Five Insights from Five Years of Pulse Conference Data
Over the last couple years as a growth equity investor, I had examined the budding Customer Success industry and heard about the vibrant Pulse community. But I’ll admit: I was quite skeptical. How much fun could a business software industry conference really be? But less than a month before starting as “Summer Chief of Staff” to Gainsight’s CEO, Nick Mehta, I found myself at Pulse. After all, what better way to get my feet wet at Gainsight than to attend the biggest Customer Success event on the planet?
I arrived on day three of Pulse 2017 and grabbed one of the last remaining seats, excited to watch Byron Deeter and Kristina Shen from Bessemer Venture Partners deliver some cloud wisdom. Much to my surprise, I was about to get a different kind of “wisdom.” Before Byron and Kristina could get started, Nick Mehta and Anthony Kennada shocked (and awakened) the 9 a.m. crowd. Enter Vanilla Ice jamming to his classic “Ice Ice Baby!”
People come from all across the world for Pulse—to learn more about Customer Success, hear from industry experts, network and share best practices with peers, and even have fun. These are just some of the reasons why Pulse has become the industry-leading Customer Success conference.
However, Pulse certainly comes at a price. Pulse represents Gainsight’s single largest allocation of spend, so it’s important that we seriously and objectively analyze each aspect of the conference with an eye toward optimization and evolution. As many of our readers are active Pulse community members, we wanted to share what we learned so we can demystify what makes Pulse so special.
Customer Success is growing
At Gainsight, we feel—and genuinely believe in—the tremendous industry growth. But reviewing the hard data from Pulse enables us to have more analytical rigor about the market development. In just five years, we’ve seen attendance grow over 13x, from 300 in 2013 to more than 4,000 in 2017 (~70% 5-year CAGR).
We have also observed growth across all employee titles and geographies. We are particularly excited to see that the attendance of junior employees (roles below “Manager” title) has grown at a ~70% faster rate over the last two years than that of the overall registrant base. Moreover, attendees are increasingly traveling to Pulse, as the Bay Area represented only 34% of attendees in 2017, down from 63% in 2013. (Don’t worry Bay Area folks, the conference isn’t going anywhere anytime soon!) We believe more junior employee and traveling attendees reflect that companies are more heavily investing more in their Customer Success function. Go CS!
Gainsight is focused on our own Customer Success
With such a significant capital investment in Pulse, it’s imperative that Gainsight makes the most of so many Customer Success leaders gathered in one place. In just three days at Pulse 2017, Gainsight had over 600 meetings—more than 50% year-over-year growth. We were busy!
More specifically, we spent a ton of time with our clients. At Gainsight, we know there is a strong correlation between revenue growth and retention rates, and as a high-growth company, we’ve put great emphasis on keeping our customers healthy and happy. At Pulse 2017, we had more than 300 customer meetings, representing 280% year-over-year growth! Prospect meetings modestly declined year-over-year, but we had a very high bar for qualifying leads in 2017 because of our strong desire to focus on existing customers.
Experience drives retention
To borrow the old Hair Club for Men slogan, we’re not just the vendor, we’re also a client. At Gainsight, we use Gainsight heavily day-to-day. We call our instance “GonG” (Gainsight on Gainsight). We employed the Gainsight survey feature tool to ask attendees about their experience. The sessions, speakers, theme, and content were big influencers—they were mentioned more than any other factor in describing the best parts of Pulse as well as where the conference had opportunity for improvement. Vanilla Ice and the party on USS Hornet were also big positives. But next year, we need to be mindful of picking a venue that has sufficient space and more reliable Wi-Fi.
We used GonG to segment attendee feedback by company size, title, and status (e.g., prospect vs. customer). For example, we received feedback that the conference’s content is increasingly geared toward enterprise companies, and relatedly, the enterprise segment had the highest NPS (65). We also leveraged DoubleDutch data to see which personas checked in and rated certain sessions highly.
Leveraging GonG and Eventbrite, we were able to segment customer feedback and evaluate its relationship with repeat attendance. Not surprisingly, those who had a great experience at Pulse are more likely to come back the next year. The Pulse 2016 NPS survey promoters (rated 9 or 10 for likeliness to recommend Pulse to a friend/colleague) returned for the 2017 conference at more than 2x higher rate than passives and detractors.
While Pulse 2017 NPS was still high at 47, the metric was down from 55 in 2016. Accordingly, we could expect 2018 retention to be lower. This would be a continuation of a trend that we have seen over recent years. As the attendee base expands beyond the “core” Customer Success audience, it becomes more challenging for Pulse to satisfy as high of a percentage of registrants; that translates to lower NPS and would explain lower retention. As mentioned above, we have also seen an increase in the share of junior employees who may be more likely to switch among their colleagues year-to-year, rather than attend again.
These trends aren’t discouraging, and we don’t intend to use them as excuse. We’re working hard to use what we’ve learned in several initiatives over the coming months to drive higher repeat attendance.
Pulse delivers meaningful value to Gainsight
It’s actually not a given that we host Pulse every year. In the spirit of Success for All, we take a hard look each year at the benefits and costs that the conference brings to our customers, investors, and teammates. Consistently, we see that Pulse has huge upside to justify our investment, both from net dollar burn and opportunity cost perspectives:
Admittedly, attribution is challenging. We have yet to initiate a lead and close a deal entirely at Pulse (maybe one day!). That said, Pulse attendance undoubtedly has a positive correlation to Gainsight business.
Among opportunities existing for less than one year prior to Pulse 2016, Gainsight had 3.5x higher likelihood of closing the deal with Pulse attendees; those who took meetings closed at more than 4.5x higher rate. While the Pulse experience may lead to higher conversions, we could also conclude that non-attendance expresses a lack of interest and lower likelihood of purchase. In other words, Pulse non-attendance may be an indicator of prospect health. Accordingly, we plan to dedicate less sales resources to non-attendees going forward (which we may already be doing without such a mandate).
Also among these existing opportunities, we are seeing higher ASPs—more than 40% higher for attendees and another 10 points for those with meetings. Notably, this trend is consistent across segments and not just because enterprise deals are those with Pulse attendance.
We also closely examined the relationship between attendance and retention. When looking at churned customers (we’re fortunate to have few of these), their attendance rates are lower. We’ve seen that customers with employees attending have 13 points higher logo retention and 41 points higher net retention; those with meetings retain at even higher rates. Though customer attendance may indeed drive Gainsight adoption, non-attendance (just as with prospects) could suggest a lack of interest in Gainsight and Customer Success. Simply put, Pulse non-attendance may be an indicator of customer health.
Pulse wins, Gainsight wins
All thanks to the electric, passionate community, Pulse has become a premier conference and helped grow awareness of the Customer Success market. As the leading Customer Success software provider, Gainsight is poised to take advantage of the growing market opportunity.
If you weren’t there, it really was something special. I’ll definitely remember Pulse as a highlight of my Gainsight experience. You don’t have to take my word for it, though. You can watch all the keynotes and listen to every session on our Pulse 2017 recap site.
One more thing—we got some feedback from attendees who were looking for even deeper content. On Tuesday, August 8, we’re hosting an all-day online webinar called PulseCheck. It will take some of the most talked-about topics from Pulse and go way more in-depth and research-based with the content. I highly recommend you attend and watch as much as you can! Click here to register for PulseCheck.