Nstein: Joining Other Search Vendors in the Infomercial Parade

April 21, 2008

Nstein is a company that “delivers a complete lifecycle of solutions tailored for content-driven organizations to define and build a unique online brand experience that leverages assets, increases online revenues and meets customer expectations.” Now it is in the for-fee conference business.

Nstein has joined the parade of vendors running infomercial conferences. The idea is that a vendor hosts a conference, arranges for appropriate speakers, and runs a two- or three-day promotion. This type of infomercial makes sense for vendors for two very good reasons. The money once allocated to independent conference organizers for a booth and maybe a slot on a crowded program gets focused on one idea–the informercial owners’ product.

The second reason is perhaps even more pragmatic–control. An independent conference organizer can put on a panel a critic of a technology. There may be a rare annoyed customer. Even worse, a loud mouth in the audience can ask a difficult question and then make a vendor look like a contestant on “Are You Smarter than a Third Grader” who doesn’t know the answer.

In the good old days, vendors of search systems had user groups. A vendor would invite users to a location. The vendor would talk, and the users would trade ideas, some code snippets, and voice their concerns to management. Well, let me tell you that these became less folksy when the founder-owners of the companies were replaced by smart lawyers and with-it MBAs. The user groups are nowhere to be found in enterprise search and related disciplines. You can still locate a user group in the library world, and one company–Cuadra Associates where owner-founder-wizard Carlos Cuadra–is still running the company.

We are now in the midst of a boomlet of controlled-message conferences. There are many examples; for instance:

The Oracle conferences do double duty. These explain the Oracle way and provide a showcase for specific Oracle products. The Oracle SES10g–Oracle’s search and content processing system loaded with security options–has not had the PR muscle this year. The Oracle shows are combinations of technical evangelism for products like SES10g which has a low profile in some sectors, unabashed sales efforts, and Oracle fun.

Microsoft’s shows are good, but the attendees are sloshing with the particular Kool-Aid distributed by each Microsoft event. At the last Microsoft event I attended, I had to buy an extra duffle to cart home the free goodies, the hard copy documents, baseball caps, and T shirts (pretty good quality at that).

For search and retrieval, Fast Search & Transfer has its FastForward Conference, a Web log, and a stream of publicity that imprints the name of the company and hustles up attendees. This year’s bash attracted more than 1,500 attendees, a number of semi-objective speakers, and a handful of investor types who sniffed for a deal.

Endeca has announced that it will host its search conference this year “to encourage openness, collaboration, innovation among Endeca Developers, Partners, and Owners”. You can read about the 2007 conference here. I wasn’t able to come up with a link to the 2008 program, but I know it’s on the Endeca Web site. Glitch in Google, I suppose.

Not surprisingly, Nstein–a company that has repositioned itself from metatagging system to a broader media / marketing / content management / search solution–in in the game. The conference is “Innovation Leaders Summit 2008”. I am certain you will want to attend and learn about innovation from May 14 to 16, 2008. You can read more here and sign up. The cost is $1,195. (Turn down your speakers, this landing page plays sound. I assume that’s an innovation. There’s also a video on the page, another innovation.)

The agenda includes a track to help you chart a Google strategy. Judging from the program, it appears that there is a wide sweep to the program. Topics span search engine optimization (SEO), federated search, and workflow solutions are on tap. There’s a strong Canadian flavor to the preliminary list of speakers. And, there are Nstein executives on the program as well. When I visited the site (briefly due to the music playing), I saw mostly Nstein executives. The implication is that Nstein has mastered these diverse topics. Most search and content processing senior managers are competent in the any and all topics related to search and content processing, so relying on the firm’s executives makes sense in the sponsored-conference setting.

One plus is that conference will be held in “old” Montréal, a venue which has some wonderful restaurants and a number of interesting shops.

There is a downside to these infomercial conferences, and it’s one that is now having impacts that are not discussed in the professional journals or on specialist Web logs.

First, the messages at these conferences are shaped and channeled. The rough edges of an independent conference include talks that may be critical of a technology or a particular trend. A vendor-owned and vendor-operated conferences reduces the likelihood that the potentially disruptive questioning of a vendor once characteristic of traditional user groups is reduced. Unhappy customers and competitors don’t get to the podium.

Another consequence of vendor-owned conferences is that these are slowly sucking attendees from broader search-related conferences. I don’t want to identify any of these events, but attendance at some search-centric events is beginning to erode. I’m not talking about the SEO conferences. These are thriving because a Web site that’s not “in Google” doesn’t exist for all practical purposes.

The conferences are the more generalized looks at search and content processing. The vendor-sponsored shows are more uptown, and, therefore, pull attendees from the more traditional venues. If traditional conference organizers can’t revivify their offerings, we may lose some important oppotunities to hear objective albeit uneven presentations about search and content processing. Imagine watching TV and seeing only infomercials. As terrible as TV is, a diet of infomercials would present an odd view of reality. No presidential election but quite a few epoxy putty and thigh slimming messages.

The killer, of course, is money. When vendors run their own shindig, the conference companies take a financial hit. Fewer attendees and fewer exhibitors could mean the end of some useful, specialist programs.

I’m still a fan of the old-fashioned, let-the-customer-speak user groups. That shows how out of touch I am. I also like the objective shows. Speakers at these shows aren’t operating within guidelines the vendor lays down.

Stephen Arnold, April 22, 2008


5 Responses to “Nstein: Joining Other Search Vendors in the Infomercial Parade”

  1. Daniel Tunkelang on April 22nd, 2008 9:45 am

    As a vendor-neutral alternative to the search-related conferences, you might want to consider the industry events that are starting to accompany top-tier academic conferences, such as ACM SIGIR (http://www.sigir2007.org/industryevent.html) and ECIR (http://ecir2008.dcs.gla.ac.uk/industry.html). The presentations are generally quite meaty, at the other extreme from infomercials, and the costs quite reasonable (e.g., £120 for the recent ECIR Industry Day).

  2. Brent on April 22nd, 2008 10:30 am

    You can find the information about Endeca’s User Conference – Discover 2008 – at: http://discover.endeca.com/

    This is a great event for those interested in Information Access!

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