How Do You Manage Unrealistic Event Sponsor Expectations?

Here’s a quandary for many conference organizers: How do you manage sponsors when you’re trying to put together a credible, authentic conference program that doesn’t leave attendees rolling their eyes at the thinly disguised sales pitches?

It’s a never-ending struggle and, of all the things that keep me awake in the nights leading up to an event, my most extreme anxieties are over any potential outlaw sponsor who has paid for a keynote spot and may decide to ignore everything they promised me they’d do to keep their content sales pitch-free.

We’ve all dealt with this dilemma. A company is willing to buy a hefty sponsorship package that includes some combination of opportunities to interface with your attendees: a keynote speaker position, roles as session moderators or speakers, maybe even an entire session or track that they take responsibility for themselves – and they have different ideas than you have about the definition of unbiased, neutral content.

Your first line of defense is always your own sales force. You have to make it clear to your salespeople that “no sales pitches” means “no sales pitches.” 

They have to communicate to the potential sponsor that it is in their best interest to have attendees walk away from the event with the idea that they just got some sound information from a smart speaker representing a credible company, that they did not pay their registration fee to sit through a canned presentation. You do not want your own salesperson making promises you aren’t willing to keep.

Next, as early in the planning process as possible, you must develop a rapport with the sponsor’s speakers and marketing staff. Schedule routine phone calls and meetings well in advance of the event during which you reiterate your event’s policies on conference content, get a better idea of what their goals-slash-motives are, and learn as much as you can about what they want to communicate.

Then you set some simple ground rules to make it clear that you’re serious. You insist on the opportunity to review their slide presentations in advance. You establish a limit on how many references they can make or slides they can use to hawk their own products and services. And you enforce these rules.

Creating quality conference content is as much an art as a science, but nowhere is that more true than in the care and handling of sponsors.

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How Tribalism Can Work for Your Event

We hear “tribalism” blamed for much of the political and cultural dysfunction in the world today – and probably rightly so.

By tribalism, I mean the attitude or behavior exhibited when loyalty to a certain social group represents a higher value than other values, i.e., truth, facts, what’s right for the country.

There are many explanations for why this drive toward tribalism is sweeping, not just the United States, but the entire world. Among them are the advent of social media and, with it, the accompanying ability to only receive messages that affirm your views and ignore those that contradict what you already believe.

However, a Nielsen Global Trust in Advertising report indicates a few truths associated with tribalism that could work to the event organizers’ advantage as they compete against other forms of marketing – if they are willing to change.

After surveying 28,000 Internet users in 56 countries, the report found that consumers trust recommendations from families and friends above all other forms of advertising. And 70 percent trust consumer opinions posted online by people they don’t know.

That is in contrast to the 29 percent who trust text ads on mobile phones, the 33 percent who trust online banner ads and the 40 percent who trust ads served in search engine results.

So, who would be the best person to promote your event – the blogger with a small but avid audience who has been to, trusts and loves your show, or the high-profile speaker you try so hard to get but for whom your show is just one of many he or she will speak at this year? The Nielsen report indicates it might be the former rather than the latter.

The Nielsen report, I think, has one more lesson for event organizers, this one dealing with conference content. I have been working with one fairly young – albeit so far successful – conference that adopted and stuck with a philosophy that conference speakers should be practitioners in the field itself rather than high-priced third-party experts, consultants or, heaven forbid, motivational speakers.

The attendees at the conference have spoken with their registration fees: They want to hear from people like themselves – whose experience they trust – as opposed to advice or sage wisdom from somebody with celebrity status but who is disconnected from their own profession.

Yes, it could be the world is becoming more tribal, but that might offer new opportunities to event organizers who have the courage to adopt new ways of doing things.

Michael Hart is an event consultant and conference content professional. He can be reached at michaelhart@michaelgenehart.com, @michaelgenehart or 323-441-9654.

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