Forrester Research last week concluded its first-ever Marketing Forum, and it was a breath of fresh air.
Normally, I hate these things, spending most of my time trying to get my work done pacing in the hotel lobby, struggling with conference calls on my mobile phone, or risking life, limb, and data hacking somebody’s unsecured WiFi on my laptop. The average presentation is often warmed-over company propaganda, or a thinly-veiled resume. I have a powerful nap toggle that I usually have to resist flipping when I'm running to catch an airplane, let alone sitting in the day's umpteenth presentation.
This gig was different, primarily for three reasons:
First, the Forrester people are just so damn smart. No, not the I-have-the-answers-to-the-purpose-of-the-universe smart, but the inquisitive, fact-based, engaging sort. Just witnessing the breadth and depth of their research is worth the price of admission, but then getting to talk with them is even better. I understand they had something like 50 analysts wandering the floor of the show, so you could literally bump into a thoughtful conversation, or formally schedule a one-on-one with pretty much whomever you wanted to gab.
Now, for a bit on the quality of the gabbing. You might remember the technology-based trade shows back prior to Y2K, when technologists presented their latest get-rich innovations as fait accompli for businesses to fund: 'so and so can push a button now instead of clicking a ballpoint pen, so you need to link all writing across the enterprise by buying from us a blah-blah-acronym software program.' The Forrester gig certainly had hints of those days, with a heavy turn-out of technology vendor booths pretty much unavoidable because they were wrapped around the food and drink tables, but most of the presentations were gloriously devoid of hard sell. The take-aways were usually 'think about this, and here’s why and how.'
Two analysts were particularly relevant to my interests: Pete Kim, who kicked-off the event with his thinking on 'walking the talk' of changing marketing organizations to become truly customer-centric (and the overall enterprise, in doing so). I know, anything-centricity smacks of buzzword nonsense, and Pete pretty much said so, focusing instead on the challenges to making it real. This was smart stuff, which came across more as a talk with his audience about the messy reality of business, instead of a lecture at them on consultant absolutes.
I was also fascinated by Charlene Li's work on social media. Charlene is working to provide a business-useful method to the sprawling madness of social media tools, and her conclusions can help any company get its intellectual arms and budgetary legs around using this stuff. Her categorization of social users, grouping them by behavior and not lifestyle of any demographic, is a revelation that should impact how we look at marketing spends across any media, not just the newly-fangled online ones. She and Josh Bernoff are working on a book, tentatively entitled "Groundswell," which will hopefully see the light of day sometime next year.
The second reason I liked the show was because of the not-so-subtle shift that Forrester's research evidences vis a vis technology. Most of the breathless commentary that passed for 'research' prior to Y2K was all about potential and possibility. The entire CRM revolution was a promise, based on an idea, experienced as a dream: technology was going to magically change the way we work and live, and do so almost automatically. Well, that impact proved to be true, but plans based on hoped-for changes (or self-fulfilling ones) proved to be expensively stupid. The Forrester event (and its work) are the exact opposite: their chosen verb tense is nearly always past or present. Data and commentary are about how technology has already impacted consumers and the marketers who want to sell to them. This makes the conversation a hell of a lot more relevant, and the marketing and branding world needs more of it.
Thirdly, the show attracted great attendees. I’m researching my book on branding, and I found thoughtful, interesting people pretty much everywhere I turned. People overheard me talking to one person and volunteered to talk to me. Some were marketers, others technologists; it was a really energized mix of people who were at the show less to be sold on technology purchases, and more to better understand the implications of technology on their strategy and planning.
This suggests an area in which Forrester can do a lot more.
The Marketing Forum could be seen as an impromptu community as much as an event, and I think there’s a lot of potential to expand these qualities in subsequent years. Almost every speech and panel prompted follow-on conversation that could have been organized or channeled at the event: spontaneous workshops formed, debates hosted, connections between panels identified and explored. Such conversations could extend beyond the narrow confines of a two-day event in physical reality. How about every panel yielding a chat or IM community, for instance?
In the end, technology is all about human behavior, so the brand and marketing implications (and applications) of Forrester's research are areas that event attendees will be exploring all year long. More brand and marketing types should be participating in it, and it might be cool if Forrester found novel ways to engage and stay involved in the conversations around those issues. The content for the second annual event in 2008 would surely benefit.