Why fulfilling deliverables for event sponsorships is a serious last mile problem

I run HasGeek, a Bangalore-based company that strives to create discussion spaces and communities among developers. We facilitate conversations between developers and encourage peer-to-peer learning via various means, chief being organizing India’s best technology conferences.

Our conferences are on highly focussed topics including DevOps, data analytics and machine learning, JavaScript, front-end engineering and design and Android technology and product ecosystem. We successfully bring together niche audiences for each of these events — anywhere between 400 to 1,000 participants per conference.

A number of small and large companies want to talk to and get the attention of the participants at our conferences — for hiring, advertising developer products and SDKs, evangelism and product marketing, among others.

Over the last four and a half years, we’ve had a number of sponsors including international companies and domestic organizations + startups. Each sponsor has reported the presence of high-quality participants and fruitful interactions.

Recently, I’ve discovered that companies such as Freecharge, among others, can be present at HasGeek conferences for user acquisition and customer engagement since developers and various circles connected to our audiences carry out online transactions through their phones.

I am solely responsible for sales and (largely for) post-sales at HasGeek. Over the last four years, I have struggled with fulfilling sponsorship deliverables, whether it be with large organizations or startups. The struggle is with both international and local sponsors. The degree of struggle differs.

I argue that fulfilling sponsorship deliverables, especially for technology conferences, is a serious last mile challenge owing to problems of decision-making, ownership, internal bureaucracies, and the looming problem of (mis)communication and coordination. I also explain how I have overcome some of these challenges through tools, processes and mostly by being an outsider to the company’s hierarchies and communication pipelines. If you are interested, read along.

The decision-maker is often not responsible for ‘fronting’ the sponsorship decision.

As I mentioned above, many companies sponsor HasGeek conferences for recruitment (or what is now referred to as ‘employer branding’), community engagement, branding and visibility, acquiring customers, developer adoption for tools and SDKs, etc.

The interesting question here is not why a company sponsors a conference. Rather, who in the chain and command of the organization decides to the sponsor the conference and what their vision and understanding of technology, community and conferences is. Individuals at the founder and senior levels often recognize that it is worthwhile to sponsor a HasGeek conference, and that the returns on investing money through sponsorship will yield results in the long-term (and sometimes in the short-term too). But they do not always have the time to ‘front’ the decision i.e., interface with the conference organizer and get the necessary information, creatives and resources in place for fulfilling the deliverables and ensuring that the company eventually has a presence at the conference.

Hence, they often delegate decision fulfilment to a designated person such as HR manager, administrator (especially in startups), events team lead (often a woman) or to personnel in the branding and communications department. In some organizations, fulfilment is distributed across different departments responsible for branding and communications, events and recruitment. This means ‘fronting’ by diverse people, many of who are not on the same plane in terms of information about the event, reasons for sponsorship, and what they have to do for this conference. Information disparity poses a serious challenge to fulfilling sponsorship deliverables.

Other challenges a decision-maker faces.

While decision-makers may not front sponsorship fulfilment, they have to deal with the challenges of budgetary and financial approvals for the decisions, and also cooperation from other departments, especially finance and branding and communication. I’ll quickly try to summarize both these challenges:

  1. Financial and budgetary approvals: this involves challenges with using existing tools to get approvals and eventually a purchase order. The tools are either so archaic or so new that no one is sure how to use them. Or the process, chain of hierarchy coupled with the tools are so complicated and vast that sometimes a purchase order is issued in the wrong vendor name or in the wrong approving authority’s name. And then there is the challenge for the decision-maker when s/he has to interface with procurement departments who’s primary goal is to get a heavy discount. The decision-maker cannot negotiate for us, and we refuse to negotiate on the list price. Decisions often get stuck here, and by the time we have an approval, the event is due in two weeks time. End result: a scramble for everything.
  2. Cooperation from other departments: Cooperation from other departments is necessary in order to get information and details such as logo usage (and guidelines), designs, approvals for designs, etc. Many companies have branding and communications departments which create and approve designs and ensure that these are in consonance with the overall branding guidelines. Sometimes the decision-maker has no access to these departments and their people because she does not have to interface with them on a daily basis. At other times, she has access to the departments and their people, but not necessarily to their time and resources which are spread across a number of activities. The conference which the company is sponsoring may be inconsequential for the brand-comm department. End result: scrambles and frustrations in coordination and headaches + heartaches owing to coordination across departments

There is continuous struggle for resources — time, money and people.

There is no doubt that everybody, ranging from a large company to a new startup, is struggling for time, money and people. Money is not always the problem. Most of the struggles are for time and people, especially when it comes to an event or a conference that could really be a one-time affair for the company.

Those fronting sponsorship fulfilment — whether it be the decision-maker herself, or whether it be the person she has delegated the responsibility to — are struggling to align people and time for the conference — teams that will represent the company at the table or booth, engineers and designers who will attend the conference, people who will design and submit fliers, or even people who will submit a 200-word write-up to go on the conference website. End result: last minute scrambles for people, information and presence at the conference.

