In a lot of ways, the ExactTarget Connections 2012 Conference (#ET12) was exactly the great annual event that the Indianapolis-based SaaS company has trained its customers and partners to expect. There was a strong line-up of speakers, a fairly well-balanced agenda of learning opportunities, and, of course, no shortage of networking and socializing. Indianapolis was once again painted orange for a week, as thousands flocked to share in the experience.

For those of us who have attended the conference for many years, though, there was something notably different going on. It was familiar in many ways, but it felt new, too.

Maybe it was the size of the event. With over 4,000 attendees, Connections was now officially the largest digital marketing conference in the world. That is truly something for everyone in the ExactTarget ecosystem to celebrate. For an event that was so intimate in its early years, though, it is not celebrated without a sense of nostalgia.

Maybe it was the increasing international feel of the conference. It would have been hard to miss the energetic contingent from various European nations, as well as a good number of our fellow marketers from down under in Australia. CEO Scott Dorsey also announced increased global presence for ExactTarget, highlighting new offices in both France and Sweden.

Perhaps it was the recent IPO. ExactTarget is a publicly traded company now. And, even though Dorsey’s playful presentation of the Safe Harbor Statement was really the only portion of the program actually dedicated to the change, there was a noted recurrence of that fact within the conversations both on and off of the stage.

I think the difference was in the platform itself. ExactTarget isn’t an ESP anymore. It just isn’t. They have developed and acquired (CoTweet, Pardot, iGoDigital) their way from the email platform that long-time users knew, to a highly dynamic, true multichannel marketing automation platform. With the announcement by Scott McCorkle, the company’s President of Technology and Strategy, of the opening of the Fuel platform to third parties, the IPO suddenly wasn’t the only way that ‘ownership’ of ExactTarget had changed.

“By opening our Fuel platform for third-party development, ExactTarget is once again revolutionizing the way developers and marketers alike can unlock the power of data and the cloud to connect with their customers,” said McCorkle. “Fuel extends our capabilities to power advanced integration and real-time messaging and creates the foundation for an entirely new app ecosystem that will serve as a catalyst for digital marketing innovation worldwide.”

Other platform changes announced by McCorkle included:

  • MobilePush – Allowing marketers to create, schedule, deploy and track notifications through their customers’ downloaded mobile applications.
  • Cross-Channel Playbooks – Enabling marketers to more easily construct campaigns and automations that are visually represented in a way that resembles actual campaign plans.
  • Distributed Sending – Empowering business units, franchisees and stores within distributed organizations to create, send and track local email campaigns; features enterprise content management, approvals, and permissions.
  • Advanced Web Solutions – Positioning marketers to leverage customer preferences, browsing behavior and engagement to power personalized Web content and product recommendations.

ExactTarget’s expansion from email across the mobile, social, and web channels, along with the opening up of Fuel, changes more than just the platform. It changes the nature of the discussion. It changes the user base. It changes the unspoken subtitles of the Connections conference. It changes expectations going forward.

Connections is no longer an email conference; we’ve established that. But, I don’t think it is a user conference anymore, either. I expect the future of Connections to look much more like SFDC’s DreamForce, dominated by an entire sub-economy of third parties who have innovated on top of the platform to serve highly customized solutions within a wide range of industries.

David Blaine ate glass. Michael J Fox explained why he isn’t Michael A Fox. Mother Nature let up on the rain just long enough to give concert-goers a break to watch The Fray. And most importantly, ExactTarget handed its future over to the capable hands of the broader digital marketing and development community. On all fronts, Connections 2012 was a success.

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