Practice what we preach: zero-based planning. As an industry, we've been advocating zero-based planning to advertisers for years. Isn't it time we applied the practice to our own budgets? Begin your events marketing plan by determining who are your key constituencies: agency media, agency creative, agency account management, client-side advertising, client-side marketing, traditional expertise, interactive expertise, emerging media focus, analysts and press, existing customers, and so on. (Note that "all of the above" is not an acceptable answer in this step--unless you believe that targeting doesn't work, in which case you're in the wrong industry.) Next, select a portfolio of events to participate in (don't worry about at what level yet) that will deliver that target audience. Certainly the industry stalwarts should be in your choice set, but don't overlook vertical industry events in key targets, such as media, entertainment, automotive, specialty foods and finance. Interactive content is increasingly pervading these shows, creating an ideal context for reaching an uninitiated but curious audience.
Craft programs that achieve your per-show objectives. This is the creative process to the media plan above. Just as a single show won't allow you to reach all of your target customers, a single sponsorship type can't possibly have the same impact on disparate groups, or convey the same message for disparate products. Note also that the operative word here is "craft," not "buy." This is the advertising industry, after all. Be creative. Be unique. And stay on-message. Work with show producers on custom programs that achieve your objectives--whether they are education, branding or lead-generation. A good conference producer will help you tailor your ideas to fit the show's theme, marketing and operations effectively. Rigidity and templated sponsorships don't often allow sponsors' unique voices to be heard. They sell because they are easier to execute--for show producers and sponsors alike. But they leave little room for differentiation.
Plan for success--and plan on measuring it. Events budgets should not escape the ROI demands any more than other initiatives. Once you've determined your target market and objectives for each event, be clear upfront about what will constitute a successful event for you, and take steps in your program creation to include a way to achieve and measure your goals. For example, if your objective is lead-generation, a booth with a fishbowl won't get you there. Your booth is your media, meaning your fishbowl is your creative. We ride advertisers for not spending enough on creative to make the media worthwhile; sponsors should scrutinize their own programs in the same way. If you want to generate leads, you need a direct response campaign. And if you're spending a lot on your event "media," it becomes easier to justify hiring a direct response agency to help with your "creative."
First-mover advantages still exist. Get involved with your target events as early as possible, for two reasons. Most sponsors evaluate shows based on the number of attendees, the quality of press on hand and other on-site metrics. But any show producer will tell you that 98 percent of the effort--and 98 percent of the exposure--comes in the months leading up to the event. Many shows generate tens--even hundreds--of thousands of impressions for their sponsors each week leading up to the show. These impressions are all highly targeted, too, with many reaching an audience that won't actually attend the event. Consider this your gift-with-purchase for closing a deal early. (And some conference producers organize sponsor logos in collateral not alphabetically or based on sponsorship commitment--but according to sign-on date. It's like enjoying the advantages of being named AAAdvanced Interactive when you're really Zephyr Media.)
Don't over-negotiate. The lure to reduce pricing is always great, but there are distinct disadvantages to squeezing too hard for events. Being the least profitable sponsor for conference producers does not give them much incentive to reward you with last-minute speaking opportunities or unclaimed inventory--perks that are always available. Additionally, there are dozens of ways conference producers can boost your exposure--from the placement of signs to the organization of logos to the location of the bar in a cocktail party. Every one of these seemingly innocuous operational details is--I assure you--deliberate and calculated. Karma is strong in the conference business: Pay a fair price, be a good partner, and the ROI from the event will follow.