And sometimes, there are too many people for one piece of information, or for a single problem.

Especially in very large organizations, or those spread across different cities and countries, I find new people appearing for every single piece of fulfilment or too many people responsible for an approval. In general, I find that people throw more people at the problem of missing information. While this solves the problem for the sponsor, it is a woe for the organizer (in this case also the sales person) because she has to deal with that many more people and keep track of the communication chain.

This problem is worse in the case of companies that contract event management vendors and make them the ‘front’ for sponsorship fulfilment. Event management vendors often want to negotiate for their customers (the sponsor) and get more space and deals for them when it comes to fulfilment. They also work with a standard understanding of events and trade fairs whereas HasGeek conferences operate differently in terms of setup, culture and organization. We’ve had to insist and impose on our mandates — how much electricity a booth can consume, design of the booth, insistence on publicity material staying with our code of conduct, among others.

Lastly, a conference may coincide with other activities and events in the company.

Companies have ongoing activities and their calendars are full — product and feature launches, performance reviews and assessments, funding rounds, awards ceremonies to attend, and other national and international conferences to go to. Clearly, a conference is not the only thing going for a company (and especially for a startup which is struggling with product launch, customer acquisition and revenue generation).

In such cases, it is harder to get the human and time resources from the staff of the company. Even the decision-maker is helpless in the face of other happenings within the organization. It is here that we need better tools for coordination, and tools that aid in not losing critical information about the conference and fulfilment.

Information disparities and asymmetries, and here is where I have navigated fairly successfully.

By now, you have either given up reading this post, or you think I am only complaining. Well, actually, I have found workarounds and solutions over a period of time. Some of these work well. Others don’t.

  1. Being an outsider can be an advantage: Being an outsider has often helped me understand the organization’s hierarchies, processes, tools and most importantly, its people. I have a better grasp than their own people do. Times when an internal champion or decision-maker is stuck because s/he can’t make a breakthrough with the people and processes, I have managed to get cooperation across departments and between personnel. As an outsider, I am successful because I do not carry the baggage of the company’s hierarchies and the roles of the cooperating parties. In other words, I am neutral and therefore I am effective. I am also congenial and have more empathy for all parties because I am outside of the situation. At other times, I bulldoze my way through the hierarchies and am firm with personnel who aren’t moving on approvals (primarily procurement). It has also helped in having alliances and affiliations with people at different levels in the same company in order to move decisions when they are stuck. These affiliations and alliances are an outcome of the goodwill that HasGeek has in the developer community and technology ecosystem. My goal is to enhance this goodwill even while resolving conflicts.
  2. Have tools and resources that help you provide information quickly. I often have to give two pieces of information at least 25 times to every sponsor — HasGeek mailing address to deliver inserts and goodies; and what are the deliverables under the package that the company has signed up for. This is because different people are fronting and fulfilling different parts of the sponsorship package. In the past, I’d repeat this information endlessly. Earlier this year, I tried checklists but they did not work because they are verbose. Moreover, checklists on Google docs disappear as quickly as spam does in email. Google docs are not always accessible on the phone. I needed a tool that serves as a reminder of the deadlines. Hence, about three months ago, I started using google calendar invites. For every deliverable, I’d set up a deadline and send the invite to everyone from the sponsoring organization who was interfacing with me. Every invite had the precise details — how much to deliver, where, what needs to be done when, dimensions of artworks, etc. While this method is not foolproof and I still have to repeat information, repetition has reduced drastically.
  3. Insist on self-help: In one of our conferences this year, I gathered a huge insight — our conferences focus on self-help (including self-help for learning and reaching out to peers when you are stuck with a technology problem). Personnel from sponsoring organizations — such as HR, procurement, enterprise sales and marketing, and event management vendors — are used to summoning staff and people for information and help. This is where conflict and frustrations arise. I now push back by redirecting people to where they can get information — such as our website for our address or the conference website for the schedule or an email sent a month ago — or insist they go back to the person they are reporting to in order to get the information. This push back is necessary if we have institute a cultural shift in the way companies and hierarchies operate.

This post is by no means comprehensive. There are insights that I have failed to capture in the interest of brevity. Perhaps I’d write a product manifesto or a working document some day. I have also stayed away from vignettes because those are far too many to narrate here, and they contain too many characters for you to follow.

I’d summarize by saying that selling conference sponsorships is not as much of a challenge as post-sales and fulfilment is. It is a challenge because those at the front lines of delivery do not understand the larger vision of community engagement and/or they always constrained for time and people. Moreover, there are always information asymmetries — including lack of knowledge of when and where the event is happening — and organizational hierarchies which prohibit information exchange. Overall, we need better tools for communication and reminders — email is certainly not one of them. And we definitely need more empathy, cooperation, coordination and negotiation (when tools fail or are not enough) if we are to get around to better event sponsorship fulfillments.