Alex Yates wrote a very interesting post called 5 bold changes to support the scale problem of SQL Saturdays (and other data platform conferences.) The short story:
- Cut costs (and no free lunches)
- Attract new sponsors
- Attract new attendees
- Get more diversified attendees
- Attendees have a duty to talk to sponsors
They’re a lot of great ideas, and I’m going to suggest one of my own.
Sponsors need to deliver sponsor sessions that don’t suck.
Today, sponsors buy attendee eyeball time by doing things like sponsoring sessions at lunch. SQLSaturday organizers usually set up the time slots so that no “real” sessions are given during lunch, only vendor sessions, so attendees have no choice but to sit through a vendor session.
Sponsors/vendors write and deliver really crappy presentations that are mostly spam – because they think they’ve got a monopoly on attendee time. For years, they did – just like how decades ago, companies used to be able to sell crappy products just by buying ads on major TV networks.
Today, that approach no longer works. Outbound marketing – shoving your message down a consumer’s throat – has to compete with all the other things vying for attendee attention. Frankly, they’d rather sit out in the hallway track and network with each other than deal with yet another spam session.
It’s called inbound marketing: building stuff people want.
Think like your audience: what session would you actually want to sit through? Not just at lunch – could you build a session that would be so compelling, people would even skip regular sessions in order to see yours?
If you’re delivering a product that solves a pain, build a session about the pain, and include all four of these bullet points:
- How to know if you have the pain
- How the pain affects end users & customers
- How to fix the pain for free
- How to fix the pain even faster with your tools
If you’re afraid to teach the audience how to relieve the pain for free, then you’ve already lost. If they can figure out how to relieve it for free from someone else, they will. You want to be seen as the expert on that pain, and to do that, you’ve gotta teach ’em how to do it for free. Your product has to stand on its own as worth the money even compared to the free solutions.
See the four bullet points above? Those match up to how much time you can spend in your session. If 3/4 of the session is devoted to your pain relief tool, the session is spam, and you’re not going to attract attendees. If, on the other hand, 3/4 of the session is valuable even if they don’t use your tool, then you’ll attract attendees, and they’ll stay in their seats for the final 15 minutes. You’ll have already established serious credibility. You’ll have them taking notes. And they’ll take you seriously.
Is it harder and more expensive to build sessions like this? Absolutely – but it’s what your competitors are doing.
Your competitors aren’t the other sponsors.
Your competitors are the other speakers – the community members who are willing to travel and speak for free out of the goodness of their hearts. If you can’t build compelling material, and if you think trapping attendees behind a forced sponsor session is going to work, you’re going to be in for a surprise.
Some competitor to SQLSaturdays will sprout up – just like SQLSaturday sprouted up to fill the free education market – and given how the community has been working to reinvent things, the next iteration probably isn’t going to require sponsorship at all.
After all, couldn’t we – you and I, the community – run a monthly online SQL Server conference completely for free?
But that’s another blog post. (Next week’s, actually.)
John Baldwin ran a successful alternative to SQL Saturday in Birmingham , AL. Low frills, modest budget but big on the free training part. He didn’t have much of a choice. Only that Saturday worked for the venue & organizers but it conflicted with Spartanburg. So, it can definitely be done.
I hope I don’t suck at lunchtime talks. I do think about these things, but perhaps I should ensure I address all four in a talk.
However, this doesn’t help scale. I think this certainly is a problem, and this would improve some events with funding (more valuable for vendors and attendees), but it doesn’t get us to 500. Vendors can’t attend these many, and not sure they could hire enough good people to give these talks. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think this is a way to improve the events, but on a limited basis.
Steve – the reason it helps scale is that it helps conversion rates. If vendors got more valuable leads for their investment, they’d be more likely to invest more.
With the current (extremely bad) vendor sessions, vendors are saying, “I don’t see the ROI in sponsoring SQLSaturday at anything but a cursory level, and it’s hard for me to justify sending staff anywhere.”
Ha! Steve…when I was reading this post I literally thought about your SQLSaturday lunch session in Pensacola. It didn’t suck…actually provided the value that Brent is talking about in this post!
Brent, I think you’ve got good stuff there. I dont think sponsors at SQLSat are worse than other events – they all struggle to figure out to effective and relevant and thats not something we can coach effectively locally. The way we handle sponsors is largely based on what I knew (or thought I knew) circa 2007 about trying to serve them better; a written sponsor plan, raffle tickets and prizes. That works ok if you’re brand building or list building (I can think of one company that did very very well with that strategy), but once you get past that it gets much harder. I hope you write more on the topic.
I’m curious to see what you have in mind on the monthly conference. I think plenty of room for innovation left.
Andy – yep, agreed, I don’t think sponsors at SQLSat are worse than other events. I’ve seen similar levels of quality at online events (24HoP), user groups, Ignite, and Intersections.