The Ultimate Conference Sponsorship Guide for Startups

As a startup, a successful conference might make the difference in your quarter or even your year. We'll show you how to get the most from your sponsorship.

Article by
Egan Montgomery

There’s a lot to think about when you make the expensive call to sponsor a conference. Conferences are difficult. While the promise of being crammed into an exhibit hall with thousands of your closest friends, prospects, partners, competitors, and influencers is enticing, remember there’s a lot more that goes into a conference than what you see in the promo video.

Pulling off an event sponsorship is hard. And like many hard things in sales and marketing, it can pay off in a big way. A well-executed event for a startup has the potential to make your quarter — or maybe even your year. It can propel you to your next funding round, spark a key partnership, or serve as the first major splash for your brand.

They may also be the quickest way to light large portions of your marketing budget on fire. You might pay $100,000 or more to sponsor a major industry conference when you add up all the costs, which usually ends up being more than $30,000 per day.

Even at smaller events where the total bill is lower, you can still quickly chip away at a constrained marketing budget.

Is that sponsorship going to deliver more than an additional person on your team? Or what if that money were allocated to a different channel? These are the opportunity costs that should be weighed before taking the leap of sponsoring an event.

But how do you weigh the many options? And if you decide to move forward with a sponsorship, how do you set your team up for success. How do you pick the right event? What’s the right way to think about goals? What do you before, during, and after to squeeze every drop of ROI out of your sponsorship?

We’ll cover this and more. Onward!

Step 1: Set Goals Before You Even Look For An Event

While goal setting sounds trivial, it is the single most important step in pulling off a successful conference. Understanding why you are going to the event and what you hope to achieve affects everything from conference selection to the personnel staffing the booth. Your goals should be in support of the broader go to market and fundraising strategy.

If you decide that an event is the best option for driving a portion of your revenue, you and your entire team should know exactly what that revenue number is and how much pipeline (or how many opportunities) you need to hit that number.

If an event needs to cover $50,000 in revenue and your ACV is $12,000, you need to source 4 deals. If your win rate is 15%, you need to generate 27 new opportunities for the event to be a success. In terms of ROI, a sustainable event strategy should return 3X or more of your initial investment. Again, if the goal is $50,000, then your budget should be about $16,000.

Of course, the 3X rule is not a perfect science, and depends greatly on your goals — consider it a general rule of thumb that is helpful when it comes to planning and evaluating sponsorships.

When forecasting costs, consider all costs associated with the conference — not just the cost of the sponsorship. This includes travel costs, dinners, swag, branding, WiFi, power, event/union fees, and labor. Don’t forget to consider the cost to send employees. If you pay an $80,000 employee to attend an event for three days, that’s roughly $1,000 in cost to your business.

Having these conversations prior to even evaluating conference sponsorships is valuable for two reasons:

  1. It aligns your team around a common goal and makes it easier to have the hard budget and resource conversations later on
  2. It makes it much easier to evaluate conferences, including selecting which conferences you consider, what questions to ask the sponsorship rep, and whether or not it’s the best decision for your business

Many teams don’t think deeply about these goals until it’s too late, and end up wasting time and money.

Step 2: It All Starts With the Right Conference

Prior to selecting a conference and sponsorship, there are a few things to look at — but understanding the event audience should be your top priority. Event names can be misleading, so at a minimum, ask for a previous year’s attendee list. Sometimes they may even share the list from the current year, depending on the event and whether or not people have already started signing up. In most cases, a list from a recent previous year will suffice.

Work with marketing or sales operations (or whoever manages your CRM for startups who don’t have dedicated ops yet) to separate attendee companies and run that list through your list of target accounts. A high match rate means it is likely a relevant conference for your ICP.

Pro Tip: If the account match rate is high, examine the non-matches closely. Most events draw a specific audience, and this is a great tactic for identifying sales targets that you don’t currently know about.

Understanding the account breakdown is step one. Next, you’ll want to do the same thing for your personas.

If your buyer persona is senior Customer Success professionals, it doesn’t make sense to attend an event that is heavily mid-junior support staff. Even if the attendee accounts match your ICP, if you can’t get to the right person, it’s probably not going to produce a good return.

