On Conference Sponsorships

(Melissa from ShoeString Mag and I at my BlogHer 09 book signing.)

A colleague of mine, Thursday Bram, recently brought up the touchy subject of conference sponsorships.  In the Mommy blogger world, these are fairly common (I have actually attended two conferences completely free, compliments of being a Walmart Mom.)  But is it all the sunshine and roses that comped bloggers make it out to be?  And could it actually hurt you to ask and be given reimbursement for these events?

It happens every year (and several times a year.)  In the months leading up to a major conference -- think BlogHer or BlogWorld Expo -- bloggers and writers start buzzing about how they're pumped to go to the next big conference.  How they will pay for it.  Or not.

Within the 2 weeks before the event, they start to get frantic.  Tweets go out asking for sponsorships. Posts go up on blogs announcing that "You, too, can sponsor ME to attend this conference."  Advice is given via blog posts on how to pose the delicate question of "will you pay for my trip?" to big corporations (who seemingly have tons of money to spend on that sort of thing.)  But is it all a good idea?

Thursday weighed the sides carefully, becoming even more insightful with her replies to various commenters.  My favorite response?  She says this: "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!"

Well said.  I can see that the pros of getting your trip paid for by a sponsor can be quickly negated by the obligation you have to tend to their every whim (if they have them.)  I remember a conference where a sweet gal was being sponsored by a children's safety tattoo.  She was approaching everyone in a crowded bar (it was a semi-private event) and asking them to sign up to win an iPod or similar prize.  At first glance, it seemed that she only had to wear the sponsor's T-shirt and get a few entries to the giveaway.  This turned nightmarish, however, when she required entrants to put down personal info, wear one of the tattoos, and stick around for the prize drawing.  I felt really bad for her.  No sponsor I've ever worked with required anything like that of me.

And so we hear stories of ladies being forced to hand out tongue-staining mints, harvest email addresses for mailing lists, or some other PR stunt.  It's not quite the humiliation of wearing a sandwich board out in front of a cell phone store, but it's close.  How can anyone develop their brand and their business, when they are working so hard to do it for someone else?

Here is a quick and dirty run-down of both sides of the sponsorship argument.  See if you agree:

  • No money out of pocket means more money to spend on your business in other ways.  If Big Diaper Brand wants to do that, great! (Mama needs a new laptop!)
  • Sponsored guests often have access to "exclusive" events.  While ideally it would be nice to be able to go without any requirement (Tide provided rides from the airport for several bloggers at a past conference and required NOTHING in return, for example), this is not very common.  If you can meet a celebrity or eat lunch at the top of a tall building, I guess it helps to feel less like a bought and paid for spokesperson.  I think.
  • When someone else pays your way, it's easy to get lazy.  You don't work the circuit as hard.  You don't push your brand as well.  
  • If you're comped 100%, it's hard to say "no."  And how ridiculous is it to try to go to every single conference out there?  If you have a family and thriving business, taking 3-5 days out of your schedule to fly to conferences can kill ya.  
  • Some companies are NOT good people to work for.  Unless you're ready to hand over a check to bail out of a commitment, be ready to go places with people that you wouldn't otherwise associate with.  Some people just do icky business. 
So, with BWE just weeks away (I won't be going, sadly), how do you justify spending cash on conferences?  And if you're one of the "lucky people" who have airfare and hotel paid for by a Fortune 500, then have fun, work hard, and don't forget about "your" business.  Because that's the business that really matters.

Speaking of conferences... I'm speaking at the iBlog Conference on Nov. 5-7 at Perry, IA.  You can purchase tickets through this link.  (Use code "save50" to get $50 off Thursday and "save25" to get $25 off Friday and Saturday!)  


joyfulmothering | September 23, 2010 at 9:28 AM

Very thought provoking. I am one of those looking for a sponsorship to Relevant, yet, besides a few "shameless tweets", I have a hard time trying to "beg" for money. :( Unfortunately, I don't feel as if I have much to offer companies at this time except authentic love of their products and promoting them to anyone who will listen. Having just started out with a new blog, my readership isn't quite "up there" yet.

But thank you for the heads up!! Because I agree, although I'd love to promote a product I LOVE, I don't want to be a walking, ANNOYING advertisement, either. I want to be casual and authentic.

Linsey Knerl - Editor | September 23, 2010 at 9:53 AM

Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I have been blessed to be able to attend 3 conferences fully sponsored in 3 years. I have also paid over $7,000 out of pocket to attend many on my own (and bring along hubby, pay for child care, etc) Come tax time, it's nice to be able to write off those expenses as business deductions, but I also remember thinking how I wish I had more help in making it to the conferences I really wanted to attend.

My wish is that more bloggers had opportunities to attend the conferences for free (or at least get some help.) The problem is when the help comes from brands. Sometimes, the blogger gets the wrong end of the stick, and become almost an employee to the company, unable to attend the functions they want or promote themselves in the way that they see fit. (Even more confusion comes from bloggers being sponsored by multiple brands. Trying to please everyone has cause many a blogger to get way stressed out!) Granted there are some great sponsors, but it really depends on their expectations (which you should get up front before agreeing to anything.)

Just a tip: My first trip to BlogHer was paid for by a search marketing company after I won it from the BlogHer website. Make sure that you are entering every possible giveaway opportunity for conferences. Being sponsored as a winner involves much less (sometimes nothing) than when you're working for your sponsorship. (And the odds are really just about as good.)

Hope you get to go to your favorite conferences :) I would have loved to go to Relevant had my son not been so young yet!

@AngEngland | October 6, 2010 at 6:22 PM

I'm speaking at I_Blog with you also! Maybe not on the same panel, but I'll be there. :-)

I've not yet ever been sponsored to a conference and I think it would have to be a really great fit for me and my site befor I would take a conference sponsorship. To me a more logical partnership might be content creation and blog advertising package for the company in exchange for $X which the blogger is then free to use as they choose....pizza parties for the next month and a half, or a blog conference they want to attend. Less strings. Less confusion. More clarity.

Look forward to meeting you in person! :-)

Angela <><

Linsey - Editor | October 7, 2010 at 12:30 AM

Great thoughts, Angela! I can't wait to meet you at the iblog conference!!

Post a Comment