Adjusting SharePoint Saturday’s Marketing Mix
I arrived in Sandy, Utah this evening – which is just south of Salt Lake City – to participate in the second SharePoint Saturday Utah event in the state. My co-organizers include Joel Oleson, and also Josef Nielsen, who also runs the Utah SPUG in case you didn’t know. But at the tail end of a meeting in Bellevue before I departed for the airport someone commented on the “state of SharePoint community events” which got me thinking on the way down to Utah. Specifically, I’ve been thinking a lot about the SharePoint Saturday and other similar community-led events. People have been reaching out to me regularly to talk about the events I’ve helped organize, and to ask my opinion on what is happening within their regions.
Why me? I’ve put together SPS events in Los Angeles, Silicon Valley, San Francisco East Bay, Sacramento, Utah, Bend, and Redmond, and lent support/influence (and sponsor contacts) for additional events in Portland, Vancouver, New Hampshire, Florida, Hawaii, and elsewhere. And I plan to help coordinate a few more this year – including this weekend’s Utah event, repeat performances at Vancouver, Redmond, Silicon Valley, Phoenix, and probably Bend, as well as help launch Boise and (I’m hoping) Calgary.
I have strong opinions on what works, where some events have failed, things to avoid, and ways to keep these things going strong. I thought I’d share some of these opinions to help the user groups and organizing committees out there who may be considering the launch of a new event, or want to figure out how to make existing events more successful. So I’ll address some of the most common questions I get asked:
Are there too many SharePoint Saturdays?
I get asked this question a lot. My short answer is No. My long answer is that we need to let the market adjust. What I mean by this is that any organizing committee needs to listen to their community and take an honest look at whether there is a desire and the support to make it happen. It is amazing that a couple communities are able to support 2 events a year (Boston, Twin Cities) while others struggle to fund a single event. Some regions are losing attendees. Some are struggling to find sponsors. You need to understand why. Are you trying to do too much, too soon? Annual events may be too much – both for attendees who may have access to other training resources or events, or for sponsors who may not see the value in sponsoring every time. Poll your users. Talk to sponsors. Figure out what your region can sustain. I do think that some regions need to do fewer events. But if sponsors are signing up and people are attending, then the market is telling you they want what you’re selling.
Why am I having trouble finding sponsors?
Two answers here: you’re charging too much, and not providing value. The most common problem I see is that some SPS events are charging way too much. $3500 for what amounts to maybe 250 names on an opt-in list and a couple hours (cumulative) of talking to passersby's is very expensive. Some may think that sponsors paying for these events do so largely “for the community,” the reality is that with any event, you need to think about the sponsor ROI, and make sure you are providing value. My philosophy is to only raise the funds you need to hold the event. My goal is never to see how much I can raise, or how many sponsorships I can sell. Granted, there are SPS events in cities that are very expensive, so they need to charge more. But the point of SPS was never about lavish venues, flashy speaker dinners and activities, or expensive parting gifts. It’s about delivering world-class content to regions and communities that would otherwise never have a major conference in their area. In a couple of the events I help organize, we are dropping the cost of sponsorship because, frankly, we raised too much money last year. We want to keep the costs low so that sponsors see value and want to come back. The other half of that is to only sell the sponsorships you need, keeping the ratio of sponsors to attendees low so that 1) attendees don’t feel bombarded by sponsors, and 2) sponsors get the max value and plenty of talk time with attendees. That drives value to sponsors.
Don’t we need a speaker activity and gifts to attract the best speakers?
No. These events are about community. Most of your SPS speakers should come from the local community, augmented by outside experts and MVPs to provide a well-rounded schedule and content variety. Here at SPS Utah, we’re holding a ShareSki event the day before as another way the community can connect, with a sponsor offering to pick up the tab for lunch (in this case, Axceler). The only other thing that I insist on budgeting is a speaker dinner – a fun activity that builds camaraderie and community. But that’s it. We’re not even doing speaker shirts this year, because the bulk of feedback from speakers is that they wear them once, and that’s it. So we’re saving the money, selling fewer sponsorships. Speakers will get an attendee shirt (which is also optional, but we did it this time). My point is – speakers apply to present to share their knowledge with the community. If they are doing it for perks and door prizes, you don’t want them as speakers. Simple as that.
What are the components of a successful SPS?
