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ONWARD: The Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth

I had the opportunity last to attend Onward19, YEXT’s now annual fest in New York City, as a moderator at its Partner Summit.

Here are some basics on the event. 

  • I heard there were more than 2,400 attendees, though my unscientific guess is between 1,800 and  2,000. 
  • About 400 people attendees to the Partner Summit, which required a second room and a second track to meet the demand.
  • More than 30 companies packed the innovation expo center.
  • There were more than 80 speakers/panelists.
  • A day and a half event – with two evenings booked wall to wall. 
  • Onward featured a couple of A-list keynoters, including the Magic man himself, Ervin “Magic” Johnson, and Late Night host Seth Meyers.

Onward is a very serious undertaking, taking over the Marriott Marquis in New York’s Time Square and to some extent the world of local search. It was difficult not to run into someone you’ve know from the decade and a half of the world of local search.

Onward is without question expertly run. Though having run a few events myself over the years, I see the little things that shave points off an otherwise perfect score. The escalator that wasn’t working. The air conditioning system that wasn’t turned on soon enough. The breakfast sandwich that probably tasted better in a test kitchen.

The Partner Summit

The Partner Summit kicked off Onward with an eye-opening 8:30 am start. As I mentioned, the Partner Summit was in such demand that YEXT added a second track to accommodate the crush of partners wanting to attend. I had the good fortune of moderating a session called “Behind the Curtain: GTM Use Cases.” YEXT surveyed last year’s partners and this was among the sessions with the highest demand.

The session abstract read:

“Consumers now expect direct answers from search experiences, whether they’re asking questions about a major global brand or a local small business. To compete, SMBs must reach customers during their moments of intent, but convincing them to adopt the necessary new technologies can be a challenge. Join Neal Polachek in conversation with a diverse cross-section of reseller partners to discuss the different methods they use to sell and package Yext in their respective industries and regions.”

I had four great panelists.

Michael Oschmann, CEO, Müller Medien 

Luke Barnes, Chief Business Development Officer, Madwire

Stefano Santinelli, CEO, localsearch

Chris Marentis, CEO, Surefire Local

I asked each panelist to share a fun fact as an ice breaker. Chris Marentis of Surefire Local said that he once ran the largest event for surfers (Chris, I’d like to know what that event was and why you left it). Michael and Luke noted having their hands full of three and four daughters, respectively. Stefano took the prize for the funniest fact. As a Swiss, he neither wears a watch or likes chocolate. Go figure.

The panelists shared their GTM strategies, which ranged from including YEXT as a hard bundle into the value proposition, to white labeling YEXT into a solution, to making YEXT a highly integrated element of a broader platform (and dashboard) solution. All of these panelists see YEXT as a necessary element of their overall value proposition to their prospects and customers, though each includes it in their own, unique fashion.

I asked each to share what they see developing in the future.

Luke from Madwire stressed the benefits of leveraging video, as he shared data around how much higher retention is after watching a video versus reading something.

Stefano focused his remarks on the future of voice and how that would fundamentally impact the search as we know it today.

One of the most interesting observations the panelists shared was the work being done to move some aspects of onboarding to intelligent technology. In other words, shifting the burden of onboarding away from either the customer or a customer success team and toward well-educated technology. To the extent this can be successfully implemented, there could be profound cost-structure implications. 

The Main Event

At 1:30 pm on Tuesday, Yext CEO Howard Lerman took the stage as the host of “Truth Be Told.”

Howard’s argument is that today, there are way too many answers out on the web that may in fact not but the whole truth. His view, which is also YEXT’s view, is that we’re now in a phase of search where the user/consumer is in search of truth and today’s search experience is leaving them with something considerably less than the truth.

This lack of full transparency isn’t necessarily the result of malice or deceit, but perhaps neglect. Howard went on to showcase Answers, YEXT’s newest product, which uses structured data to answer any variety of user questions, truthfully. 

I believe YEXT is on to something. Let me share an example. Last week, as I was riding the bus to SFO, I tried using the AT&T website to figure out how I could get affordable data — and perhaps voice  — service while attending AsiaComm (aka ALSMA) in Ho Chi Min City.

For the life of me, as much as the AT&T site suggested I could get my answer, there was no such luck. In fact, it wasn’t only that I didn’t get the answer, it was the painful process just trying to get the answer.

What I think YEXT and team is up to is taking search to the next dimension. To help brands of all shapes and sizes load up their unique and critical data and information into the YEXT platform and enable the sharing of the data near and far, wide and deep. We’ll write more about YEXT Answers in a subsequent post. 

Howard Lerman is a genius marketer and visionary. Our personal history goes back to when he was launching power listings over a decade ago and he would pound me to put him on the Kelsey stage for “even just 15 minutes”. I saw his passion and his commitment and did put him up on our stage and he delivered.

He’d fix a listing live on stage to demonstrate what the YEXT technology could do. And true to his past, he did it again Tuesday afternoon. He showed how searching for broccoli cheese soup on the Campbell’s site was something less than “um um good”. And then he hit the Answer button in the YEXT platform and like magic – the Campbell’s site was now able to answer questions like how many calories are in broccoli cheese soup (don’t ask).

Speaking of Magic

NBA Hall of Fame legend Ervin Magic Johnson gave the attendees a 60-minute keynote filled with passion, humor, and wisdom. If you ask me, I can tell you where I was standing when I learned that Magic was going to retire from professional basketball.

Magic was one of the greatest ever. He did for other players on his team what few others have done or can do — turn good players into great players. His enthusiasm, his selflessness, and his intellect made his would turn his teammates from decent to good and good to great.

Magic shared with us what he’s learned in his basketball career and how he applied it to his business career. Alan Ross Sorkin of CNBC came on stage to ask Magic a few questions.

Sorkin began by asking him about his HIV and exit from basketball. Magic shared how his wife Cookie said to him that is was finally time to start feeling sorry for himself and get out and build a business. Magic said it was the best coaching he’s ever had and of course the rest is history. Nearly 28 years since he made his announcement regarding HIV, Magic is alive and well and a national treasure.

Back to YEXT. There are many legitimate competitors out there nibbling at Team Howard’s heels. There’s lots of great technology out there as well.

For sure, Team Howard has a big head start. But as the YEXT prospectus rightly acknowledged more than 18 months ago, the amount of truth data about brands — big and small — out there yet to be structure and surfaced at the sound of a voice is massive.

I don’t know about you, but I am buying my pass for Onward20 to see what YEXT has in store for the next decade of local search.

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