Conference Sponsorships: Begging Won’t Help Your Cause

I’ve been seeing a trend among some of the bloggers I follow lately: more than a few people are asking for sponsors to help them attend some conference or another. I consider that the general approach of posting a plea on one’s blog, Twitter account or elsewhere in public to be problematic. In fact, if you’re considering such a strategy, I’d like to strongly recommend against it.

I say this as someone who has paid for her own attendance at almost every conference I’ve attended. The exceptions have been arrangements that I’ve worked out privately with existing clients.

The Problem with an Open Call for Sponsors

I know that I’m about to irritate most of the bloggers who have publicly asked for sponsors, so, before you jump in and start writing a comment to denounce me, please read the whole section.

Posting an open request for sponsors makes you look needy. You’re begging for someone to part with money, often to send you to a conference that they hadn’t planned to send anyone to. It’s a bad position — from a business point of view — to be in. No one wants to do business with a blogger or writer who can’t figure out how to get herself to a conference without begging for funds.

The requests that include a break down of what a sponsor might get strengthens your request, but it’s still far from ideal. Similarly, asking from help from readers can be better, but still makes you look a bit desperate. There’s only so many ways I can say that desperation is not sexy.

Here is what’s sexy: rather than that open post, take a look at your current client list. Who on there could actually directly benefit from sending you to a conference? Write up a proposal to send them, suggesting that they ship you off to Las Vegas or wherever the next conference is being held. Show them directly how you can turn the trip into a guaranteed money maker for them. Can you write an ebook as a result? Can you do a special series of blog posts? Can you pitch the client to key conference attendees? Get specific. Put together some numbers. Write a proposal that suggests your client would be entirely insane not to send you.

Don’t have a client for whom the particular conference you wish to attend would be valuable? Think about other connections in your network. Are you an affiliate for some product? Can you land a new client with the promise of covering this conference? Can you find an editor or a publication that needs someone to cover the conference? Even if you have to create a patchwork quilt of sponsorship, your odds are better than simply writing a blog post and wishing really hard.

That’s because businesses find written proposals sexy: if you can show someone that spending the money on airfare and conference tickets will directly benefit them, your odds of getting that sponsorship are significantly better. A general blog post — even one that includes some suggestions of the benefits of sponsoring you — will not be nearly as convincing. Deb Ng went into more detail on landing a sponsor directly, along with her opinions on begging for sponsorships.

Paying for a Conference After the Fact

I am not a huge fan of credit cards in general, but if you absolutely have to go to a conference and you can’t land a sponsor privately, don’t take that as a temptation to whip together a desperate post begging for sponsorship. Pull out the credit card, buy your ticket and then hustle from the moment you get to that conference to make it pay for itself. That can mean putting together interviews that you sell to publications, using the information you find there to put together informational products you can sell or networking to find advertisers to give you money for a listing on your blog. If you’re willing to put in the work, you can turn that credit card bill into an investment.

That’s pretty much what I did to attend SXSW last spring. Showing up there resulted in plenty of income for me, even though it meant walking my feet off and shaking hands until my elbows hurt. Just last week I made close to a grand that I can directly attribute to relationships I built while I was there.

The secret is prep work and flexibility. Before I headed to Austin, I made lists of people I wanted to meet, sessions I was going to (mostly because I wanted to meet the people giving them) and so on. I scheduled meetings with people who would be there, pitched editors on article ideas and laid as much groundwork as I could. Once I got there, flexibility came into play. I kept an eye on Twitter as a way to keep up with where people were and I’d head off all sorts of events to seek out people, as well as take a look at interesting companies. There’s no secret sauce for doing the same thing — it’s sort of a brute force approach to networking.

I know that the perception that I was willing to go to Austin on my own dime has helped a lot. The people I met there went to my website after I got back and only saw that I know my stuff and I write pretty regularly. There was no suggestion that I couldn’t handle getting to a conference on my own or that my business didn’t do well enough for me to afford the costs (which in turn could have suggested that I wasn’t particularly good at what I do). I know that presenting a successful appearance is always useful, at least in the way I run my business.

Image by Flickr user Phil Whitehouse

8 Comments

  1. Deb Ng   •  

    Oh Thursday, I could just hug you. Most people who attend conferences work and save up money from their jobs to pay for the conference. As it’s most likely a business expense, the ticket, travel and lodging are often tax deductible.

    Besides the neediness, I find it lazy to beg for sponsors over seeking a client or sponsor, or even paying for it one’s self. As you know, this is a topic I feel strongly about.

