Sponsorship choices, choices, choices

There are as many different sponsorship plans as there are events, and of those there are aplenty. How to choose wisely and save your brand from oblivion?

[Prof. Henry Jones] Well, he who gets the budget must face the final challenge. [Indiana] What final challenge? [Prof. Henry Jones] Some conferences of such lethal cunning.

In the beginning, there was homework

When you are assigned your company’s sponsorship budget, before actually deciding what will you sponsor and where, you need to do some tasks to make sure so you don’t end up trying to answer uncomfortable questions later.

The events chosen can increase your brand’s visibility and credibility… or just empty your pockets. With all those cool events happening everywhere, finding the right ones may seem more about intuition than anything else, but fortunately this is not only an art but also a science.

In a debatable order, you should:

  • Build a preliminary list of events to evaluate in terms of topics covered, number of attendees and their professional profiles, location, strength on social media and public communication channels, quality of the speaker line, minimum cost of sponsorship, etc. It will be useful as a reference to evaluate new ones throughout the year.
  • Run a first cherry-picking session of events with real potential (because of topics covered, audience profiles, and location) and those that are definitely a “nope thanks, I’m not thirsty Mr Grail Knight”. If you are searching for projects to collaborate with, or if you are recruiting, you may need to focus on hackathons and events offering workshops. On the other hand, there are some major developer events that have a less-than-great reputation, and you may not be willing to make a risky investment on them if your budget is tight.
  • With all that, look around you. How can you make the most coverage possible with the team you have? Where are your team members based? Which are your target countries and regions? Do you plan to add more people to the team before end of year? That will tell you an approximate number of events that is realistic to aim to.
  • Now you can estimate the average cost per sponsored event, which should include estimated cost of swag to produce according to attendees expected.
  • Trips to conferences being as attendee or speaker are extra costs — If someone in your team will give talks, start a list of talks they can give comfortably and, according to event locations, team size, and number of talks expected, estimate the average trip cost and total trip expenses.
  • Convince your boss and Finance team that all this is an amazing idea, and justify it with a list of goals to achieve and metrics to impact.

Then, and only then, you can confidently say that you really own the budget, and you will be able to keep the trust of everyone involved in such a complex operative.

Truly owning the budget means truly owning the strategy.

Of course, you can skip all the homework and directly ask for lots of money; then, if you are lucky to get it, spend it whenever you see an event that looks cool enough for your tech brand until your budget hits zero. But we all know what happens to rich folks who don’t do their homework…

At least she was smart enough to let the rich guy take a gamble himself.

Once homework is done, it’s time to start choosing the specific events to invest on. And here’s where the fun really begins.

Welcome aboard

Now it’s time to select a first round of events to discuss sponsorship with, plus any other initiative that you would like to co-produce with the organizers. Go back to that preliminary list of events with real potential, and have a look at each one of them.

Your sponsorships must align to a brand vision and result in both qualitative and quantitative outputs.

You can take for granted that all those events will look cool, interesting, and even exciting on both their websites and social media profiles. And the more of those events you discover, the more all of them will look the same: branding everywhere, videos of people having fun and probably nodding at other people, a speaker lineup from well-known companies, catchy talk titles, and a constant feed of people auto-tweeting about attending. But those are camo clothes for events; they show things that, somehow, are expected to be there but they don’t give you any information that can help to distinguish them from the surrounding landscape.

A good camouflage is one that makes people forget about basic things, like who exactly is checking the tickets.

To separate the wheat from the chaff, you need to understand what’s the brand and product message you want to transmit, and how events can support that goal with verifiable facts. That is, you should find your own “deal-maker criteria” — or, in some cases, deal-breaker. The more an event complies with your list the more that event fits your interests as an investor.

This is my current “deal-makers list”:

✔️ Scope and tracks are clear 
✔️ Sponsored diversity tickets
✔️ Sponsored ticket discount
✔️ Attendee list is not shared with sponsors (3)
✔️ Organization provides attendee stats pre & post conference
✔️ Speaking time is not on sale
✔️ Speaker line is diverse and there are no speakers previously reported for sexual harassment, racism, or any other kind of hate speech/behaviour
✔️ Sponsorship brochure is public and includes tiers and pricing 
✔️ Lowest sponsorship levels include logo on mails and mentions on social media
✔️ Attendee bag insert available to all sponsorship levels (1)
✔️ Booth is optional — a booth means that you can’t send just one person to the event, and that you will increase costs due to extra swag and equipment
✔️ No festival approach, a focus on “came for speakers, stayed for the learnings” philosophy (2)
✔️ Hackathon challenge
✔️ Workshops
✔️ Solid code of conduct

This is a great example of a neat code of conduct that works, in a conference well-known for a great ambience, content, and going the extra mile for attendees (eg providing free childcare for parents attending).

