Welcome to the no-pitch zoneMake the most of your conference sponsorship

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Salesman hawking product

Hey, you've sponsored a conference – good for you!

Chances are good you wanted to help these folks out, and support some productive conversation, learning and networking. Chances are also pretty good you want to get some benefit out of the sponsorship yourself with goodwill and exposure.

And when they said you'd have an opportunity to speak to the participants, you jumped at it. And you have a great 15-minute pitch carefully crafted by the folks in marketing, including a PowerPoint video that hits all the key selling points.

So why do you have this nagging feeling of impending disaster?

Maybe because you're about to turn that goodwill into impatience, even hostility.

Because those selling points are about to bounce off a wall of indifference and distraction. And because you're about to lose a great opportunity.

But I have two pieces of good news.

The first is, everyone's expecting you to do just that. It's what sponsors usually do at conferences. They deliver a pitch to an audience anxious to get on with the actual business of the conference: people who are painfully aware of the bill for conference fees, hotel, food and travel, not to mention time away from work, and who don't want to waste a minute on someone else's self-serving agenda. And then the sponsor walks offstage to tepid applause, silently wondering if maybe it would have gone over better with more animation in the PowerPoint deck.

So at least you have plenty of company.

And second, it's not too late to turn things around.

From someone who's attended and spoken at a lot of conferences, and who's written those speeches for other people, here are some ways you can do yourself and your audience a lot of good at your next sponsored event:

  • Lose the sales pitch. Whatever else you do, please don't pitch the audience. If all that means is you throw out the PowerPoint, and all you're left with is a quick "Hi, we here at Social Signal are thrilled to support this conference. I'll be here for the whole thing, and I hope you'll grab me to say hi. Have a great four days!"... well, you're now miles ahead of where you were.
  • Make it fast. Thank the audience and organizers for the opportunity to support the event, say briefly why it's important to you, add a personal note, and wrap up inside of three minutes. Rehearse it to make sure you're under that limit; if possible, record yourself and then listen to it from the standpoint of an audience member. Does anything sound false, self-serving, trite or dull? Cut it.
  • Introduce someone else. Instead of delivering the keynote, arrange with the organizers to introduce one of the conference's featured speakers - someone people are really anxious to hear. Keep your introduction short; you can indicate why the speaker's background or subject matter are so interesting to your company in a sentence or two, but the main thing is to get a little credit for helping to make an engaging presentation possible - and that means getting to that presentation quickly. (An added possibility: see if the organizers would be willing to name the keynote after your organization.)
  • Hyperlink. Prepare a longer message about your organization and why you're participating - on your own web site, or on a site like YouTube. Let your audience know they can see it there if they're interested, and that they can get more information about your products and services there as well. You'll be helping the people who are genuinely curious about you, without alienating the folks who aren't.
  • Announce something. Give your audience some genuinely exciting news... something that's exciting to them, and not just to your organization. And it should actually be news, not something you've announced already.
  • Razzle-dazzle 'em. If you can be genuinely entertaining, then go for it. Sometimes it works best to set something up in advance - for instance, by preparing a (genuinely) funny video.
  • Deliver a public service announcement. Talking about something you and your audience care deeply about, a cause your organization is supporting, can identify vital common ground. Be sure to have a call to action: a way interested audience members can learn more and add their support.
  • Pull an Oprah. Give your audience members something then and there. Chances are your budget doesn't allow you to give away cars, but that doesn't mean you can't offer something of real value. Have people on hand to hand out copies of a book, announce there are keychain drives with an ebook on them, or put up a claim code onscreen to download something free and valuable.
  • Deliver the keynote - really, really well. If and only if you have great content to share, then deliver a keynote. Lose every single one of your selling points; instead, deliver high-value information. Tell stories, and make them part of a compelling overarching narrative that speaks to your audience's hopes, dreams, ambitions and passions. Make it the best, most memorable speech of the event... and if you don't think you can clear that bar, then reconsider.

(Now, if you're the kind of discerning person who's reading our blog, chances are good you already know that it's better to engage your audience than to bore them. But maybe there's someone in your organization who hasn't quite figured that out yet... or figured out how to act on it. I'm not saying you should slip this under their door... but I'm not saying you shouldn't.)


Alexandra Samuel says

July 7, 2009 - 4:06pm

From now on, i'm only going to conferences where the sponsor has signed a waiver acknowledging they've read this blog post. And two more points for those who do:

  1. Whether you're tempted to go with the "deliver the keynote" option, or just trying to pitch your mercifully-short remarks to your actual audience, don't skimp on the audience research. Don't assume you've been asked to sponsor because you're such a fantastic fit with the conference theme; hopefully there is some relationship there, but it's up to you (and ideally the conference organizers) to frankly identify where your expertise and knowledge fits with attendees' needs and interests. A great way to find out what the audience cares about: look at the blogs or tweets of other attendees and (non-sponsor) presenters: the web pages they talk about or link to will tell you loads about what kinds of info they find valuable.
  2. ROI isn't measured in minutes, it's measured in love. You'd much rather be the sponsor who gets a 100 tweets saying, "hurrah, a sponsor who understand what we're here for!" than the one who gets 10 (admittedly rude) tweets saying "do we really care about Company X's re-amortization maximizer engine?"

Steve Williams says

August 4, 2009 - 11:52am

Hi guys,

Great words of advice!!

Given that you were both at NetSquared 2009, I wondered what you thought of my sponsor presentation?

It tends to the "keynote" end but I have really tried to make it resonate with the key interest areas for non-profits, and the professionals supporting them, in using information.

Would appreciate your comments!



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