You could say that Vignette Corp. has focused on customer needs since before Day One. When founders Ross Garber and Neil Webber quit their jobs in 1995 to start their own company, they didn't yet know what they were going to sell. First, they had to find out what people needed. After cold-calling more than 300 companies, asking what their online business problems were, Garber and Webber had their answer. In the fourth quarter of 1996 they announced their first product, StoryServer 2.1, an application system for managing relationships throughout the online customer life cycle. The research worked: Vignette's customer list is snowballing, and Story- Server began racking up industry awards from the moment it appeared.

When it came time to think about holding a user conference, Vignette turned again to the polling approach, asking customers everything from whether or not they even wanted a conference to what they wanted to learn to how much they were willing to pay. And again, the technique scored. The user conference, held in Austin, Vignette's headquarters city, in April, was a standing-room-only event that drew 300 customers from more than a dozen countries.

Because it was the company's first, Vignette had a lot riding on this meeting. It wasn't just that its leaders wanted to build customer confidence in a young, fast-growing company that had shipped its first product only two years earlier. Equally important, Vignette had announced an initial public offering on February 19, so this meeting had to build stockholder confidence as well.

To meet these overall strategic goals of building customer and stockholder confidence, Vignette had several tactical goals for the meeting, according to Peter Klante, vice president of marketing:

* Create a community. "We wanted to provide a forum where customers could share ideas," Klante says. "This is a fast-moving market area, and implementation is bounded only by creativity. We provide a lot of thought leadership, but our customers do as well."

* Provide the "strategic vision--the bigger picture of where we're headed."

* Give Vignette's Consulting, Solution, and Technology Partners (see Three Kinds of Partners, above) an opportunity to network with Vignette's customers.

* Present Vignette as sizable, highly professional. "We wanted to make ourselves appear as a larger company than our revenue would indicate," says Klante.

How Big Is a Community? The need for a user conference surfaced among Vignette's managers a little over a year ago, when the company had signed up some 150 customer companies. "Our aim was 200 people," says Klante. "If we didn't get 200, we wouldn't get a sense of community. But we realized we'd have to hit a high percentage of our customer base to do that." Customer polls--via phone, e-mail, and at regional user meetings--indicated that Vignette stood a good chance of drawing a crowd. After all, says Klante, such a meeting would give customers access to Vignette employees from the founder on down. Customers also could network with Vignette Partners and with people trying to solve problems similar to theirs.

Meanwhile, the customer base kept growing. By the time of the meeting, it was approaching 200. People were still registering the weekend before the conference, and the total attendance hit 300.

The initial plan was to invite just U.S. users; Vignette had only started selling in Europe in mid-1998. But conversations with international customers revealed enough interest to include them in the target audience as well. Extending the reach paid off. There were 40 international registrants, about 13 percent of the total. Among the countries represented: Finland, Germany, New Zealand, South Africa, and Sweden.

Vignette polled its customers yet again to determine what should be presented in the general sessions. The polling showed that "they were looking for real-world experience with innovative applications," says Klante. On day one, they heard Michael Skorski, director of technology for CBS New Media, discuss the challenges CBS faced in creating an online network/affiliate model. On day two, Roy Isacowitz, general manager of I-Net Bridge, explained how his company uses StoryServer 4 to distribute real-time and historical financial content to corporate intranets. And the keynote address was given by Stan Davis, tech celebrity and co-author of Blur: The Speed of Change in the Connected Economy.

Even More Polling Vignette's bottom-up approach even extended to breakout sessions. A Vignette committee that included marketing and engineering people drew up a lengthy list of proposed topics. That list was forwarded to customers, who were asked to circulate it in their companies and solicit input. With such in-depth feedback, Vignette finalized the list with confidence, including topics that ranged from marketing-oriented to deeply technical: "Tips and Tricks for Coding Templates."

Audience demographics guided the design of the three-day agenda. "The audience was primarily technical," says Klante. "But there were also business people. We tried to have business-level discussions all on the first day, and drill down deeper on the technical side on the second day." That way, the non-tech people could hear what pertained to them, and then depart.

An invaluable customer poll produced feedback on setting fees for the conference, and gave a sense of what comparable events were charging. At the same time, the company had to consider what its own costs would be. "Based on experience, we crunched some numbers," says events specialist Tina Hambly. "We were looking at three days of catering, entertaining, audiovisual, transportation, and so on. Our objective wasn't to make money, but to cover part of our costs." The conference fee was set at $695 per person.

In addition to the sessions, there was Solutions Expo, a trade show where Vignette Partners could exhibit. Only 20 partners could be accommodated, although many more wanted to participate. The partners saw the $2,800 fee as a bargain, according to Klante, because every attendee was a Vignette customer. "The people Vignette targets are consistent with our target market," agrees Jon Ebert, director of channel marketing for Net Perceptions, Eden Prairie, Minn. Some attendees at the conference already use his company's software product in conjunction with Vignette's, he explains, and "they like to see us together--they buy into the fact that our companies work together well." But it's even more important, he says, to connect with prospects. "We had one-on-one conversations with dozens and dozens of people."

Clear Commerce Corp. is one of Vignette's newer Technology Partners. "We recently completed integration to Vignette's products, so we wanted exposure to its customers," says Lori Aulds, business development manager for the Round Rock, Texas, company. "They had great attendance, especially for a first conference, and we got high-quality leads."

Starting Out in Your Own Backyard Vignette held its first meeting in its headquarters city for its own peace of mind. But meeting in Austin presented its own set of challenges."Austin being a smaller town, we had only about three venue choices," says Hambly. "There are facilities in the hill country, but attendees want to see the music scene." So it was important to be near downtown. The choice: the Renaissance Austin Hotel.

