Monday, 31 August 2020

Now What for Dreamforce?



The cancellation of the in-person 2020 Dreamforce conference brought my 10 year attendance streak to a shuddering halt. I'll shortly be taking my (late) summer holiday, and it will be the first one I can remember where I'm not building applications, putting together presentations for one or more sessions, or joining conference calls to cover how round table events will be run. While it will be nice to have that time back, I'll very much miss the trip to San Francisco and the chance to catch up with a bunch of people that I rarely see in person.

We're now notionally a couple of months out from the digital version of Dreamforce, which has already been put in doubt by comments made by Marc Benioff to The Information. For what it's worth I don't think a like for like replacement of Dreamforce will take place online, nor would it make a lot of sense to do that.

Duration

Dreamforce is a 4 day event, often bookended by additional summits (think CTA) or training events (get certified for half price!). For those outside of North America it typically involves a week plus out of the office - this aspect is key - we've all flown over with not much more to do but attend the conference and network. 

For a virtual event, nobody is taking a week off work to sit in front of their screen watching presentations. The best that can be hoped for is that the audience watch some of the sessions live, fitting in around their real work. 

Location

Dreamforce takes place in San Francisco, which is a popular destination in its own right. A virtual event takes place in your own home (or possibly in an office now that some have reopened) which doesn't have the same cachet. 

Attendees are also going to be in their own timezone, rather than struggling to adjust to PST. They aren't likely to stay up until 2am to see the latest report builder enhancements, but by the same token they won't be jet-lagged and should be able to stay awake.

Networking

This is one of the biggest attractions for me - the chance to meet with a whole bunch of people from product managers, to answer burning questions, to fellow developers from the community, to find out what cool things others are working on. Hang around the Trailhead forest for a few hours and you'll be amazed how many people you can tick off your list. This just doesn't happen at virtual events - you can fire off questions via videoconference chat channels, but the one to one connection simply won't be an option at the scale you can achieve in person.

I'd also include things like parties, the Gala and after parties in the networking column, and clearly none of that is going to happen virtually. You might see some virtual happy hour concept where a group of people sip drinks and try not to talk over each other on a zoom call, but it won't be the same.

Expo

I've attended a bunch of virtual events this year, sometimes because I'm interested in the topic and sometimes just to see the approach. In my opinion, one area that consistently struggles is the expo. People dialling in from home to watch a session on a specific topic typically sign off afterwards rather than browsing a virtual expo. If you are interested in a product and know Dreamforce is coming up, you might wait to talk to the vendor in person. When you can't do that, you'll sign up for a virtual demo at the first possible opportunity rather than wait for a day when you are already going to be stuck in front of a screen for hours. There is also the swag, or lack thereof.. From personal experience, I can tell you that a surprising number of people at any event expo just want free swag, and they aren't joining your virtual expo demo without some incentive. 

This feels to me like one area that will have to be completely rethought in these continuing Covid times - simply taking the expo concept online isn't cutting it. Organisers will still want sponsor dollars, but they'll have to find a new mechanism. Some kind of session sponsorship is my guess, which showcases the partner's offering alongside the main product, in this case Salesforce. 

Community Content

This is the other area that will need to be rethought. If it will be a struggle to get people to join sessions involving product management, I really can't see Salesforce giving up space to speakers from the community. They won't have loads of breakout rooms to fill, so I can see them keeping the vast majority of virtual space to themselves. Maybe this will push the community content completely to community events like London's Calling or the many flavours of Dreamin' 

Diluting the Brand

Dreamforce is the Salesforce event of the year. It's something that everyone wants to go to and always sells out. By running something less than this online, the name is devalued. I'm sure the numbers would still be pretty good, because of the sheer reach that Salesforce has, but it would always be compared to the in person event and found wanting.

Now What?

Instead of trying to recreate Dreamforce in a virtual setting, do something different. It could still leverage the Dreamforce name, but not try to be a like for like replacement. Rather than squashing a ton of content into 4 days that we won't have time to consume, spread it out - maybe as a half-day event around a theme every month or six weeks - Dreamforce Bi-Fortnightly has a nice ring, as does Dreamforce Semi-Quarterly. The sessions need to be useful though - if they aren't the audience will vote with their feet, and they won't have the ticket cost to guilt them into staying.

The one exception to the above is the keynote. This is something that should still happen as a one-off with attendant folderol. We need this see the performance versus the previous year, the focus for the next year and some key customer stories. Also, without the keynote I won't be able to hear about the new features that I won't make the pilot for and thus won't get access to for a couple of years, and I need that envy to keep my interest up. I'm not sure how well the multiple product keynotes would work - maybe a half-day keynotes event that starts with Marc Benioff and friends, and hands over to the the various clouds, or perhaps each Dreamforce Semi-Quarterly includes a keynote and has a major focus on the specific cloud. 


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