Samuel Mullen

What could possibly go wrong?

Why Your Company Should Sponsor Tech Conferences

Note: In this post, when I refer to “developers”, I’m generally referring to programmers, DevOps, and digitally creative types.

For the past couple of months, I’ve been reaching out to companies, asking them to sponsor Ruby Midwest 2013, a technology conference I’m helping to organize. Every company I’ve had contact with has been super nice and many have chosen to support us either financially or with products or services. Some companies have chosen not to sponsor for a variety of reasons, and that’s cool, I get that. There are definitely reasons not to become sponsors. But in this post, I want to look at some of the results decision-makers are expecting, and some which they might not consider, and which, if they do, might change their outlook on sponsorship.

Just looking at sponsorship from a general perspective, most companies are seeking to advertise, increase brand awareness, make sales, and maybe find new employees. The hope is that the amount of money invested will be offset by what is returned. And of course this works, which is why you see some of the same companies sponsoring so many conferences.

Take, for example, publishing companies O’Reilly and Addison Wesley. I can’t imagine a conference which didn’t have books from either of these companies to give away. The results of these minor investments are advertising and increased brand awareness (people get to see the books handed out), and increased sales by way of the book recipients buying more products from the same publisher, and also from them telling their friends or writing reviews. It’s nothing but “win” for these guys.

Since I am currently seeking sponsorship for Ruby Midwest, I am a little hesitant to say this, but investing in a conference may not be the best choice for a company if it is only looking for sales and advertising. Part of the problem is that those running the conference are usually developers (like myself), and, well, we’re not really known for our ability to sell and market companies and products (or even have “normal” conversations.)

The other part of the problem is the target audience. Most people attending tech conferences are company-employed developers (i.e. not the decision-makers). So even though a company might be selling the new whiz-bang product, we may not be in a position to do anything about it other than make the case to our management, (and again, we’re not really known for our ability to sell.)

Selling books or developer tools is one thing; developers are usually the decision-makers. Selling other types of products, especially those focused on companies, are a different matter; developers, even if they’re the target audience, may not be in a position to purchase.

And so at this point you may be asking yourself, “If we’re unlikely to make sales, get a good advertising push, or increase our brand awareness, why should my company sponsor a regional conference?” In short, by sponsoring conferences, you are telling your development staff that you support them and their passion, you inform the local development community that you “get it”, and you add to your reputation as a company who understands technology. Let’s break this down a bit.

I’ve written about this before in my post on ”Attracting Good Developers”, but in short, developers want to know they’re supported and needed. You can do that in a number of ways (and you should) but one way is to invest, not just in them (which you should), but also their interest: i.e. conferences they want to attend. By doing so, it’s understood that your company is taking an interest in their growth and improvement. That matters.

When you sponsor conferences, you not only tell your own development staff you support them, but that you support the local community and you’re a company who understands technology. Believe me, we notice.

Don’t underestimate the value of this. Good developers want to work for “cool” companies, because, well, to be honest, it makes us “cool”. Not “cool” like James Dean, but “cool” as in, we are good enough to work there. This can be a huge confidence boost, and can unleash hidden potential. Developers who once just thought of themselves as the line-workers of the 21st century, might now - with the added confidence - begin to think of themselves as something more, and increase their contribution to your organization.

Used with permission from KCITP’s post: 3 Reasons Why Developers Need To Attend Hack The Midwest

Alright, let’s pretend my arguments have convinced you to sponsor a conference, which ones to you sponsor? Here are three things to look at:

  1. If you’re local, stay local: If you are a company localized to a certain city or area, sponsor those conferences and developer communities resident in that area; in your market
  2. If you’re big, go BIG: If you’ve got offices all over the nation or world, you should probably be sponsoring the major events: OSCon, PyCon, RubyConf, Velocity, etc. But hey, don’t forget the to sponsor the regional conferences your offices are located.
  3. Stay with what you know: Unless you are trying to recruit talent from another technology area, don’t feel like you have to sponsor everything; just sponsor the conferences relevant to your company.

Tech conferences occur in every semi-major city around the globe and every company with a good development staff or who wants a good development staff should be sponsoring at least one a year. Sure, sponsorships can bring in new sales extend your company’s brand, but more than that, it can improve your company’s reputation among your own staff and in the development community.

In the end, sponsoring conferences isn’t just about investing in your company’s representation of itself, it’s really about investing in your development staff and in your company’s culture. It’s worth it.