How to Sponsor a Conference

by Paul Reinheimer on

Conferences are great! They're also expensive to run. Venues aren't cheap, coffee costs more than at Starbucks, croissants that taste like Papier-mâché are $7 each, and speakers need flights & hotels. To finance this, most conferences solicit sponsorships.

If you're contemplating sponsoring a conference, there's a lot to think through other than the perks you'll get for your investment. WonderProxy is excited to be sponsoring True North PHP this year, so we figured we'd share our thought process and what we've learned.

Preamble

Going into things, we knew we wanted to sponsor a conference. I helped organized a number of conferences when I worked a php|architect, so I'm familiar with how it all works, but you might not be! So let's talk about types of conferences and the sorts of benefits sponsors receive.

Types of Conferences

There're two big types of conferences out there: community run, and corporate events.

  • Community Conferences tend to be smaller and cheaper. They also tend to attract more of the "doers" in an organization, rather than executives. You'll often see them presented by individuals, local user groups, or one of the organizers' small businesses. Tickets for attendees often run from $50-$350/person, and often see 75-200 attendees. Sponsorship packages tend to run $1,000-$10,000.
  • Corporate Conferences tend to be larger and more expensive. They attract front line employees, as well as decision makers throughout the organization. You'll often see more higher level talks there, rather than everything getting into the deep details. These are often put on by organizations tightly related to the conference subject matter, Zend puts on ZendCon, Oracle puts on Oracle Open World, etc. Tickets can run $500-$3000+/person, often with 500-1000s of attendees. Sponsorship packages tend to run $5,000-$100,000.

When choosing what kind of conference you'd like to sponsor, it's helpful to keep in mind the kind of conference. There's no universal answer here: it will depend on who you're trying to talk to, and your budget. If you're new to sponsoring conferences and you don't have a VC check burning a hole in your pocket, I'd suggest starting out with a local community conference to try and get your messaging and expectations down before dropping tens of thousands of dollars at a larger event.

Benefits of Sponsorship

Sponsoring companies hand over money for a variety of concessions. Popular ones include:

  • Logo on badge
  • Links on conference website
  • Ability to put swag in conference bag
  • Room to put up a booth or table
  • Poster/ad displayed beside meals or coffee
  • WiFi splash screen
  • Speaking slots
  • Tweets

Knowing what sorts of concessions are available can help you think through what concessions are valuable to you and to your organization.

Our Perspective

We decided to sponsor a local community conference that would talk about us on their website and give us room to set up a small table to give some stuff away. True North PHP is conveniently located in the Greater Toronto Area (and so am I), and attracts a bunch of super smart people (who are our favourite kind of customers), so it seemed like a great fit.

Sponsoring a Conference in n 'Easy' Steps

  1. Figure out what you want to get out of the sponsorship. This could be as simple as name recognition, or as tricky as finding new hires or landing actual paying clients.
  2. Find conferences that are likely to have the customers or candidates you care about. Then, check out their sponsorship prospectus. Some, like True North PHP post them directly on their site; others require you to email in to get a copy. You might assume the folks who require you to reach out for the prospectus would be super expensive, but that's not always the case: this isn't necessarily a "if you have to ask you can't afford it" situation. It's also worth trying a few google searches: the prospectus is often on their site, but hidden. Things to check for in the sponsorship prospectus:
    • Expected attendee count
    • Attendee breakdown (job role, organization size, etc)
    • What you'll receive from sponsoring
    • Who sponsored last year (will one of your major competitors be there? Is that good?)
  3. Reach out to their sponsorship coordinator indicating you'd like to sponsor, and write a cheque.
  4. Send over some logos. If name recognition is all you want, you can stop here.
  5. Find staff to attend. They'll need some of these things:
    • Something to wear with your logo
    • Business cards
    • A sign to put up at your booth
    • Some sort of take-home with details on your business
    • Something to attract people to your booth (give aways, cool drones, donuts, stickers, whatever)
      Basically, when you set up a booth, you'd like it to look a little better than Dunder Mifflin at the high school job fair: Job Fair
  6. If you are going to have a booth, think through what your message will be. If you're working on a new product, do you want to tell people about it, or is it secret? What aspect of your offerings do you want to focus on for your audience?
  7. Attend! Meet with future employees and customers, learn some things, and make new connections.

As mentioned, I have experience with conference wrangling from the organizer side of things. Reflecting back on the last month or so, I've increasingly realized that knowing how things work for organizers doesn't actually mean you're prepared to consider all the factors as a sponsor. Working out the steps and figuring out the costs, savings, and desired outcomes has been really helpful for us as an organization.

Costs, Savings, and ROI

How much do these things cost, anyway? And how can I know if it'll be worthwhile?

What we Spent

Looking at our sponsorship of True North PHP, sponsoring the conference was just under half the cost. The breakdown was:

  • $2200 - Conference Sponsorship
  • $600 - T-Shirts for staff attending to wear (12 shirts, which was the minimum order)
  • $1081 - 175 decks of playing cards with our logo on them to attract people to our booth.
  • $200 - Postcards with details about our offering on them. Hopefully people take these home :)
  • $500 - Retractable sign so people know who we are
  • $600 - Hotel nights for staff attending conference
  • $500 - Flights for staff attending from out of town
  • 2 days - Our designer spent about two days on all the items for the conference.

Total Cost: $5,681CAD

Saving Money

There's plenty of options for saving money, and remember: your first conference will be the most expensive, with signs, apparel, and such. Unless you rename in the interim (or your cat destroys your sign or something), that stuff's usable again.

Here're some tips for saving money:

  • Sponsor a local conference. This way, you avoid flight & hotel costs while supporting your community.
  • Evaluate the sponsorship levels carefully and buy only what you need. Most conferences allow add-ons: you may be able to sponsor at a lower level, then purchase an add-on for the specific thing you want.
  • Order everything well in advance to avoid rush order fees. Some printed items have wait times measured in weeks. Sometimes the postal/courier system decides not to follow delivery deadlines.
  • Consider your giveaways carefully. You're trying to balance two things: good enough to keep and cheap enough to afford. You can buy crappy stuff to save money, but attendees will just throw it out as soon as they're back at their hotel… which would be a waste.

Considering ROI

When considering your buy in, it's super helpful to do the math and figure out what you need to get out of the conference for it to have been valuable for you.

WonderProxy's goal is to find new customers. As a business with a subscription model and a low marginal cost per customer, finding that is actually surprisingly easy! Considering our ROI, with a total cost (ignoring labour) of $5,681 and subscription plans for most companies running in the $100-$500/month range, there's plenty of ways for this to work out in our favour. One Enterprise customer for a year will pay us $5,988 ($307 more than we're spending on sponsorship). Three team subscriptions and one corporate subscription will get us back in the black in nine and a half months.

Conclusion

We're really happy to be sponsoring True North this year. We think the attendees and sponsorship package are a great fit for our goals, and we've thought through how the investment can work out in our favour. Hopefully, this'll help you figure out if you want to sponsor a conference one day… or at least provide a little more insight into what the friendly folks with the swag and the signs are up to.

We'll see you at True North PHP!