Be careful of biases. It’s easy to get excited about a conference and imagine all the hundreds of leads that will flow in. Measure your decisions objectively. Don’t let a skilled sponsorship sales rep or an overzealous (but less informed) member of your leadership team skew your research process and decision-making.

Also, remember the goal setting lessons above. If the conference needs to generate $50,000 in ARR and your budget is $16K, that’s a quick way to narrow your list of possible events.

Finally, look for events where you can make a big splash. If you plan to invest, then INVEST! Don’t spread your budget thin by sponsoring a massive conference and getting crammed in “Startup Alley.” If you have $20,000 to spend, find a conference where you can buy a premium sponsorship and still afford to host a field marketing dinner in tandem with the main event. In most cases, you have just a few days to make an impression on the audience. Make sure they remember who you are and are motivated to at least stop by the booth at some point.

Lastly, negotiate hard during the sales process. There is almost always wiggle room on the price, and there are many smaller sponsorship options that can be thrown in. Lanyards, premiere signage, and swag bags are just a few things that can make a big impression. It’s usually pretty easy to get some extra goodies thrown into the deal for no additional cost.

Step 3: Create An Offer People Actually Want

One of the keys to conference success is creating a custom offer for the event. Make attendees feel like they are getting something special simply for being an attendee of the event. While creativity goes a long way, don’t feel like you have to reinvent the wheel — most sponsors will be offering generic demos or passing out business cards, so a small but impactful value-add will help you stand out and drive fast action.

Your offer should feel exclusive and tailored to the event. It should also be time-bound to encourage immediate action. Free trials, custom assessments, and giveaways work well — and you get major bonus points for looping in a customer. If Casper is a customer, give away one of their mattresses and feature case study print-outs at your booth. Scan attendee badges to enter and train the booth staff to use case studies to spark up conversation.

It’s a good idea to build a landing page for this offer (just like you would do for a standard digital offer). That way, you can promote the offer before the event and activate the audience through ads during the conference itself. Remember: attendees are busy and many of them won’t even walk the exhibit hall, so you need to consider ways to engage them, assuming they never walk by your booth. Of course, the other benefit of the landing page is the ability to track.

I’ll be blunt: don’t bother going to a conference if the best offer you can come up with is a demo of your software. While members of your audience may plan to walk the exhibit hall with their software buyer hat on, they’ll be looking to solve a very specific problem… and it may not be one you solve. Especially in the case of category creators, or new solutions more generally, nobody is looking for what you have — yet. Offer something of real value and your chances of generating new business will be much higher.

Step 4: Control Your Destiny by Winning the Pre-Conference Battle

You will know whether or not the conference is successful before your team ever sets foot in the exhibit hall. The steps you take leading up to the event are far more important than anything you do during or after the event.

A great booth and a great offer are important, but you need to have meetings with prospects on your calendar before you arrive.

This requires coordination between sales and marketing. Obviously it’s important to first align on which accounts you want to target. Sales and marketing should work together to determine who on your target list is attending. Many conferences will give sponsors a certain amount of “free” invites for customers and prospects. This is an excellent way to spark up a conversation and deliver something of value to a prospect. And if they accept a free conference ticket from you, it’s highly likely they will also accept a meeting on site.

Consider setting a meeting quota for your sales rep(s). If the marketing team selects a good conference, reps will be chomping at the bit to go. Set a minimum meeting threshold and if a rep doesn’t hit it, don’t send them.

It’s as simple as that.

Layering in spiffs and other incentives works well, too. For example, offer to sponsor a field marketing dinner for the rep who books the most meetings leading up to the conference.

Marketing’s role is two-fold. Priority number one should be softening the ground for the sales team. Prime the audience with marketing messaging and make sure prospects at least have an idea that your company will be at the event before a sales rep reaches out. This will make your conversion rates skyrocket, and helps prime the sales team for success.

The second responsibility of marketing is enablement. Help the sales team identify accounts that are likely to go, create a great offer, and make sure the sales team knows all of the conference details. You want to make it as easy as possible for the rep to focus only on reaching out to the most qualified prospects in their territory.