  2. Jade Craven   •  

    I’m getting sponsored to go to BlogWorld, technically. Dave Navarro is paying for me to go as his networking assistant. I’ve talked about it briefly so that people would know that I’m going and be aware of that connection going in. I felt it only fair to disclose the financial connection and also, let them know I can help them while there.

    And, if anything, it was Dave that had to convince me that him spending that amount of money (which is significantly less than what other people were asking for) was an investment.

    See, I’m with you. I experimented with donations once because, as a relationship marketer, I felt it was an important part of my learning. I’ve learned, I’m not comfortable with it and I prefer to monetize in my own way.

    I think for one of my friends, it will be good for her. She approached it in a non sleazy way and simply said ‘a donation will get you a prize, and I’ve introduced these new services to help you’. I really resonated with that approach and think her community will love to join in with the story.

    Another friend talked about how it would be beneficial for a company to sponsor her. She talked about the value she had provided for previous companies, including how many times she had mentioned it. All I got from that post was that she was willing to put her wants, which in this case is attending a conference, against the needs of her community. I think in the long run this will tarnish her reputation.

    The best thing is while at this conference, I’ll be getting up to some awesome stuff that I don’t even need to brag about because I believe business should have some level of privacy. This attitude is why I’ve been able to kick arse and gain the respect of so many people.

    I love this post, Thursday. I needed someone to post this :-)

  3. Paul Cunningham   •  

    I’m not going to BWE, for various reasons that aren’t important here.

    The thing is I feel their pain. BWE and SXSW are difficult times for bloggers outside of the USA. Especially when these events are hyped up as THE place to be, where connections are formed and blogging careers are made. Watching the Twitter stream and reading the wrap-up posts stings a little.

    When you factor in the international airfare, the extra travel time each way (sheer distance + stopovers + jetlag recovery), the “cost” is pretty steep.

    So removing some of that cost with donations and sponsorships has a lot of appeal.

    So yeah, I feel for them. I wish there was more conference action here in Australia. There’s been some recent encouraging signs, maybe that will smooth things out in future.

  4. Linsey Knerl   •  

    Great post! I’ve been on both sides of the coin, here, so I think I’m qualified to agree with you. I paid for my first year of conferences, and found that it was the best way for me to determine straight away, which conferences are worth it and which are not (it’s much easier to justify taking 5-7 days away from your work and home life to go to a CRAPPY conference, if someone else is paying for it.) You value your time when it’s on your dime. On the other side, I’ve had really great sponsors who helped me to connect with influential people and got access to exclusive events I might not have been able to get into otherwise. AND, I’ve had horrible sponsors, the ones that make you want to cut them a check right then and there if you can just disassociate with their boorish behavior.

    I tend to prefer to pay my way, then find work while there. It’s easy to get lazy at conferences when you don’t have to hustle to make up the money. My most high-profile gig was for a tech mag that I pitched while standing in a doorway next to their print editor. If it wasn’t the last day of the conference with almost nothing to show for the $1,900 I had shelled out, I wouldn’t have felt the pressure to get up the nerve to say “Hi” and suggest that they run my piece. Best move ever.

  5. thursday   •     Author

    @Deb, I’m a big fan of piling up the business deductions. If I’m going to have to hand over a good chunk of my money to the IRS, there’s no way I’m handing over receipts for any business expenses over the course of the year!

    One of my concerns about such an approach is that it means that the blogger in question may not be thinking like a business owner, on top of the other issues. Running a blog and freelance writing both have to be treated like businesses, or we just wind up with expensive hobbies.

  6. thursday   •     Author

    @Jade, I’m so excited about seeing you at BWE! I know that you had to move a few mountains to get everything in line for the conference, but I think you’re a phenomenal way of how to do things right in this area. You and Dave will blow everyone’s socks off and you’ll both truly benefit from the arrangement.

  7. thursday   •     Author

    @Paul, It’s definitely not an easy situation for bloggers who live outside of the U.S. I certainly sympathize with the situation. I just have a harder time sympathizing with this course of action that seems to be more prevalent lately, especially since it can give a newer blogger a reputation when he or she goes looking for opportunities down the road.

  8. thursday   •     Author

    @Linsey, You’re right on about how easy it is to spend time at a crappy conference on someone else’s dime.

    Your comment also sparked something else in my mind: personally, I’m reluctant to network for my own purposes if I’m at a conference for a sponsor. I feel like, if they paid for me to attend, I have an obligation to focus my energy on what they need — it’s more of an ethical concern than anything else. But that also defeats my purposes for going to conferences in the first place!

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