How We Run Our Conference Like a Product

By Mike Belsito May 22, 2018

In 2014 I belonged to a small team that had a vision: We wanted to create something that would benefit product people with a desire to learn from the best product minds around, connect with like-minded folks and inspire them to build better products. We formed Product Collective, a community for technology product people and the organizers of INDUSTRY: The Product Conference. Product Collective began as a side passion, but we soon realized that it would require a full-time focus if we were to achieve our goal of building a world-class product. Two years ago I dedicated myself full-time to Product Collective.

When I took the leap to dedicate myself full-time, friends’ reactions were mixed. They were excited for me, for sure. They knew firsthand that a community like Product Collective and a conference like INDUSTRY were much-needed. But they were also a little disappointed—not in me, but for me.

“Mike, this is great and I’m happy for you,” they’d start. “I know it will be successful, and I can’t wait to be a part of it myself. But … won’t you miss being a product person?”

I admit, part of me was a little sad at first. I enjoyed my relatively newfound calling of being a software product person. After my small internet startup was acquired, I had worked for slightly larger startups, helping to lead within their product management groups. And I loved it. I was passionate about learning from our customers and taking those data points back to the team to build products that could help those customers. It was fun to work alongside our software developers and designers, and it was just as fun talking about strategy and future vision with our executive team. I really would miss all of that.

I didn’t let it stop me from pushing forward full-steam ahead, though. After two successful editions of INDUSTRY in 2015 and 2016, it became apparent that Product Collective and INDUSTRY needed to exist. Product management professionals were thirsty for knowledge, inspiration and connecting with other product people. Our team thought, “How better could we serve them if we dedicated ourselves full-time to this?”

Fast-forward to the present. I now realize something that I didn’t before: I never stopped being a product person. It’s true that INDUSTRY is not a SaaS or enterprise software platform. But we have intentionally used many of the same processes and techniques we used when we managed software products to manage INDUSTRY.


Get Out of the Office

During one software product management stint, a sign hung near my desk with a phrase that Steve Blank should probably trademark: “Get out of the office.” It was a constant reminder to interface with customers as often as possible so that I could understand their pain points and translate that information into products that actually served them. I tried to take this to heart and get in front of customers in person, via video chat, and over the phone whenever I could.

That habit hasn’t gone away simply because the product I now manage is a conference. We frequently conduct attendee interviews throughout the year, both in person and via web conferencing. Having real conversations with our customers—the conference attendees—has been eye-opening. For example, after INDUSTRY 2016, we had several conversations with attendees that focused on the connections that they made—or didn’t make—with other attendees. In some instances, the post-event survey indicated that attendees were especially interested in meeting other product people. However, when I asked how many new connections attendees had made, the answer surprised me: very few.

“This wasn’t really your fault, though,” one attendee assured me. “I’m just not much of an extrovert.”

Yet, it was our fault. If people came to INDUSTRY in part to build their network and they left without doing so, we had failed them. Our product didn’t work the way it was supposed to.


Introduce New Features and Sunset Old Ones

After hearing that feedback in 2016, we made sure that the same thing wouldn’t happen in 2017 by introducing an unexpected new feature. About three weeks before INDUSTRY 2017, we emailed attendees and asked if they were interested in building their network by connecting with other attendees. If they were interested, we asked them to share the types of people they wanted to connect with, topics that interested them and the challenges they faced. We promised to evaluate their answers and connect them with at least two other attendees we thought they should meet. 

We received hundreds of responses, demonstrating the need to proactively help attendees connect. We personally matched attendees and made introductions. It was a non-technical solution that served as a new feature to our non-technical product. When we surveyed and interviewed attendees after INDUSTRY 2017, we learned that it was one of the highest-rated value drivers of that conference. 

We also eliminated underperforming features. The first time we introduced an all-access pass to attendees—a ticket that costs several hundred dollars more than a general admission pass—we felt a responsibility to build up the value. The all-access pass included such benefits as the ability to attend a half-day workshop, an exclusive post-INDUSTRY webinar and a selection of books.  

Ultimately, the webinar wasn’t well attended (despite the planning that went into it), and, while some attendees seemed to like the books, many simply left them behind. Yet, many attendees raved about the workshops and considered the main conference to be an extra bonus.  

As a result, in 2017 we eliminated the webinar and focused on planning world-class workshops. Attendees didn’t seem to mind. In fact, all-access-pass attendees were the most satisfied of any attendees.


Embrace Technology

Just because Product Collective’s primary product is a conference that isn’t rooted in technology doesn’t mean that technology can’t help us create a better customer experience. Here are a few of the ways we’ve leveraged technology to improve our product.

  • Visitors to our conference website often have questions. But rather than asking them to switch their focus as they search for our email address, we want to keep them actively engaged. That’s where a platform like Intercom comes in handy. Intercom provides a direct line to potential customers, allowing them to directly engage with us as they continue to peruse our website.
  • As a distributed team, it can be challenging to keep everyone connected with a shared understanding of our priorities. A platform like Slack ensures that we all stay in the loop, no matter our location. Product Collective also hosts an official Slack community that allows our 5,000 members to trade ideas, share best practices and access helpful resources.
  • As an online community, we understand the importance of providing helpful resources—like weekly newsletters and semi-monthly webinars—that educate our audience. But it can be tough to know how much our audience is using and getting value from those resources. MailChimp and Google Analytics allow us to see how engaged users are with the different products we offer throughout the year.

When I decided to focus on INDUSTRY full-time, I realized my friends might have been right about one thing: I would have missed not being a product person anymore. But thankfully, I never had to stop. Although our product isn’t technical, it has grown and developed precisely because we use product management best practices to create a better customer experience.

Categories: Agile Roles & Activities
Mike Belsito

Mike Belsito

Mike Belsito is co-founder of Product Collective and co-organizer of INDUSTRY: The Product Conference, an adjust professor of design and innovation at Case Western Reserve University, and co-host of the Rocketship.FM podcast. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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