Crazy Idea: Let Attendees Define Your Event’s Sponsorship Packages

Let attendees define your event's sponsorship packages


Combined with attendance fees (i.e. ticketing), event sponsorships are the economic fuel behind meetings, events and conferences. In a post titled “Questioning the Effectiveness of Conference Sponsorships,” Sean McGinnis (@seanmcginnis) raised an interesting question.

For McGinnis, conferences that charge for admission and sell sponsorships (at the same time) put attendees in the awkward position of being (a) a customer (of the conference) and (b) a product (for sponsors).

My solution? Let attendees define the event’s sponsorship packages.

The Role of Sponsors

Image source: User Phillie Casablanca on flickr.

McGinnis notes that in his 312 Digital business, his goal is to deliver digital marketing conferences without sponsorship. And this model is fine: the mission of your conference is to educate marketers and you can deliver on that mission, soup to nuts.

There are larger conferences and trade shows, however, whose objective is to bring together entire industries. These tend to be run by media companies and associations. Traditionally, sponsors have received a bad rap in these sorts of events.

Most attendees think of sponsors as the people who give out schwag and spend the event pitching their product. Sponsors can (and should) play a much more meaningful role. Consider industries such as technology, healthcare and finance and you quickly realize that sponsors provide the products and services the industry uses.

Sponsors, and by extension, the customers who purchase and implement the sponsors’ products, actually define some industries. The customers, after all, are the same people who attend these events.

Sponsors and The Information Ecosystem

I consider events and conferences an “information ecosystem,” with sponsors as an integral part of that ecosystem. Too often in events, there’s a wall: a separation of church and state between “organic” content and sponsor content.

Look no further than the booth. By definition, the partitions that designate the beginning and end of a booth tell us that “inside these partitions is where you engage with this sponsor.” To me, that’s unnatural. To create the most useful information ecosystem, we should get rid of booths and embed sponsor “education” (content) more naturally throughout the event.

Attendee-Driven Sponsorships: The Benefits

Image source: User Martina Photography on flickr.

Let attendees define your sponsorship packages. You’ll have final say, of course, but attendees define a set of packages from which you choose. Benefits will follow.

It puts attendees in charge.

By handing over a portion of the event planning, you give attendees more “buy in.” In addition, attendees will naturally propose sponsor interactions and programs that place the focus on the attendee experience (where it rightfully belongs). The result is a better event.

It increases engagement with sponsors.

Sponsors will see increased engagement with attendees, because both parties are engaged in activities defined by the attendees. When you allow attendees to determine the packages and they’ve “bought in” to shaping the event itself, all parties win: attendees, sponsors and event organizers (you).

How to Solicit Input from Your Attendees

First, you’ll need to define a basis for your conversations with attendees. Perhaps that’s last year’s sponsorship packages. Or, it’s a set of proposed packages that you’re considering for this year. Some ideas (and affordable tools) to solicit the input:

  1. Regular Google+ Hangouts, hosted by your staff.
  2. Wiki pages (PBworks is an option – and it’s free) that attendees can use to document their ideas.
  3. A tumblr microblog – publish proposed packages and allow attendees to “like” and comment on them.
  4. Create a public document on Google Docs and allow attendees to provide comments there.
  5. Host an Ask Me Anything (AMA) session on Reddit (if your target audience is active there).

Brainstorming Sponsorship Concepts

If I were asked to develop sponsorship packages for an event or conference I planned to attend, here are some concepts I’d suggest:

  1. Eliminate booths.
  2. Use game mechanics to award sponsors. Instead of “Top Chef,” you’d award a “Top Sponsor.”
  3. Attendees determine the game mechanics parameters.
  4. Ask attendees (in advance) for their top business challenges and make sponsors responsible for addressing them.
  5. Have attendees define the sponsor’s “function” they wish to engage with (e.g. Engineering, Executive, Sales, Marketing, etc.)
  6. Implement Donna Kastner’s suggestion on a 5 Smart Ways Theater, but allow sponsors to provide the presentations. Disallow sponsors from mentioning any of their products.
  7. Give attendees a limited number of “tickets” to schedule short appointments with sponsors. Learned a lot from a sponsor’s “5 Ways” talk and want to chat with them? Use one of your tickets. The relative scarcity of tickets will create higher quality interactions between attendees and sponsors.

Potential Roadblocks to Adoption

Image source: User Zahlm on flickr.

Having laid out a framework for how this all might work, I realize that it’s far from easy. Let’s consider a few roadblocks for making this happen.

Wanted: A Passionate and Active Attendee Base

Attendees may be passionate about your event. They look forward to it all year long. But that doesn’t mean they’re interested in taking action above and beyond the usual call of duty. Only highly passionate and active attendees will have the desire and energy to roll up their sleeves and define your event’s sponsorship packages.

