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06/10/11: Scientists, if you are organizing a conference: some tips on getting sponsorship money

This post is inspired by a conversation I had earlier this week with a researcher who is trying to get one of the companies I represent to sponsor his conference. If you are thinking of doing something similar, I hope you will find the post useful. The ideas are primarily aimed at someone in a university setting who is hosting a “typical” academic conference, but may well be useful in other circumstances.

Sponsorship from companies is really important for scientific conferences. It often pays for a big part of the costs for hiring the venue, the food, flying in big-name speakers, printing of the abstract book etc. It also helps keep the cost of registration down, so that as many people who are interested can actually attend. Therefore, I am convinced that sponsorship is a big factor in deciding whether a conference is successful or not.

Despite this, I have experienced that many researchers organising scientific conferences seem to treat sponsors – once they’ve got the money – the way they treat a used latex glove: hold with fingertips at arms length and discard quickly. The attitude can be summed up as: “We buy your products (or in some cases ” are thinking about buying”). Please sponsor us. Thank you. We can now spend the next 2 days ignoring your exhibit.”

To be honest, in the past, some companies have gone along with this and might well have  contributed to this “easy money, no respect” attitude. I am definitely guilty, making dumb decisions and  justifying them with such lame excuses as:

  • “Professor Big Name is the organiser (well one of his post-docs in reality). He might finally buy from us if we suck up to him,”
  • “Company X are there so we have to be there,”
  • “it’s about raising awareness,”
  • “I’ve never been to Prague.” (OK, this last one was never stated out loud)

Anyway, my message to you is this: by and large, those days are over. Believe it or not, companies actually want to get something for their money.

I’ll let you into a secret. Companies talk about ROI. It stands for Return On Investment. So, if a company spends $20K on attending a conference, but can only link the sale of one enzyme kit worth $75 back to the conference, that is a “lousy ROI.” Remember, in addition to sponsorship, a company will pay for its employees travel and hotel rooms, shipping of exhibit material, maybe flying in a specialist. All that can actually cost more than the actual sponsorship. Lousy ROI means no sponsorship for you, no more trips to Prague for company reps. Everybody loses out.

How can you, as organiser, ensure that your conference delegates are going to be good for a company’s ROI? Well, actually you can never guarantee that, but that’s OK, because there is something else you should know about ROI: it is actually quite difficult to measure – and many companies don’t measure it, even if they talk about it. You can use this fact to your advantage, because as conference organiser, your job is to think about doing stuff that increases “potential ROI” and sell that potential to the likely sponsors.  If you do a good job on organising with a thought to their ROI, it might well turn into ” real good ROI” for the companies involved. They will be happy and more likely to cough up for your next conference. Nice, eh?

All of the above preamble is to set the scene for a few ideas that you can use to encourage company sponsorship of your conference: 

1. Do everything you can to encourage delegates to visit the company exhibits during the conference breaks. Look, we company people know a whole bunch of stuff that you scientists don’t. We know what’s new, what’s upcoming, we know which products are good, we can arrange samples, discounts, instrument demos, tell you which applications are hot and what other researchers are using. Plus, scientists are clever, right? So they are not going to fall for a dumb sales pitch, are they? Therefore, they have great reasons for talking to company representatives without any obligation to spend money. 

To get your delegates visiting the exhibits, try these ideas:

  • Good location. You have to get researchers in the same room as the exhibitors. That means coffee breaks, buffet lunch and poster sessions should be held in the same room as the exhibits. Obvious? Yes, but you’d be surprised how often this does not happen.
  • Set up a prize competition that requires delegates to get information/stamps/whatever from each of the exhibitors. A quiz is a good idea. 
  • Remind delegates – every now and then – who is paying for a big chunk of the conference. Visiting the exhibits is simply a nice way of being polite and saying “thanks.”
  • Make the breaks a decent length. 20 minutes minimum for coffee breaks.
  • Allow perhaps one exhibitor to have a stand during the main conference dinner and pay for the privilege. If you put them in charge of the extra wine, their stand will be very popular and they will be very happy.

2. Give out the delegate list after the conference is over. Marketing departments like this (and they normally hold the purse strings for conference spending). You can choose to make this exclusive, a condition of “special, pricier sponsorship,” so that it does not go to all companies. More sponsorship cash for you.

3. Sponsored speaking sessions. Many companies will be happy to bring in a researcher to give a talk about their research that highlights a company technology (usually forming just a small part of the talk). The researcher will have something interesting for the delegates to hear and will not be “salesy” with respect to the technology. Companies appreciate the kudos this gives them and it gives a good chance for interested researchers to visit their exhibit and learn some more. For this reason, consider making these sessions just before breaks.

4. Assign seats at the conference dinner, mixing company people up with delegates. Actually, I think this is generally a good rule for academic-style conferences anyway. Get people out of their comfort zone and mix up PIs with postgrads and postdocs from different parts. After all, a conference should be a networking opportunity for everyone there. That will get the party started.

I believe that if you try out these ideas, in addition to the normal ideas (advertising in abstract, logo placement etc.), you’re sending out the message that you understand what sponsoring companies are after and are willing to work with them.  Having an interesting conference program with some big-name speakers is not enough in itself to get companies to sponsor your conference. If you’re successful and get decent sponsorship, you might be able to hold your conference somewhere really nice. Like Prague. I never did get to go in the end.

What do you think? Any additional ideas would be appreciated too.

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