Monday, May 08, 2006

The GEL Conference: Defining a "Good Experience" in Business and Elsewhere

The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed. -- C.G. Jung

I hadn't heard of the GEL conference until a friend, Dawn Barber, told me she was up to her neck in planning two weeks ago. Volunteering to help was one of the best decisions I've ever made.

Have you ever been to a meeting where you laughed for almost the whole day? Or one where not only wasn't a single speaker dull and kept you on the edge of your seat?

This sort of experience might be old hat for some, but GEL was my first. Over the next few posts, I'll share some of the high points I managed to capture for those who couldn't attend.

First Things First: What is GEL?

GEL (Good Experience Live) is a yearly conference that prioritizes, explores, and attempts to define the nature of a good experience. The meeting was invented by a consulting company called Creative Good as part of a weeklong business meeting with selected companies. This year's theme was hidden potential.

The meeting represented people with a wider range of backgrounds and skills than I'd ever seen in one room. Just to name a few, I met dancers, programmers, visual artists, jugglers, entrepreneurs, managers from large corporations, teachers, and a lexicographer.

The only thing this crowd seemed to have in common is a passion for innovation and the willingness to jump into the unknown and swim around there for a while.

Conference Highlights

The first speaker was Doug Rushkoff, and I missed most of his talk. Fortunately, however, I was there for at least some of it.

Ruskoff's overall point seemed to be that companies need to start making decisions primarily based on customer experience. When I sat down, Rushkoff was in the process of suggesting that customers know more about products than employees or their managers.

Employees as Passionate Experts: Customers as Amateur Employees

Overall, Rushkoff suggested that a successful company is one in which the employees are passionate experts about their product. He went on to say that companies like Adobe create online environments in which customers can play around with a tool. In this way, customers become amateur employees. In other words, customers see the employees as experts, and they want the information they've got.

Rushkoff offered told another story, this time about the success of a shoe company in Seattle. The designs are so admired that customers sent in their own designs to a contest not to win but because they wanted to become a part of the company's culture. They wanted to get feedback on their own work and learn from a master they admired.

Examples of Failure

To start with models of failure to base decisions on customer experience, Rushkoff gave the example of Volkswagen bugs. Customers loved them, but the company decided to start making cars that were un-Volkswagon-like instead. What did customers do? They went out and bought minis. How did Volkswagen respond? They hired the Mini's advertising agency. Instead, they should have brought back the product everyone wanted.

Rushkoff gave an example of a slightly different kind of failure in a company that used Paris Hilton in a bathing suit to advertise its product online. The company wanted to create a buzz -- and it worked. More visitors logged on to the site than ever before.

However, despite the enormous number of attention, the company did less business in those two weeks than at any other time of the year. Sure, there are plenty of people who will log on to see Paris Hilton's breasts, Rushkoff said, but viral marketing for its own sake is not going to help sales.

And So . . .

Rushkoff persuasively argued that the hidden potential in most businesses is the possibility of creating good experiences and personal investment of both employees and customers.

More highlights from GEL speakers in future posts -- as good experiences go at conference, this one is at the top of the list, regardless of your field.

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