There’s a place for sponsored content in conference programs, if you’re thoughtful in your approach. The seventh of the TED Commandments — “Thou shalt not sell from the stage: neither thy company, thy goods, thy writings, or thy desperate need for funding; lest thou be cast aside into outer darkness” — is especially timely advice.
Why? As more sponsors embrace content marketing or thought leadership as arguably the most powerful strategy for improving attitudes and perceptions of their brand, conference-speaking slots are increasing in value. Conference-business models in this area vary greatly — from stringent rules about featuring only “education champions” — to flat-out selling keynote slots to the highest bidders.
I’m not sure if pay-to-play has ever been defined in the context of conferences. A good working definition might be: An organization, person or firm that writes a check and receives stage time on the conference program as one of the benefits. Stage time can range from a five-minute-interruption marketing slot to a full-session buyout. Some organizations limit commercial presentations to the exhibit hall. Others sell concurrent and/or keynote slots on the main program.
I used to be strongly opposed to pay-to-play, but I’ve come around a bit. In some industries, thought-leadership investment opportunities will absolutely make or break a sponsorship program. Many sponsors have grown more sophisticated and recognize that breaking TED commandment No. VII wastes a prime opportunity to make an emotional connection with their target market. These sponsors are the true education champions your conference needs.
Thou Shalt Be Attendee-Centric
If your conference incorporates pay-to-play, here are a few attendee-centric concepts to help guide the program design:
Attendees can smell a sales pitch a mile away. In your conference marketing, final program, and mobile app, be sure to clearly state that this session is sponsored, presented, offered or organized by the sponsor.
Attendees vote with their feet and don’t like being held hostage. Pay-to-play programming should ideally have non-pay-to-play education offerings at the same time. Exceptions to this can be sessions that benefit attendees — like a free meal or other tangible offering to participate.
3. Vetting and Coaching
Some organizers put a lot of extra effort on the front end, working closely with the sponsor/education champion to ensure that the content and presentation is helpful and forward-leaning for their target audience. They collaborate on the session design, learning outcomes, and slide deck to make certain that the session provides valuable takeaways.
4. Performance Based
I haven’t run across this yet, but it’s an approach more pay-to-play models should consider adopting: If, as a sponsor, your session is a hit and non-salesy, we want you and your money back next year. If it bombs and comes across as a sales pitch, we either don’t want you back or you lose your place in line to select the most highly valued opportunities.
Alternatives to Stage-Time Sponsorships
Sponsors/education champions don’t have to buy stage time in order to meet their thought-leadership objectives. They can:
1. Underwrite a keynote speaker or sponsor sessions and tracks.
2. Model thought leadership in their booth with bite-sized learning and demos, or by offering whitepapers to participants.
3. Sponsor awards that recognize the best in your profession.
4. Purchase naming rights to show-floor theaters or experiences.
5. Help fund and provide access to session video recordings, live-streaming, and scheduled replays.
6. Submit a session for consideration.
What creative alternatives to stage time have you offered for education champion sponsorships? How transparent are you to attendees?
Adapted from Dave’s Forward Thinking column in PCMA’s Convene. Reprinted with permission of Convene, the magazine of the Professional Convention Management Association. ©2017