(1) The case of the absurdly-expensive stickers

Keeping attendee bag inserts out of the cheapest sponsorship plan speaks volumes about how much the event cares for the startup community, individual contributors and small groups of innovators. For many small pockets, an attendee bag insert is their best chance to get noticed and printing stickers not just their best budget option but also key strategic assets — let’s face it, a small logo mixed with 20 more at the bottom of a mailing or at a corner on stage is not going to cut it. If the advantage of a, say, silver sponsor level is mainly the bag insert it means that the cost of swag may double.

(2) The case of the audience that drank too much

Unwinding is good. Unwinding is, in fact, necessary. But just unwinding. Attending a professional event is work. When there are more side activities and parties than talks and workshops, the kind of audience attracted is the one that is there to have some fun away from their desks and only network over a beer mug. Usually, you will want to appeal to the best professionals in their field and to those focused on learning and building value for themselves and their teams; the ones that skip half the conference because they are not engaged with the talks, tired, or have an hangover, are hardly a desirable target.

(3) The case of the flooded after-event inbox

Some events sell attendees’ contact details as part of a sponsorship deal, but rarely they inform attendees throughout ticket purchase process that they are implicitedly agreeing to share their data with third parties. Apart from this being ethically wrong, if people enjoyed random cold-call emails on their already cluttered inbox or being “subscribed” to random marketing newsletters they would make their emails public much more often.

Understanding the consequences of your choices

Once you have built you agenda of candidates, if you have used a spreadsheet it should be looking something like this:

You don’t have to be a spreadsheet maniac to keep track of all the events your team evaluates, speaks at, and sponsors, but it helps.

Spreadsheet or not, whatever you use should help you to plan ahead not only budget but also team efforts. At the moment of writing this post there are 122 events on my list of candidates for sponsorship and speaking opportunities (and that list is just for two world regions). That’s a nice chunk of data, and data means insights.

Something I realized when I started to digest this into numbers is that there’s a certain pattern with events. Depending on what you focus on (conferences, hackathons, or meetups) you have different average event lengths and density of events in certain regions, but also there’s a strong seasonality common to most of them.

Events seasonality (traditionally spring and autumn) is something known in an “ish” way, everybody takes it for granted because that’s how the economy, weather, and holidays work in many corners of the planet, but as far as I know, nobody has considered supporting this “everybody knows” point with actual numbers. Because, well… what’s the point of pointing out the obvious?

But there is a point, indeed, if you stop thinking about it as an attendee and start doing it as a workforce manager.

This is the sine curve of events happening in 2018, based on raw data (no event discarded or filtered out):

The shape of things to come will literary shape how your team will work throughout the year.

That curve means your team, or at least those members more actively dedicated to evangelism and PR, are not going to be at their desks much for weeks or even months. Your quarterly planning should address that, because you can’t use the same goals, priorities, or even workflows both for a quarter the team is quietly coding and producing content at the office and for a quarter when a relevant amount of their workweek happens on the road giving talks, promoting technologies and initiatives, and networking.

If you want to get somewhere with all those sponsorship plans, you better work on your coordination skills.

Thus, the way you select events and plan sponsorships will tell you a lot about what to expect from your team for each quarter, and consequently give you some clues on how to define goals and measure performance.

How to know you chose wisely

Remember the old “Correlation does not imply causation”? Well that’s what you will be facing most of the time. You are going to have to measure that which may seem apparently impossible to.

Your sponsorship initiatives shouldn’t be labeled as a cash-burning machine but as a driver of business value.

There are some obvious numbers you should keep up to date, such as total number of events and attendees, number of sponsorships and talks, and total content generated from those activities (for instance, blog articles). But there are others that can help you to offer a more detailed vision on how brand and product visibility in those events improves their visibility and reputation (and, hopefully, adoption rates). For instance:

  • Number of mentions on social media and their total impact (impressions, engagement rate, etc.)
  • When custom links or referrals are used analyze related metrics, such as total traffic, time in page, and bounce and adoption rates
  • Number of new open source projects created, and their impact (number of contributors, stars, forks, open issues…)
  • Timeline of traffic to web properties and mentions versus event dates

Certainly, there are many more indicators that you may want to measure. Whether you track them or not depends on your team goals. User acquisition, retention, engagement, brand visibility… you name it. Identifying them at the start of the year will help you greatly with selecting the right events to sponsor, talks to give, and even swag to produce.

Using a flock of metrics and with the right strategy, you can be a (sponsorships) Charlemagne too.

Finally, when getting ready for a long year of measuring many different indicators, keep in mind that this game is not about moving one single number spectacularly, but about moving some of them out of their averages in the most effective way for your goals, and understanding how those dynamics happened to repeat them in the future.

Just a last reminder before you go back to hopping from one corner of the Internet to the next: Everything explained on this article has been learnt from long hours of research and not few of practice and, still, there’s a lot to learn. Take it with a pinch of salt, as different scenarios will demand different solutions.

Don’t follow people blindly, even if they are very knowledgeable and tell you they know the way.

Special thanks to Tim Falls for showing me the road ahead and encouraging me to explore it.

All film stills on this article are extracted from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, © Paramount Pictures..

🎵 Sweet dreams are made by geeks, who are we to ditch a PR? We travel to events and assorted meetups. Everybody is looking for swag.