Good speakers, a variety of topics, and something for lunch. That’s it. A speaker dinner is optional. Attendee shirts and raffle items are nice to have, but optional. I’ve been to several events that didn’t have the budget for raffle items, and instead relied on the sponsors to provide books and shirts and a few prizes. In some cases, the local SPUG provides items. In the early days of SPS, pizza was the food of choice for lunch. Cheap, hot, and simple. The focus should be on the content and building/supporting the community. I am also a huge fan of giving tables to any regional SPUG, Women in SharePoint, or other related organization that will help extend the community. Because that’s what it is about.
What should sponsors expect?
Different events have different types of sponsors. Most sponsors expect to receive a list of attendees who opted-in to hear from the sponsors. For those who pay a little more for the privilege, a sponsor should also get a table at the event and the right to distribute handout materials, allowing them to interact with the attendees. I’m amused when I hear someone complain about getting emails from sponsors following an event, or of being “harassed” by sponsors as they try to move between sessions at an event. Some call sponsors a “necessary evil.” That’s a screwed up perspective, if you ask me. The sponsors are what make these events possible. As much as the organizers like to think of themselves as the catalyst, sponsor funds make it all happen. But sponsors shouldn’t expect red carpet treatment. The organizers have provided an opportunity, and it is up to the sponsor to drive value out of the event. Talk to people, share knowledge, spark their interest in learning more. Sponsors need to use these events to connect with the community. If they do that, they’ll get value.
How do you manage the collection of funds?
This is one of the more difficult aspects of organizing. In most cases, I try to work through the local SPUG, which usually has non-profit status or an LLC. For the last Sacramento and Bend events, my company collected fees and paid out all expenses and reimbursements. Boston uses the model where each expense is sponsored rather than collect a central fund. The danger here is that a sponsor may drop the ball – and suddenly you have 200 people and no pizza to feed them. The model requires vigilance on your part to make sure sponsors follow through. I am considering starting my own LLC to help with the financial management of the events I help organize, and am exploring the tax liabilities of providing that kind of support. Just because you operate as a non-profit doesn’t mean there are not tax implications.
What are the biggest mistakes organizers make?
Attempting to do too much. My advice is to keep it really simple.
Focusing too much time on getting a big name at the top of the billing. I am moving away from the idea of a keynote speaker – Twin Cities does an opening with housekeeping, then begins the first batch of sessions. I love it.
Don’t bring in a band or something else during lunch that may distract attendees from talking to the sponsors, because lunch is the primary time for those conversations.
Wrap it up quickly – if you have a raffle at the end, get through it as quickly as possible. Sessions are done, people want to go home or make their way to the SharePint, so don’t extend the finale.
But the biggest mistake is what I outlined at the beginning of this article: don’t charge too much. You need to keep control of your budget, which will help you control your sponsorship fees. We’d all love to hold our events at the Westin or the Marriott, but when your baseline venue and food costs start at $24k, you’re moving in the wrong direction. Find a cheap or free venue, such as a community college or training facility. Keep food costs low (usually the most expensive item), and be ready to cut items like attendee and speaker shirts, raffle items, or even the speaker dinner if you’re just not able to meet your minimum commitments. That’s how I handle the events I help organize: I start with a goal, but do not spend a dime until I know I have met my minimum budget to even hold the event, and then when the event get the green light, the organizing committee expands the sponsorship base so that we can add in some of the nice to have items. The biggest mistake organizers make, by far, is losing control of their budgets. Manage it.
Oh yeah, and stay on top of sponsors who have signed agreements to sponsor, but then take forever to pay. Cash flow is king. It's alright to fire sponsors who are flaky. It's not like you're raising hundreds of thousands of dollars, and their $1500 is make or break. Be nice, but stand firm on payments, so you don’t get left holding the bag.
I hope all of this helps. I’ll respond in the comments to any other questions, and would love to hear your feedback.
The official response to follow on my blog
There are many ways to identify prospective customers and build out a marketing database. Opt-in lists are just one tool. The most successful marketers don’t just spam these folks, but use this data to inform, expand, and refine their existing prospect lists and marketing campaigns. I also don’t think much of a vendor that just blindly spams to the opt-in list from the last event I attended, but I don’t just add them to a blacklist, either. Good product and service companies sometimes have weak marketing organizations. Personally, I’ll err on the side of getting the emails if it means that I occasionally find a vendor or solution that I wasn’t looking for, but decide that I am interested in. Marketers need to collect data from different sources, try different methods to reach consumers, because you never know what marketing mix will evoke an emotional response.
For the most part, I agree with Bjørn on this one. Axceler may be an exception, as there’s plenty of bad behavior out there.
I try assiduously not to opt in – mainly because if I want to know about a vendor’s products I can ask the people I know there – yet I get the “thanks for stopping by our booth” emails every single time. In most cases, I haven’t stopped by the booth, requested anything, opted in intentionally, etc.
