I’ve never really thought about ‘why’ sponsors sponsor unconferences – I’m just glad they do.
At each event I do the rounds of the stands, gratefully grabbing my share of the mugs, pens, t shirts, special offers and other paraphernalia on display.
I like the absence of hard-sell, and I’m happy to chat with companies who don’t try and lay it on too thick.
No sale at all?
Looking back at events over the last few years, I haven’t directly bought a product or service from a sponsor.
I’ve no idea how representative I am, but – if there are lots like me – why on earth pay good money to spend a weekend chatting with people who might not buy your stuff?
What’s your RoI?
In a cracking blog post, Paul Coxon questioned whether there is any return on investment for sponsors. I agree, it’s a tricky one to measure.
One of last year’s BlueLightCamp sponsors definitely thinks there is though. Steph Gray, who – amongst other things – created The Social Simulator, said:
ROI-wise, it’s led to two direct piece of work (£2,300 & £600), links with at least 3 new individuals/organisations, and some potentially bigger stuff on the horizon.
Create some buzz
Back to my own experience: I might not have directly bought anything (yet), but I have become aware of brands I never knew existed.
I’ve also visited web sites, trialled software, and put colleagues in touch with those I thought could help tackle business issues.
Unconferences are an informal way for sponsors to meet potential customers (and other sponsors).
What’s more, those potential customers have already proven that they’re interested enough to give up their weekends and travel long distances at their own expense.
You can’t quantify potential influence
It’s over ten years since I worked in the private sector (good grief, is it really that long?!) But I know that if I was still running a company and I was trying to break in to the public sector market – or even if I already had a presence – I’d be prepared to ‘punt’ a grand or so if it meant I could spend a day in the same place as a 100+ people who are passionate about public services and have some sort of influence.
There’s a brilliant short blog post from Geoff Livingston in which he manages an ever-so-brief conversation with the inventor of the Word Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Geoff paraphrases:
Of course, you can look online and quantify everyone in this room by what’s said, and then line them up in a numerical order of magnitude. But how can this number possibly predict all of the things that these people will do, and which ones will have the most impact? You can’t!
Admittedly, the context was different – Geoff had asked TBL about social influence metrics, not unconference sponsorship, but my point is that any of us might do something radical at any time. Each of us walks around full of potential.
Now, I’ve heard mutterings from large company insiders that unconfences aren’t worth sponsoring, as the people who attend them aren’t the budget holders or decision-makers. That’s probably largely true, but I’ve spotted a couple of Chief Executives at different events, and more than a few Heads of Policy and Comms.
There are many more who are ‘specifiers’ or ‘influencers’ within their organisation. Decision-makers tend to ask advice from others, and wouldn’t it be helpful if you could speak the same language as those who will be poring through that sales proposal you spent so many hours preparing. What price competitive advantage?
Rank and stature
And some of those who attend might not choose to disclose their ‘rank’. After all, we’re all equal at unconferences, with hierarchies left firmly outside the door.
If you’re a company playing the longer game, you’ll already be thinking that people move around; there are fewer people in the public sector now, and that probably means that at least *some* will rise through the ranks to become the decision makers of the future.
Check out the competition
There’s also the opportunity to check out the competition, and to network with other sponsors. Many alliances have been formed over a beer or two in the pub, and whole companies have been created after chance meetings of like-minded individuals.
Hidden in plain sight
Large companies with established business models might see little in it for them, but so many times in the past the big players have failed to see opportunities or threats presented by disruptive ideas and technologies. Tiny start-ups on shoestring budgets regularly out-manoeuvre established players.
This is explored in some detail in Clayton Christensen’s excellent book: The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail. Here’s a brief extract:*
Markets that do not exist cannot be analysed: Suppliers and customers must discover them together. Not only are the market applications for disruptive technologies unknown at the time of their development, they are unknowable.
The strategies and plans that managers formulate for confronting disruptive technological change, therefore, should be plans for learning and discovery rather than plans for execution. This is an important point to understand, because managers who believe they know a market’s future will plan and invest very differently from those who recognise the uncertainties of a developing market.
If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend it.
That ‘magic moment’
I’m not saying that sponsoring an unconference guarantees success, but I strongly believe in serendipity and that magic moment simply won’t take place if you’re not there.
My not-so-hidden Agenda
BlueLightCamp is back again this year. As well as the unconference on the Saturday, there’s also a Hackathon on the Sunday. New sponsors and attendees are very welcome. If you’re interested in becoming a sponsor, there’s info on the BLC web site.
Registration for both events is now open. You can register here.
It just might provide that magic moment for you too.
* Although presented as a quote from the book, I couldn’t resist the urge to replace the US ‘z’ with the UK ‘s’ in a couple of places
Major General Henry Lytton: Wikipedia