As a way to track progress, marketing should own a master outreach list as well. Start promoting earlier — way earlier — than you think is necessary (at least 2–3 months in advance with top of funnel messaging) and make adjustments on the fly if an offer, message, or audience is falling flat. For startups, the conference will more than likely be your largest investment of the quarter, so much sure you treat it as such.

As long as the conference and offer are relevant, and the sales team is properly motivated, you should have no problem booking meetings ahead of time. Shoot to cover at least 50% of your meeting target pre-conference. Follow along with the example below for clarification:

Your ACV is $12,000 and you need the conference to cover $50,000 in ARR. That’s about 4 deals. Your opportunity to closed one conversion rate is 15% so you need to open 26 opportunities to hit goal. Your first meeting to opportunity conversion rate is 40% so you need to produce 65 first meetings before, during or after the conference. You have 3 sales reps and you want book half the meetings pre-conference, meaning each rep should be chasing 10 meetings. Set the bar to attend around 8, and offer to pay for dinner for any rep that gets to 12.

Again, your math will probably look different, but that’s the general idea.

Pre-conference meeting coverage is the number one determining factor of consistent event success.

Other things to consider pre-event are aligning your team around key messaging. In the early days, things like elevator pitches and boilerplates change quickly. If you have remote sales reps, it’s even more important to make sure that everyone is in line with current messaging before heading to the conference. Nothing makes you look more like a startup than every person at an event telling a different, confusing story. Take some time during a weekly sales meeting or book time to refresh and re-train on key messaging principles.

Of a similar vein, train everyone attending on new case studies and collateral. And make sure everyone knows the process for qualifying and handing off the lead (this includes everyone from founders to your most junior marketer). If someone has a chance of being prospect-facing, they should know what makes a good lead and what to do with it.

If you have the budget, creating a field marketing event adjacent to the conference is very effective. You can host it on your own, or link up with a partner to control costs. Dinners and cocktail hours are a way to catch people in a more casual environment, and they can be built into whatever your marketing offer is before and during the conference.

Another way to control your conference destiny is to build out a conference playbook before the event. Put your operations hat on and consider everything that someone from your team might need to know about the event. This might include:

  • Maps with hotels, airports, and conference venues.
  • Meeting location suggestions like coffee shops, restaurants, and bars.
  • The full agenda
  • Events, speaking engagements, and dinners that your team definitely needs to know about
  • Contact information for everyone on your team
  • Important points of contact from the event and venue staff (Usually this is just one or two people, but the point is that if something goes wrong, everyone on your team is empowered to step up and handle it.)

This playbook will save you a ton of stress and hassle while on site. Offer this to your team in printed and digital formats.

Step 5: The Conference

Alright. It’s here. The lion’s share of your quarterly budget is being spent in two days. How do you make the most of it?

Of course, the section above is where you can move the needle the most, but what steps can you take while on site to engage prospects, book meetings, and prepare for follow-up?

When you arrive on site, the first thing you should do is scope out nearby meeting space. The booth will rarely be the best place to speak to a high-value prospect, so give your sales team a secondary, quieter option. This should be within very close walking distance to the booth. Sometimes, you may get unlucky with booth placement — keep this in mind during the booth selection process. Traffic is your top priority, but a nearby and quiet meeting space is a close second. This also comes in handy when a team member needs to step away for a call, check back in with HQ, or knock out some non-conference work quickly.

Much of on-site success is luck. A good offer, good swag, and an excited team will absolutely move the needle. But at the end of the day, you simply can’t control who walks by your booth and when.

For sales reps, it’s best to go guerrilla. Asking a rep to spend inordinate amounts of time at the booth is a waste of their extraversion and relationship skills. A good rep will drum up meetings by making small chat at sessions with prospects, bumping into people, and, honestly, spending time at the hotel bar. Just like the pre-conference strategy, give your reps a (smaller) meeting quota and offer incentives to those who exceed.

For marketing and booth personnel, the best advice is to simply be engaging! Walk around any conference and there will no doubt be booth folks sitting behind their table, staring at their laptop. Do the math on what that costs per minute and I guarantee that will never fly at your company again.

Stand in front of your booth. Be welcoming, not pushy. Make eye contact. Have really good swag (yes it matters, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise).

Most people who peruse the exhibit hall will at least chat with you so long as your team is inviting and friendly. But don’t expect anyone to be excited about you’re doing if your team looks like they would rather stick needles in their eyes than be at the booth.