"It was critical to have the hotel staff on hand 24/7," Hambly adds. "I wanted to feel comfortable that if there had been any crisis, I could pick up the phone and call someone." Another issue was the uncertainty about attendance. "We knew we'd have at least 200 attendees, but we anticipated growth," Hambly says. Because the Renaissance ballroom could hold up to 300 people, Hambly figured she was in the clear. But--minor oversight--"We didn't count the Vignette people, and customers took every seat," says Klante. "About 50 or 60 Vignette people had to stand."

The hotel contract was signed last fall for the April 26 to 28 meeting. A teaser mailing went out in late January/early February, and a second mailing was sent about two and one-half weeks later, some six weeks before the meeting. Promotion was also supported with an e-mail blast and telemarketing.

It's interesting to note how attendees registered: 65 percent registered online, 30 percent by phone, 5 percent by fax--and zero by mail. And Hambly points out that the distribution isn't the no-brainer it may appear to be: "Most of our customers have an online presence, but not all are high-tech companies." They use the technology because it works, she says, adding that there was not one question or objection regarding the security of online registration.

Big Company Image The Renaissance Austin Hotel was quite capable of meeting Vignette's technical requirements, says Hambly. Nevertheless, Vignette used an outside production company, Austin-based Media Event Concepts, Inc. The reason, says Hambly: "It was critical to project a big company image, and MEC can provide that. We used them for video production and graphical treatment." During the general sessions, for example, PowerPoint presentations, live demos, and canned demos were happening simultaneously. "MEC has the expertise to make it all come together," says Hambly. "They created a PowerPoint template with the event logo. We submitted our presentations, and they cleaned them up--made them pretty. Their team is phenomenal. They're in front of you 24 hours a day, if needed."

MEC president Gordon Feller explains how he achieved the big-company look that Vignette wanted. "We did a series of hard-wall sets and lighting effects to get a nice corporate look. Then we did some image pieces--video presentations and graphic animations. The transitions made it look very collected and consistent. And we did speaker rehearsal and coaching to make their executives look relaxed and in control." For the Solutions Expo, MEC designed computer pedestals and lighting elements, and made sure that exhibitors had Internet connectivity.

When we spoke with Klante, he hadn't yet completed the meeting postmortem. Among the questions he was considering: Should the meeting remain in Austin, or be moved to a location that would be more convenient for international attendees? Should he add a business track to the program?

But there was one thing he already knew he'd do differently: "Get a bigger ballroom."

Vignette Corp. has established relationships with three categories of partner companies. Consulting Partners--companies such as Ernst & Young and Cambridge Technologies--assist Global 2000 companies with strategic planning. Solution Partners--Market Wave, Free Range, and others--combine Vignette software with their own products to provide a package tailored to a customer's needs. Technology Partners such as Clear Commerce and Net Perceptions offer technology that complements and extends the functionality of Vignette's products. A Consulting Partner might go along on a Vignette sales call to help a new customer develop a strategy. The other partners, however, come in later to help take programs to the next level.

EMG: A Fourth Partner As in marketing, so in meeting planning: Austin, Texas-based Vignette Corp. needs three kinds of partners to succeed in its business--and a fourth partner to help handle meetings.

"People often underestimate how many team players they'll need," says Debbie Kern, president of Event Marketing Group (EMG), Austin, to which Vignette outsourced some of the conference planning. "The conference penetrates the organization--marketing and technical people and executives--more deeply than they'd think, and people can be drained. Vignette has all the resources within the company, but it's just too much to do."

For example, says Kern, Vignette could have handled registration internally--but would they want to? They chose instead to outsource to EMG, which in turn partnered with Results Plus, also in Austin, to handle registration in advance--on a secure Web site--and at the conference.

It made sense for Vignette to sell space in the Solutions Expo, says Kern. But once an exhibitor had signed up, EMG handled communication with that company and also coordinating the set-up with audiovisual supplier Media Event Concepts.

EMG assisted with many elements of the planning, says Kern. "We helped them come up with a time line and a master budget. We also handled the contract negotiation and hotel booking. And we brainstormed to help them come up with the Vignette Village name. We offered them the experience of doing the kind of conference they had not done before."

A Blur of Activity Vignette Corp. was founded in December 1995 and a year later announced its first product, StoryServer 2.1, software that helps online businesses build relationships with their customers. StoryServer can, among other things, identify a visitor's browser and provide the appropriate view; profile visitors by tracking where they visit on the Web site, rather than asking that forms be filled out; and provide customized content based on the profile. In less than a year, StoryServer had been established as the platform for more of the top 100 Web sites (ranked by number of hits) than any other software vendor.

This year has been a blur of activity for Vignette. In February, it announced its initial public offering. In March, it opened an office in Paris; there already are offices in Hamburg, Germany; Sydney, Australia, and in the London suburb of Borehamwood. In April, Vignette announced impressive first-quarter results. Total revenues were $9.1 million, a 306 percent increase from the first quarter of 1998. At last count, Vignette was up to 225 customer companies and 310 employees.

Racking Up Awards Vignette began receiving awards from the moment it appeared on the scene. It began shipping StoryServer 2.1 early in 1997, and in February 1997 was recognized with NewMedia magazine's Hyper award for technical excellence and innovation. Other awards include Seybold Editors' 1997 Marketing Pioneer Award, Red Herring magazine's 1998 Best Overall Private Company Award and 1998 Best Product Award, and, NewMedia's 1999 Hyper Award for the best publishing system. In April, StoryServer 4 technology became part of the Permanent Research Collection on Information Technology at the Smithsonian Institution.