Taking Risks

Let’s face it: this is an “outside the box” concept. Event organizers and sponsors like to mitigate risk, rather than increase it. In many cases, next year’s event doesn’t happen if the sponsors from this year’s event aren’t happy (i.e. don’t renew). Perhaps a phased approach is necessary. In year one, have attendees develop a single sponsorship package and see how that goes.


We like to think that “the attendee always comes first,” but sometimes economic realities get in the way of such pure and noble goals.

With the sponsorships you sell, sponsors will walk the fine line between “providing useful information” and “let me sell you my product.” Straying too far to the right (selling) leaves attendees with a bad taste in their mouths.

By providing attendees with an opportunity to define desired sponsor interactions, you’re truly “putting attendees first.” And, you may find that the quality of the resulting interactions make your sponsors more satisfied than ever.

9 Responses to Crazy Idea: Let Attendees Define Your Event’s Sponsorship Packages

  1. Dennis – your point about some conferences bringing together entire industries is well taken. I just spent 4 days attending the International Home & Housewares show in Chicago, which is a completely different type of “conference” than the one I was commenting on in my original post.

    Thanks for continuing the discussion. I’m not naive about the costs of these larger conferences (well, not entirely anyway). It’s one of the reasons why I prefer to keep our classes so small.

    • Dennis Shiao says:

      Sean: agreed, there’s quite a difference between industry-wide conferences and smaller, workshop-type events – and sponsorship plays different roles in each (if any). Thanks for the inspiration for this post (via your original one).

  2. Dennis, nice to see the post after our Twitter exchange. A couple of points: one is that taking a longitudinal approach is an option. What I mean by that is that a conference (association) can have an understanding of what the delegates want from sponsors overall, without having to have delegates spell it out year after year. There are a lot of ways to do that, some of which you’ve listed above, and to that list I’d add plain old interview research – proactively ask them, and reward them somehow for their time.

    I don’t find that delegates are typically naive about the fact that
    they’re the product, and often they appreciate having the opportunity to access (and compare) vendors in one location.

    Another note is that of course medical meetings have stringent constraints on sponsorship which have to be adhered to – but which in my opinion make it all the more important to understand what both sides are hoping to get out of the event.

    Overall I fully agree that taking a thoughtful approach to what everyone might want out of these relationships can yield better results for everyone.

    • Dennis Shiao says:

      Meredith: great points, thanks. Regarding the longitudinal approach: do any events or associations come to mind as shining examples? Curious to know.

      • I’ve worked with a medical conference, as an example, where the delegates the sponsors most wanted to connect with as influencers were quite well-represented by the Board and the conference planning and program committees. So those delegates had a good strong voice about what they did and didn’t want in sponsorship. Having said that, the conference didn’t necessarily have as robust an understanding of what the sponsors’ priorities were, in the sense of whether the sponsors would continue as large a relationship with this conference.

        When I do a strategic conference assessment, that’s really what I’m doing – I do that kind of direct interview research as well as industry scans and using existing internal data etc. to get a sense of the health and dynamics of all the relationships involved in the conference ecosystem, whatever those may be.

  3. Dennis:

    Another roadblock could be that sponsors might not be too jazzed about having attendees decide which hoops they should jump through either.

    On a positive note, I think your ideas about refreshing the concept of sponsorships are really interesting. I would love to be able to play “choose your own adventure” with a sponsor.

    Where some conferences have gone wrong in the past is formalizing the interaction between sponsors and attendees using booths and appointment-setting software and other mechanisms, when what we really need are more opportunities to engage with sponsors organically.

    I like your phased approach, especially if you already have a group of loyal and active attendees and sponsors that are ready and willing. I also agree that lots of things get in the way of truly putting attendees first.

    Thanks for another trip inside your mind.

    • Dennis Shiao says:

      Michelle: thanks for the comment. I think this concept stands its best chance in events and industries where sponsors and attendees are already closely aligned. Let’s see if we can make it happen.

  4. Hi Dennis, thanks for helping me find the post. Interesting stuff. I think that the way we engage and involve sponsors within conferences has to change. There is such a gap in value. Organiser can add more value to sponsors and with the right partnerships sponsors can add more value to the event. I am sure there is something in this approach and I hope others decide to try and test it.

    I think it’s an important first step for organisers to understand and appreciate the different world we face when securing sponsors. Here’s a related blog:’t-earning-enough-sponsorship-income/#.UWl0bqXgATM

    • Dennis Shiao says:

      William: agreed. Part of the motivation of my post was in exploring “new things” for the industry to consider. Thanks for sharing the link – lots of good insights there.

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