Once you a prospect engages with you, tracking is extremely important. Keep detailed records of everything and communicate with sales and marketing ops on a daily basis. Follow up is critical, but if you don’t capture enough data on your conversations, your follow up will fall flat.

At a high level, you need two things.

  1. A way to get in touch
  2. Some details from the conversation so your reps can personalize follow-up

Most conferences offer lead scanners or something similar. Taking notes directly on the device is the easiest way to manage all this. Ensure your team knows that documentation is important and why and they will take the time to do it right.

Remember that prospects are even busier than you at an event, and that they’re probably talking to multiple vendors. What are you going to do to stand out once the dust settles?

Step 6: Follow Up Like Your Life Depends On It

This is crunch time. Aside from pre-booking meetings, this is your biggest chance to move the needle. Get all stakeholders together as soon as possible (like, ideally within hours of the event’s end) and comb through conversations and notes.

Prioritize your list and divvy up prospects to reps and/or BDRs/SDRs based on your agreed upon rules of engagement. Make sure that you focus on the best conversations (this is where your notes come in). It’s very easy to come back from a conference with happy ears, but just because someone was friendly doesn’t mean they are worthy of follow up.

Prioritize prospects who expressed real interest or exhibited real problems within the scope of your solution. For the rest, consider dropping them into a nurture cadence, or at least let your reps work top targets first and then come back to the rest.

The reason for this is because prospect interest and excitement tails off quickly. They return to their normal work day, and they’ll likely be playing catch up from being out of office. In a week (maybe even a few days) they’ll hardly remember who you are. By empowering your reps to focus, they will be able to allocate the necessary time to craft personalized and valuable outreach and get meetings booked. Spreading post-event outreach too thin will yield lesser returns.

Don’t batch and blast. Let sales drive follow-up, and push for personalization and tailoring. Marketing should focus on nurturing other targets, as well as event analysis and debrief. A focused and coordinated outreach campaign will get meetings on your calendar.

Step 7: The Review

We’re all guilty of punting a data-driven conference review. Why?

For many SaaS companies, the sales cycle can be 30, 60, or 90 days. In enterprise sales, it’s likely way longer than that. By the time opportunities have moved through the pipeline, the conference is a distant memory. And in the busy world of startups, it’s tough to have the discipline to go back and review. So what should you review? And is there value in the non-revenue-generating aspects of an event?

Of course! This article focused a lot on creating pipeline and revenue, because that should absolutely be your top focus if you’re going to invest tens of thousands of dollars as a startup. But there are lots of other things to discuss that relate both to your event marketing strategy and your broader go-to-market strategy.

  • Did you develop and foster any partnerships?
  • Which competitors were there?
  • Did you learn anything about messaging? Did you generate new ICP ideas or learn more about your buyers?
  • Did you meet with relevant press or analysts?
  • Did anyone have awesome ideas for swag or driving booth traffic?
  • Who had great branding and design ideas, and can you use any of it?
  • Was the ICP what you thought it was?
  • Would you do the conference again? What would you do differently, and how can these learning be applied to other events?

This list is by no means exhaustive, but it’s a good starting point for some of the less measurable event benefits. Assign weight to these, but don’t over-inflate. Barring extreme circumstances, if an event doesn’t generate revenue, it either wasn’t a good event for your company to sponsor, or your execution could have been better.

Be honest with yourself and your team and understand that event are really, REALLY hard. Everyone has misses, especially early on. It’s important to measure what matters, have a process, review (with data), and don’t let yourself make the same mistake twice.

Final Thoughts

Conferences can be very rewarding. They’re a ton of work, they’re high risk, but they’re also very high reward. As a startup, a successful conference might make the difference in your quarter or even your year.

Remember that they require significant time and financial resources to pull off, so if your company cannot commit to it fully, it’s best to wait and do something else until you are ready. Invest more time than you think you need to in conference selection, and don’t take goal setting for granted. These two factors will bleed into the rest of your event strategy. They will help align your team, they will help you make the right decisions about the event, and they will influence the overall success of your strategy.

Considering hosting your own conference? Read our tips for hosting your first user conference here.

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