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by Jeff Hurt | April 17, 2014

Jeff HurtThink about your conference attendees for a minute. And think about the lives they lead on a daily basis. Now think about the roles corporate brands, as conference sponsors, want to play in their -- their what? Lives? That's a hard thing for a brand to accomplish at a convention or even in the real world.
 
Keep thinking about your conference attendees for a moment.
 
Think about the relationships they have in other areas. Activities like sports, music, art, movies and fashion. Concepts like innovation, creativity, inspiration and motivation. Causes like the environment, social justice and charities. People such as their friends and families.
 
Some of these relationships are transactional. All are emotional.
 
So what do your conference attendees value the most about these relationships? They value the context and meaning these things have in their lives. They value transparency and authenticity. They are passionate and emotionally connected to these things.
 
Your attendees place huge significance on experiences. They enjoy stories, storytelling and story sharing. They value community. They want to create with others.
 
They don't value advertising and advertising space, product placement, logos everywhere, aggressive sales tactics, commercials, branding, in-your-face-marketing and media. They want less of these things. But these are all the things most conferences focus on providing in exchange for sponsorships.
 
Conference sponsorship should not be a battle for logo placement. It should not be a battle for fragmented, cluttered brand awareness. It should not be a battle for stage time and holding a general session audience hostage to a sponsor's message.
 
Conference sponsorship should be a battle for experiences and advocacy. It should be a battle for experiences that connect conference participants, create communities and help spread industry messages.
 
Smart conference sponsors focus on elevating a unique, exceptional participant conference experience. It's not a paid advertising arena for sponsors. It's an owned and earned arena for sponsors.
 
Conference organizers should search out sponsors who want to align with the conference's authentic purpose. These sponsors want to add real value to the attendees' experience. They want to help attendees transition into creators and participants of that experience.
 
This should be an opportunity for sponsors to create a conference culture and community that engages and encourages participants. That's more memorable than logo bombardment covering every open venue space.
 
Practical ways to implement sponsorships
 
Bottom line, sponsorships should be used for things attendees value.
 
Do attendees value a printed on-site program? Not really. But most attendees do value a comprehensive and user-friendly conference mobile app, so that's a great place to start.
 
Use sponsorships to increase exposure to thought leaders and innovative insights. Sponsoring a thought-leader track or innovative general session speaker are two specific examples. Or use sponsorships for "What's In It for Me" sessions to introduce all attendees to new conference offerings and programs.
 
Consider naming sponsorships for a trade-show theater of short TED-style speakers themed around a specific topic. Or perhaps seek sponsorship for an "app arcade" on the exhibit hall floor, where technology speakers provide 30-minute hands-on sessions on three productivity, travel or video apps. Think of personal apps used on mobile devices that will help attendees in their personal and professional lives. It doesn't have to be apps just for the industry or profession. Think more broadly than that.
 
Remember, if the attendees don't value it or it doesn't improve the attendee experience, it's a wasted sponsorship.
 
Hat tips to Jack Morton Worldwide (and Matt Jones) for constantly elevating the experience and new sponsorship methods.
 
What does it take to transition brands from product placement sponsorships to conference experience building sponsorships? How do you evaluate the value of attendee experiences for sponsorships? Let us know in the comments below or email me at jhurt@velvetchainsaw.com.

Dallas-based Jeff Hurt is executive vice president of education and engagement for Velvet Chainsaw Consulting. To read more from him, visit jeffhurtblog.com.