For CRM professionals, picking the right conference to attend can be tricky. There are the large Customer Relationship Management (CRM) conferences—conferences like DreamForce  and the DMA where the CRM industry from all walks of life and verticals come together to discuss the latest and greatest.  There are the large analytics and data insight conferences, like Predictive Analytics World.  And there plethora of nonprofit conferences, including of course BBCON.  Each offer a unique set of opportunities to hear from industry experts and peers about the latest and greatest, what’s working (and not working), mingle and meet others working to figure out CRM complexities, and get the thinking juices flowing about your own CRM program.

With limited budgets, most of us are only able to travel to a few, if not one, conferences a year. So how to pick the right conference, and how to make the most of it once you are there?

A large part depends on where your organization is in the CRM process:

Are you still deciding whether CRM is right for you and if so, how to really pick the right technology/plan for a CRM deployment? Or maybe you work for an organization that’s already made the decision but is just starting out on the CRM journey.

  • Look for conferences that offer a large vendor showcase. Plan ahead and check out which vendors are offering CRM services and reach out ahead of time.  Chatting with someone at a booth is a great way to get info/get a conversation going, but if you’re looking to really ask some hard questions, reach out ahead of time. For most nonprofits looking for a CRM platform, it makes sense to meet with vendors at nonprofit-centric conferences, like BBCON, DMANF, NTC, AFP, and Bridge. The vendors here are tuned into the unique needs of our industry and have likely already developed products (and have experience customizing) CRM platforms to fit those unique needs.
  • Make sure to review the session titles carefully.  Increasingly, conferences targeted for nonprofit audiences have sessions, if not entire tracks, focused on topics like managing change, aligning for CRM, using data to change constituent relationships.  While not all of these may appear directly related to CRM, they are in fact key topics for successful implementation, and most importantly, use of CRM-enabled marketing.  Even if you are in the beginning stages, it helps to go to sessions that are a preview of where you are heading, and the bumps you may have to face along the way.
  • Finally, reach out to conference organizers, or other industry colleagues, to connect/introduce with industry peers who may be in the same boat as you, or slightly ahead.  Nothing beats hearing about others experiences, and learning from the road they’ve already traveled.

In the midst of a CRM deployment or just post go-live staying awake at night wondering “now what?” that you’ve got 5 billion data points all in one, mostly functioning, place?

The right conferences for you are still likely in the nonprofit sphere, but your goal is to find sessions and set up meetings to facilitate ramping up and ironing out any kinks in your CRM process and organizational adoption thereof. So, if you have BBCRM or Luminate CRM, the annual BBCON conference offers several types of technical tracks and learning labs—this is a great place to meet with those actually working on the tools every day to ask the trickiest of questions.  Additionally, advances tracks often offer discussion around how to actually market using CRM, offer panels with others in the industry trying to figure out the CRM puzzle, and opportunities to meet less officially to discuss what other folks may be dealing with.  Look for these opportunities at the plethora of nonprofit conferences available, and again, remember, that not every session that’s useful will have the words “CRM” in its title.  Session on integrated marketing, data transformation, and even agile teams, are all relevant, because for those of you in this segment, you already know all too well that CRM is much beyond just a technology platform, but rather about an entirely different way of engaging with constituents and structuring your organization internally.

Do you find yourself going to fewer and fewer meetings to sort out how to actually extract data out of your new shiny CRM?

Has it been a while since you’ve been called into a meeting with 11 people to sort out who is going to “own” the integrated marketing calendar? Are you able to relatively easily segment and report on your constituent data with 467 different views? If so, this is the time to look to more CRM centered (rather than nonprofit industry-centered) conferences.

This is when you can really benefit from learning best of breed CRM practices and the trials (successes and failures both) that our commercial brethren can afford themselves and we can learn from without having to take the same financial risks.  This is where session attendance is most important—seeing what people are trying, getting ideas that while maybe not directly applicable to nonprofit can spark something important to bring home to your organization. This is also the opportunity to meet and get to know CRM industry leaders and innovators—folks thinking about, doing, and trying, and to hear about emerging trends.  What are folks doing about Social and Mobile (SOMO CRM)? What are the expected “big wins” of the future and how are folks innovating with big data? Even if our industry is a pace behind, keeping an eye on the long-term trends and investments you’ll have to make in your own CRM program will keep your organization a step ahead and most importantly, tuned into what’s working for long lasting and optimized constituent relationships.

Bonus tip:  Organizational budget too tight to travel or too much to do to attend conferences in person? Look for opportunities to participant in virtual (frequently free) conferences. One of my favorites is the Fundraising Online conference, virtual and free since 2009. These conferences not only allow the flexibility of listening in from your desk or later at your own pace, but frequently provide materials for review. Following live conferences on Twitter is also becoming common practice for those who can’t make it, and check to see if a conference is live-streaming any of its session.  Resourcefulness given limited time and resources is a cornerstone of our industry, so why not use it for professional development opportunities as well?

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