Two years ago I attended a brand-new conference called DemandCon in a lark. It was refreshing – a unique perspective, great content, great attendees and speakers. Mid-April marks the fifth DemandCon and their third visit to San Francisco.

Last week I caught up with Shawn Elledge, chief engagement office for DemandCon and one of its founders to talk about how this conference stands out from others, and what makes B2B demand generation so challenging in today’s buyer-centric environment.

What makes DemandCon unique among the B2B marketing conferences this spring? Why do repeat attendees say they keep coming back?
DemandCon is unique in the fact that we offer programming for both sales and marketing professionals at the same event. While there are great conferences that individually target sales and marketing professionals, there really isn’t an event featuring programming for both at the same time and location.

We have looked at all the statistics from multiple research firms and the benefits of sales and marketing alignment are significant. As a result, we asked ourselves why not have an event where the two practices can sit down together, away from the office and work on aligning their strategies and processes — and that’s exactly what we’ve done.

Why is it so important for marketers to think about the entire demand pipeline, from top to bottom, including the sales side? How does that make them better marketers, and/or more effective marketers?
You’re only as effective as your weakest link, so it makes sense for marketers to not only think of the pipeline from top to bottom — they should consider it from both a marketing and a sales perspective, too. If sales and marketing aren’t aligned, funnel velocity is impacted, which slows down the entire sales funnel.

The number of qualified leads drops, resulting in less opportunities or deal volume, and as revenue decreases, so does profitability–everything in the funnel is connected. For marketers to be effective today, I think a quote I heard years ago still applies: “If you want to be more efficient, you have to add automation–and if you want to be more effective, you have to add integration.” Makes sense, doesn’t it?

What are some of the most prescient challenges facing B2B demand generation marketers right now? What are you hearing most from the field?
Other than the usual responses, i.e. lack of resources and budget, there is no shortage of challenges facing B2B marketers. Yet if I had to pick the top issues I get asked about the most, I’d say strategy, operations, content creation and big data are at the top of the list.

Marketers tend to get caught up in the shiny new technology or tactics of marketing, myself included. Sun Tzu said it best: “Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat” — and that’s exactly why we’re kicking off DemandCon San Francisco with a strategy session.

I’ve also had a lot of DemandCon attendees approach me for advice on how to set up their marketing efforts from an operational perspective. That’s why I asked Megan Lueders, VP of Marketing at LifeSize (a Logitech company) to share what she has learned about marketing operations from a regional and global perspective. Implementing a new marketing technology like a marketing automation platform (MAP) can be very disruptive. While the benefits of a MAP are clear, marketers often struggle with adopting a new process across the organization down to the individual role and responsibility.

I read an article in e-Marketer a month or so ago that said the top priority for marketers in 2013 was content creation, so I’m seeing a lot of interest regarding content. Marketers need to be strategic regarding content–otherwise we’re just filling the space with a lot of noise. The content question usually leads to questions about persona development, so I asked Adele Revella of the Buyer Personal Institute to share her expertise on developing buyer personas.

Finally, BIG Data. I can’t get over the amount of data I’m collecting at DemandCon, which is a relatively small business. I can only imagine the amount of data some of the larger companies are collecting on a global scale. Questions are all over the place: where and what data should I be collecting, how can I clean my data, how or who should I use to append social media data to my existing contact records, how do I share and report the impact data has on our business, how do I create the right dashboards, etc.

The list of data issues goes on and on and, as a result, we have to be wary of information paralysis. The good news for marketers is there’s no shortage of data on our customers and prospects, especially if you have a marketing automation platform in place.

DemandCon has over 500,000 contacts in our database on which we’ve been collecting behavioral information for some time. We’ve just now started to append social media data on our most active contact records using Social 123. Recently we ran a test email campaign targeting 100,000 marketers broken down into three segments, our opt-ins, contacts in our database and a list of people who were following certain twitter handles.

We had a 250% increase in open rates on the people following certain twitter handles vs. contacts in our database and 100% higher open rate then our own op-tin list which really surprised me. I’m excited about these results because Im hoping to become more macro focused with our marketing efforts and I think appending social data might help us only target people who are interested in our subject matter.

This is the fourth DemandCon conference now. What have you learned since the first one? What are some of the keys to putting on a successful event?
The San Francisco conference will actually be our 5th event and our 3rd time back to San Francisco. A lot has changed over the last few years regarding event production. I’m afraid the days of sending a few email invites doesn’t work like it did just a few years ago. A primary problem we face as an event producers is lack of engagement.

It’s hard to be engaged with your audience if you only host one event in a city or region once a year, so we’re now looking at rolling out a content strategy for BtoB Sales and Marketing professionals to help us with engagement on a long-term basis. Our goal is to provide a combination of content from curated, original and thought leader resources. We have plans to use tools like Kapost for managing multiple writers, as well as our editorial calendar.

We are also looking at Rock the Deadline Studio for content curation, ideation and editorial support. I’m hoping to grow our online community, which should increase the size of our events and allow us to roll out more educational programs and workshops further supporting the needs of our attendees.

It’s imperative that you provide actionable insight and hands-on education to be successful in the event space. It’s sort of a content balancing act between the number of corporate brands, consultants, authors and technology vendors that speak at your event vs. paid sponsors. It all comes down to the proper balance of programming, networking and marketing. I also think we need to do a better job of providing more entertainment options at our events. We tend to focus on the educational aspects of our content more than the entertainment value.

And ironically, the speaker who ranks highest is often the speaker who’s more entertaining and not necessarily providing the most education. Again I believe it takes a balanced approach to be successful.

Other side, what’s something you’d never do again at a conference? What should other conference planners definitely avoid?
I can’t say we have done something that we would never do again, but I do think we should have waited to build our community before hosting in-person events. We actually got into the media business backwards. In most cases, a media company builds out a content strategy, which attracts a community–and once that community exists, an in-person event is the natural next step. Instead, we started off by hosting smaller regional events around the country with no content strategy in place–and that’s something we plan to address very soon with the launch of BtoBSalesandMarketing.com.

It’s not always cheap to attend a conference like this, and many prospective attendees will need to get budget approval. If you were talking to their CMO, how would you justify this trip? What’s the ROI case you could make based on the impact they can have when they return?
Statics from Sirius Decisions prove that companies that align their sales and marketing efforts close 500% more leads, are 6.2 times more profitable and have an average increase in annual revenue as high as 24%. Aberdeen, Forrester Research and others all report similar findings, so the value/ROI is clearly there. You might want to look at the potential impact of aligning your internal strategies and processes and what that will do for your funnel acceleration efforts.

At the end of the day, we all have one common goal: to rapidly drive revenue. I would suggest rather than asking for budget to attend another event, present a plan that outlines what you want to achieve at this conference and why. Then approach the appropriate executives from both sales and marketing for approval.

The reality is there aren’t many affordable options for aligning your sales and marketing efforts and in most cases it takes an outside vendor and service provider to help you down this journey. DemandCon is the only agnostic event when it comes to our content, giving our attendees an opportunity to find the right consultants and technology vendors based on their unique needs and challenges, with no hidden agenda. Our event offers perspectives from all of the solution providers, making it a great place to help YOU determine who might be best suited to help you with your sales and marketing efforts.