Unlike Bjørn, I immediately unsubscribe, yet the cycle starts all over again with the next event. I have my mental list of the vendors that do this, and to be honest, they tend to fall to the bottom of the list of vendors I recommend to my clients. If they annoy me, they will annoy my clients, plus I consider it an indication of how they view their customers – potential or otherwise.
As for the conferences that have the auto opt-in attitude, they aren’t doing the vendors any favors, either. By giving the vendors the contact info of people who don’t want info, they set the vendor up to annoy the attendee with the “thanks for requesting our information” emails.
I’m fully aware that we’re all in this to make money and that someone has to pay the bills. Marketing poorly to people who don’t want it isn’t a winning strategy for anyone.
OK, by bad, I didn’t get the snarky-ness right. I might be a bit on edge for these kinds of things 🙂
I agree with what you say, but I will still argue that with the practice done today, SharePoint vendors are wasting huge opportunities to build lasting and conversational relationships with their recipients. as I argued in the above post, even at best, they’re throwing a lot of money our the window, and at worst, they’re hurting their future prospects or losing business.
I agree Tom, it is relatively low risk. It usually has more to do with planning than a vendor shirking responsibility. It happens (I have been guilty of it) because people get busy, stuff happens. But I like the model. Clean and simple. You just need to project manage the sponsors to make sure they are doing their part.
Warren, I agree that they are nice…but not a necessity. If you have the budget, great. I’d rather keep costs low and go without, but that’s me.
Snarky-ness doesn’t translate well.
I suppose I have an issue with your definition of “explicit consent.” I agree that there must be explicit consent, but my definition — and that of every other ethical marketer out there — is through the top-in process. As I stated before, and will state again here for clarification, for every event I help organize we provide a list of opt-in names to sponsors. When users register, we ask the question of whether we can share their name and emails with sponsors of the event. That, to me, is explicit consent. That’s it for SPS events in which I am involved. Not much to argue about here, in my book.
Now, there are gray areas with other marketers and with other events which probably fit in more with the definition you seem to suggest. As I mentioned, I’ve received emails for events I have not attended. How did they get my info? Great question. Might have been through email exchanges, tweeting about it, last year’s event that I did attend (which I assume was the case). It wasn’t a huge deal for me — I just deleted the annoying and unwanted email.
For anyone out there who feels like they are getting too many unwanted emails from sponsors of events, here are some suggestions (which will help you understand where marketers get their info):
1) don’t opt in
2) don’t register for major conferences (because with many large events, built into the registration language is consent for them to market to you. the opt-in allows them to share your info with other vendors, but the registration may imply/specifically include marketing by the event company)
3) don’t fill out any registration forms for free whitepapers, on-demand (recorded) webinars, or live webinars or vendor conference calls.
4) don’t buy any software or hardware or services from companies that sell software, hardware or services.
You have to realize that all of these things may be in play when you get an email. Someone may opt-in at an event, get an email, and request to be removed from that vendor’s list — and then a couple days later, download a whitepaper that sits behind a registration page. In a perfect system, the CRM platform should catch that and restrict any additional contact. But its not a perfect system. Mistakes are sometimes made. Ethical companies work quickly to correct those mistakes.
I collected and elaborated on a number of my thoughts around this here:
Great Article Christian, very insightful.
For the three SharePoint Saturdays in San Antonio, we’ve followed a similar model to the events you’ve organized. In fact, it’s similar to the model of the very first few SPS. Low cost venue and food are a great way to reduce the sponsor cost. Opt-in only lists provide value to both the sponsors and the attendees. It’s all about the content!
I’ve found letting sponsors directly pays the cost for items has very low risk. If you get a signed agreement from the sponsor stating their responsibility and know the company, why would they back out after being published as a sponsor? That would have the exact opposite of the effect they are looking for which is a more positive brand in the SharePoint community.
On the other hand, a legal entity, like SQL PASS or INETA, would be a great benefit to the community if it could offer the opportunity to handle sponsorships in a more consistent manner across events.
Interesting stuff, Christian. A thought about the speaker shirts: Why are there different speaker shirts for every event? It’s actually really useful, I think, to be able to identify speakers on sight at these events, but that doesn’t mean a new speaker shirt for every event. Plus, for first-time speakers, it’s sort of a badge of recognition to finally have had your talk accepted at an SPS, right?
Wow, Christian, ad hominem? I hadn’t expected that from you.
I’m curious, what particular ‘other writings’ you feel should affect the validity of the argument that emailing someone with a marketing message and without their explicit consent is a bad idea.
