Conferences are an important part of a startup’s strategy. They’re where you meet new customers and potential partners, foster existing relationships, and raise brand awareness. However, events can be a huge drain on your financial and company resources, and it’s not always easy to decide which events you should focus your efforts on. So here are some guidelines to help startups with limited budgets determine when to attend, skip, or sponsor an event.
1. Set a list of goals
Prior to deciding if your startup should participate in an event, it’s important to create a list of goals. You can use these goals to reduce the number of events you consider and ensure a targeted approach to achieve a higher ROI.
At my company, our goal is seeing high engagement with our specific decision makers — not just general “consumer awareness.” Because of that, we stay focused and attend events that have relevant attendees and topics that can help a brand get recognition in their niche industry. Not only will potential clients have better knowledge of the respective industry, but they’ll also attain a deeper understanding of who the brand really is.
The higher number of brands in attendance, the harder it is to break through the noise. Events like SXSW and Cannes, for example, are extremely popular. They’re generally interesting and have a good lineup of talks, presentations, and side events, but that doesn’t mean they’re right for the brand you’re building. The level of investment required to participate and do something meaningful at mainstream events like these is incredibly high, and much of the audience you’re paying to reach isn’t even necessarily your target audience.
Some brands spend more than half of their total budget on branding activations, which means you’ll be going up against other brands (many of whom aren’t even actual competitors in your space) that are happy to put excessive resources towards bigger events. Trying to compete with the noise and saturation from these bigger brands ultimately diminishes the return on every dollar you spend at these events.
Additionally, when you define your goals, you can optimize your work spent on events. Instead of going to hundreds of events in a year, you can go to 10 great and impactful ones that map back to your goals. The fewer events a brand attends, the more budget is available to be used toward more unique sponsorship opportunities that stand out.
You also need to consider what your staffing situation would look like at an event. At startups, people are busy with their own job responsibilities outside of working events. You likely don’t have a lot of people available for traveling to several events throughout the year, whereas bigger companies have a whole team of at least 15 dedicated to it. Sending staff to events also means taking them away from the office, which may not be so easy when you’re in the early days of building a company.
2. Evaluate the event
After you’ve narrowed down the list of potential conferences, take a closer look and evaluate the level of impact each one can have. This includes taking a look at the approach of the event and its location and then mapping it back to your business goals and growth opportunity.
For starters, take a closer look at the conference programming. It’s worth attending if the conference has a unique approach that’s different from other events you’ve attended in the past. That may mean more or fewer panels, fireside chats, or breakout sessions. Clichés in panel topics (and in participants) are rampant in most verticals. Unique and thoughtful panel topics are interesting in their own right, but they are also indicative of the overall quality of a show.
Next, consider who’s attending. You want to go to events that have relevant customers and brands. Many events suffer from “too many sponsors” syndrome. Events make money off sponsorships, and some of them are so focused on doing so that they forget they need to ensure good brands and attendees come. Although the event may initially look good, you can often end up with very few customers or potential customers to meet. In our industry, Grow.co puts a focused effort on attracting brands and limiting the sponsors and vendors. They keep the content top-notch and focus on industry experts and media buyers driving the content instead of sponsors selling their products. Don’t forget to ask partners, coworkers, or trusted friends that have attended in previous years what their expectations and thoughts were.
Also, take a look at the location of the event. It should be where current and potential clients are and in regions that align with your overall business growth and opportunity. For example, if your startup doesn’t operate and have any employees or immediate plans to launch in Europe, attending a conference in Amsterdam doesn’t make much sense. However, if you are growing in APAC, review the core events happening in that region (this is an area where events are key to brand awareness and success), and ensure you divert budget for them.
3. Decide whether to attend or sponsor
Once you decide to participate in a conference, you need to decide whether to attend or to sponsor.
Attending an event is a must if you’re looking to network, build your brand, or at the very least, learn something. For example, if the CEO is attending, make sure they can also meet with clients that are attending or potential clients the company is interested in. It’s even better if there are speaking opportunities involved. Positioning your brand as a thought leader in the space should be one of your goals, and speaking in front of different audiences helps you build that credibility.
Learning is also one of the main reasons to attend a conference. You’ll get the opportunity to hear from other industry experts about what is currently trending, possibly find inspiration for future speaking ideas, or simply determine if the event is worth attending in the future.
On the other hand, if an event hits everything on your checklist — it has the right audience, it’s the right price, and it offers the opportunity to have a bigger impact — sponsoring might be the best option for your startup. If you are seriously considering sponsoring, take into consideration what the sponsorship package offers and how you’re going to execute.
Not all sponsorship opportunities come with a speaking opportunity, but some do, which may be of particular interest. Speaking slots can fill up, so if the attendees at a respective conference are the exact people you want to get in front of and there’s an opportunity to make a larger impact more strategically, then move forward and sponsor the event.
A good alternative to sponsoring an event is to host a VIP dinner to ensure your brand meets with the exact people you’re looking to get in front of. As you start planning, be sure to confirm how many of your staff members are needed to man the event and how many are actually free.
4. Don’t forget to negotiate
Last but not least, don’t forget to negotiate with the event organizers on possible discounts. The package price is often much higher than you actually have to pay. Just like you probably wouldn’t pay the sticker price for a car, you shouldn’t do so for an event sponsorship either. First, focus on getting the best price you can. Then turn to adding in some “freebies.” For example, a sponsorship package may only include a limited number of passes, but you may need more, and it’s worth asking. Additionally, you may be able to get a higher number of brand awareness opportunities, like adding your logo to water bottle labels or signs at a breakfast.
And not all speaking slots are created equal — the last slot in the afternoon of an all-day conference (when many have already left), or one just before lunch (as lines at the buffet begin to form) are close to useless. So make sure the time you speak is one of the points you negotiate. For example, try to get late morning or early afternoon slots on the second day of a show.
Once you set goals, you might find that popular events don’t meet your criteria as you evaluate them. It’s entirely okay to skip, regardless of how big and popular an event may be. However, if you do decide to attend or sponsor an event, make sure it’s in front of the right audience and has the potential to deliver a high ROI.
Katie Jansen is CMO of AppLovin.