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Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff walks among attendees as he delivers his keynote address at the Dreamforce event in San Francisco on Aug. 31, 2011. (ROBERT GALBRAITH/ROBERT GALBRAITH/REUTERS)
Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff walks among attendees as he delivers his keynote address at the Dreamforce event in San Francisco on Aug. 31, 2011. (ROBERT GALBRAITH/ROBERT GALBRAITH/REUTERS)

John Warrllow

The lucrative beauty of a user conference Add to ...

Recently, Salesforce.com hosted its ninth annual Dreamforce event. Forty-five thousand people paid around $1,000 each to embed themselves in the Salesforce community for four days.

That’s a cool $45-million revenue bump for Salesforce but it didn’t stop with ticket sales.

Salesforce also sold 275 exhibitors on taking space in its “Cloud Expo,” where a booth started at $10,000 and went up from there.

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Not only did Salesforce sell attendees on coming and exhibitors on displaying their wares, it also sold sponsorships.

There were 10 Platinum sponsorships available at a cost of $400,000 each. There were 36 opportunities to pay $150,000 to be a Gold sponsor; 40 spots for Silver sponsorship at $75,000 each; and 90 opportunities to pay the good folks at Salesforce $25,000 for a Bronze-level sponsorship.

And it didn’t stop there. For an extra $20,000, a Platinum sponsor could provide the Eco-Pavilion Bags. For the rights to ferry participants around on the back of a branded three-wheel bike, you could be the Pedicab sponsor for $20,000. You could even sponsor the coat check for $5,000, but given that the event was in California in August, the foot traffic may have been modest.

I wouldn’t be surprised (just guessing) if Salesforce grossed close to $100-million on the event.

And here’s the beauty of creating a user conference: You’re making money to sell to your own audience.

Where else is it possible to charge your customers and prospects to learn more about your business?

Can you imagine asking your prospects to pay for your next sales visit? Would you pay Procter & Gamble Co. to watch its next 30-second TV spot for Tide?

A user conference is simply an event where you bring together everyone who has a stake in your company’s success. Software companies popularized the concept but user conferences are profitable across a variety of industries.

The analyst firm Forrester Research Inc. brings both the technology companies it covers and the clients who use its research to an annual series of conferences.

Gazelles, the consulting company targeting high-growth mid-market firms, hosts the Fortune Growth Summit, which is intended not only for its clients but also for the Gazelles coaching community who are the consultants working directly with growth companies.

The big difference between a simple customer event and a user conference is that, with the latter, you invite all of the players in your market, and therefore have multiple revenue streams.

The reason the Dreamforce event is so lucrative for Salesforce is that it gets all three legs of the stool that make up its community to pay.

If you’d like to host your own user conference, consider inviting all of the people who have a stake in your success:

1. Customers and prospects

This is an obvious group, but just because they are already buying from you doesn’t mean they won’t pay to attend your event. If you pack your event with enough content, a user conference can be another way to generate additional revenue from your existing customers.

2. Ingredient companies

Are there people or businesses in your community who create something using your product as an input? Salesforce invites the independent developers who build applications that run on the force.com platform. These “ingredient” attendees are ideal targets to attend, exhibit and sponsor your user event.

3. Hangers-on

These are the people or companies who want to get access to your customer base. Provided they’re not your direct competitor, you can sell them the opportunity to be a sponsor in order to reach your customers.

When you get all three groups interested in a meeting of the minds, you have the makings of a wildly successful – and profitable – user conference.

Special to The Globe and Mail

John Warrillow is a writer, speaker and angel investor in a number of start-up companies. You can download a free chapter of his new book, Built to Sell: Creating a Business That Can Thrive Without You.

Join The Globe’s Small Business LinkedIn group to network with other entrepreneurs and to discuss topical issues: http://linkd.in/jWWdzT

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