Excellent post, and I couldn’t agree more. As part of the SPS board it reminds me that we need to pulse sponsors to ensure they’re attaining their desired ROI. Also agree with Ruven’s comment to include your post with our (being revamped) organizer guide. Thanks for taking the time to write this and for your insight.
Opt-in is key, and here in the US, the law. But your first line is very representative of your attitude toward sponsors through your other writings, Bjorn, so I’m not really surprised by your response. I guess you can put me on the glass-half-full end of the argument: I am thankful for the generous support of the sponsors that make these events free. If the cost of the event is that they email me, wow…what a small price, resulting in a quick delete. Ouch. How painful. So of course the handling of contact information needs to follow the law, first and foremost. But here’s something shocking: vendors are able to get your contact information through non-SPS events. I’ve received emails from vendors thanking me for stopping by their booth for an event I never attended. It’s a crazy world. Delete.
In case any attendees stumble across this post, I think that it goes nicely with Mark Rackley’s attendee advice: http://sharepointhillbilly.com/Lists/Posts/Post.aspx?ID=34
Super points, Mr. Buckley. Staying close to the community ensures a grass roots approach. Which is what I love about SPS. It also keeps sponsor rates manageable which also keeps things reasonable.
In the end, its most important to bring the SharePoint message to places that have few chances at hosting SPC, SPTechCon, etc. That means Calgary, Providence, Wichita, Albany, Santa Fe – lets keep going. Smaller events, in the end, engage more people and help develop the entry-levels of the community.
Also, keeping things small helps with sponsor expectations. At http://www.quest.com/sharepoint when we invest significantly in field events we do want to get something, in the long run on those investments. When things are smaller, the demands for data, for floor space, etc are all kept appropriate.
Bjorn isn’t being fair – I think a few emails from consultants or ISVs is a fair price to pay for getting a day’s worth of free technical content. But creating bigger events also carries a heavier marketing presence.
Stay small and nimble!
Great article! Everything you said rings true.
Because organizers have full time jobs, at SPS Twin Cities we break down the responsibilities into manageable groups. One person coordinates with the facilities and volunteers, one person handles communications with the speakers and attendees, one person orders and coordinates all the food and orders T-shirts and the like, another person works with sponsors, and we all work together on speaker selection.
I think breaking down the roles and focusing on just one or two areas is what makes SPS Twin Cities manageable. Of course it really helps to have a great bunch of people to work/play with.
LOVE the article, Christian! As a fellow SPS organizer (Richmond, VA), we struggle with locating a venue that has the number of breakout rooms, vendor hall and opening/closing remarks. Even though we are in the capital city, there just isn’t a low cost venue that can accommodate us. We use the Greater Richmond Convention Center, but it makes our budget higher than we would like. However, our attendees and sponsors seem to like the location.
We also try to keep things simple. We are not professional event planners. We all have full-time jobs. We do the best we can with what we have. Most attendees come for the content (as they should). We just strive to make it a great experience for them.
My personal experience with SharePoint Saturdays is all about networking. I’ve gotten a job through my very own SPS Richmond and met incredible people that have helped me with numerous issues. When someone meets you face-to-face, they are more likely to respond to blog comments, emails and tweets. And, these are the people that WANT to help you.
Such an awesome community!
I don’t agree with the necessity of sponsors to bother attendees. These days, I see briefly names of most major SharePoint vendors just before I click ‘Delete all spam messages’. They end up there automatically, most of them. That means the sponsor because of their forced invasion of my inbox has lost any opportunity to talk to me.
Sponsors need to realize that emailing unwilling recipients is not just wasteful but outright bad for business. When I don’t explicitly ask for information, then trying to force it on me means I think much less of you as a sponsor. In fact, I’ve held off recommending at least two major vendors to clients because they don’t respect my wishes and try to force their messaging on me.
Why would I for a second trust a vendor who does not respect me and my privacy as a potential customer, to respect me and my privacy as a customer?
Email marketing is fine, but make absolutely damn sure that attendees explicitly request information from sponsors. Have a checkbox that is by default turned off and have signups click that to request information.
Sponsors aren’t getting 250 potential clients, they are getting 250 potential adversaries who start hating their guts the moment the vendor tries to cash in.
Christian, this is an excellent post! As a SPS attendee, speaker and organizer (SPSToronto), I have seen events that are superbly organized with elaborate food, prizes and gifts, and I’ve seen events run on a shoestring. Ultimately, it’s what happens in the sessions that counts. I think this article should be made part of the ‘package’ that every SPS organizer needs to read when contemplating an event.