Sponsoring Conferences: Useful Or Waste Of Time?

The subject of sponsoring a conference results in heated debates among founders of technology startups:

  • Are conferences a waste of time and money, or useful?
  • Should the CEO go to the conferences or not?
  • How many people should you send?
  • How much money should you invest?

I’m writing this post on a break at Palo Alto Networks’ Ignite 2015. The PANW team has done an amazing job at setting up a beautiful conference, full of interesting content. We’ve spent roughly $20,000 on this conference (including flights and giveaways). Is it worth it? Moreover, is it worth me personally spending time here?

To answer those questions, you need to identify what value you believe going to the conference will give you. In our case:

  • Exposure – we want customers, resellers and even PANW employees know who we are and what we do. Time and time again we’ve been contacted by people who heard about us from someone else and eventually became customers. However, it’s very difficult to measure the usefulness of this (which I find problematic – I’m a data nerd).
  • Leads – while this is the first time we sponsor Ignite, we have sponsored other network/security manufacturer conferences in the past. Time and time again, we’ve seen an immediate ROI in the form of leads that turned into customers. A big portion of our sales is driven by people that we’ve met at a manufacturer conference.
  • Understanding Pain – customers are our lifeblood. As such, we need to make sure we understand their pain and how it evolves over time. For me, this is the number one reason I came to Ignite this week. I know many CEO’s think this is best left to the product/R&D guys, but I disagree. A CEO needs to understand their customer.

So $20,000 spent on Palo Alto Networks’ Ignite, or Check Point Experience, or F5 Agility – is always worth it for us.

However, we’ve spent similar amounts on Cisco Live! and a few infosec conferences. Those weren’t useful for us:

  • At Cisco Live! it’s almost impossible to get above the noise without a very big marketing budget. Especially when companies like Statseeker give away a car at each event. When the spend gets too big, it’s difficult to prove ROI.
  • At the infosec conferences most visitors are interested in tools that will help their security and not in those that will help their operations. So while some of our customers are network security operations teams, they usually don’t frequent the infosec conferences.

Now, it’s all down to trial and error. I have a good friend, a CEO of another company, that invested several $100k in Gartner conferences over the past couple of years and can point to real ROI. He could only find this out after investing quite a bit of money.

Investing money into something that doesn’t pan out is one of the things a startup hates doing the most, it’s not like it grows on trees. However, you gotta spend money to make money, right?

Happy conference season!

P.S.
You should really watch this, it’s beautiful.

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