistance.

Like every company, user conference hosts want to improve their products. A key way is by soliciting customer feedback. 

Events like Epicor's Insight Customer Conference, which caters to users of the ERP and retail planning software, include one-on-ones with company experts. Hosts want users to get the most out of their product, so they pack the conference with executive Q&A sessions, tutorials with product designers and group brainstorms.

No matter how stellar your company's support team is, nothing can replace face-to-face conversations. Hands-on help delivers immediate relief from roadblocks. 

There's a flipside: You may be able to explain directly what kinds of problems you're encountering. While they'll often be able to supply answers, you might surface an issue they haven't run into. Either way, it's a win-win for you.

4. Prospect for employees.

By attending a user conference, you get to spend time with people who do work similar to yours. Although you shouldn't pitch your company left and right, be on the lookout for people who might be valuable additions to your team.

Collaboration software provider Atlassian's annual Summit event includes a developer day. At the very least, every attendee has an idea of how your tech team interacts. Surely, some have experience in the specific coding languages you work with.

At the event, swap contact details and ask about their job. If they sound like the right fit and are looking for a new role, make a note on the back of their business card. Jot down some of the things you discussed to make reconnection easier if you decide to recruit them. 

5. Assess long-term fit.

My favorite reason for attending user conferences? Getting a feel for the company we're investing time and money in. By chatting in a low-key setting, you get true insight into how the executives run the company -- and whether their values are in conflict with yours.

At one conference, my team sat with another. As we talked, we discovered the other company was driven by rules and hard lines, not flexibility and creativity. Not long after, we witnessed employee departures and got confirmation that our view was accurate -- and their culture wasn't sustainable. We cut ties soon after; we want to support companies with healthy cultures.

User conferences are more than product promotion opportunities. They're hubs of helpfulness and camaraderie, not competition. Given how cutthroat business can be, doesn't that sound like a welcome change?

Published on: Oct 10, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.