As you know, BriForum is an independent conference where we focus on technical content instead of marketing BS. To that end, we’ve tried to strike a balance between vendors (i.e. “advertisements”) and technical presentations (i.e. “content”). But this can be hard to do at times. In this blog entry I'm going to talk about how we think about vendors at BriForum, what they want from us, and what we're comfortable offering them. We have some new ideas (and the vendors have made some suggestions), but I want to share these with you before we make any decisions.
Taking a step back, we have an interesting relationship with vendors / advertisers at our company. Contrary to what some might say, we don’t “hate” the vendors. None of us would be here if it weren’t for the vendors’ software and hardware products, and we all use products from multiple vendors every day. What we hate is the vendors’ marketing spin. (Not all marketing is bad.. just the crazy spin that can sometimes happen when someone tries to sell you something.)
The whole point of our company is to be independent analysts whose writings, speeches, thoughts, and opinions are formed based on sound logic--not on which vendor will buy an ad or pay for a review.
On the BrianMadden.com website, this balance is very easy to maintain. Banner ad revenue, while important, only makes up about 10% of our overall annual revenue. Therefore if a vendor says “I’ll buy an ad only if you write about our product,” we can say, “No. This is not how we work.” (This is rare, but it does happen from time-to-time.)
The BriForum conference is a bit different. Vendor / advertiser revenue makes up a MUCH larger percentage of the overall conference revenue. For example, let’s look at the costs associated with the upcoming BriForum conference in Amsterdam in October. The overall cost of BriForum is going to be over USD $300,000--probably more like $325,000. (These are our hard costs. Venue rental for three days. Paying travel and hotel for all the speakers. Food. Party. WiFi. Signage. Video Recording. Staff to help run the event. Insurance. Credit card processing fees. AV rental. Invoicing. Etc.)
The attendee ticket price for BriForum 2007 Amsterdam is about USD $1000. We’re hoping to get about 200 paying attendees this year. (By the time you add in the speakers and sponsor staff, that brings the total to over 250 people.) $1000 multiplied by 200 attendees gives us $200,000 of revenue from ticket sales.
Since the total event cost is over $300,000, that means that even after ticket sales, we are still over $100,000 short. This is where the vendors / advertisers come in. We have to address the $100,000 shortfall. This is where we’d like to share some ideas with you, and how we can accept vendor / sponsor / advertising money without “selling out.”
Fundamentally there are two things we can do: increase revenue or lower costs.
- Sell more tickets
- Increase the price
- Sell more vendor slots.
Sell more tickets
We’d love to! Tell your friends. It’s true that many of our costs at the conference are fixed. Presenters, travel, venue rental, signage.. the costs of these things are the same regardless of whether we have one attendee or one thousand. So when that first attendee signs up, our “cost per attendee” is probably $300k. But after ten attendees sign up, our “cost per attendee” is only $30k. You get the idea.
Increase the price
If we plan to sell 200 tickets to BriForum, and we have a make up $100,000, that means we’d need to raise the ticket price by 50% to $1,500 per person for this conference. Of course if we did that, we would lose some attendees, which means we’d have to raise it even more to make up for them, which would cause us to lose more attendees. You get the idea. We try really hard to keep the price reasonable, and I don’t think we can raise it enough to make this a sponsor / vendor / advertiser-free event. (Even if we raised the price only $100 or $200 dollars, we’d still need to make up the extra $60-$80k from sponsors.)
More vendors / sponsors / advertisers
gain this is a tough call. What is the right number of sponsors? What is the right balance of sponsor-to-attendee ratio? We would love to fill all of the sponsor slots at BriForum. (We have done this in the US all three years. We did not do this in Europe last year.)
To sell more sponsor slots, we have to create packages that the sponsors are interested in. We have to give them what they want. The problem is that what the sponsors want is not always the same thing as what the attendees want!
If we give the sponsors too much, then we will sell lots of sponsor slots, but attendees will be mad and will not come next year. That’s bad because (1) we lose that attendee revenue, and (2) the conference is less attractive for sponsors for future years.
But if we give the sponsors too little, they will not want to sponsor. And that is the situation that we have in Europe right now for this upcoming BriForum.
To be blunt, we need more sponsors / vendors / advertisers for our European BriForum. We’ve spoken to many many companies (all the “standard” ones you’d expect) and their answer is that they do not feel that we are giving them enough for their money. It is not a good value for them, and they would rather stay home or attend another event in the industry.
So here’s the deal. Gabe, Emily, and I have come up with a list of all the different things that we could offer sponsors. I’d like to go through that list here, explain what each thing is, maybe explain our feelings about it, and get your thoughts and opinions.
Sharing attendee contact information
This has been the hardest thing to overcome, so I’ll explain it first. It’s quite simple really. Sponsors want us to give them all of the contact information for every attendee. We do not want to do that.
As a compromise, we now encode the attendees’ contact information on the back off their badge, so if they visit a sponsor and are interested in their products, the sponsor can “scan” their badge to collect the contact information. (We just bought a new badge printer this year that will address some of the scanning difficulties we’ve had in the past.) We think this is a good solution. Sponsors don’t. So now what?
Of course for the upcoming BriForum next month, we’ve already promised attendees that we will not share their information with sponsors, so rest assured that we will not do that. But for future BriForums, should we start doing this? Would you stop coming if we did?
Another compromise that Gabe suggested is that we could offer to let each sponsor send a limited (maybe two?) number of emails to the attendees of BriForum. We would own the attendee list (so that the sponsors wouldn’t have access to the names), but then we would use an emailing service to send out a few mails from each vendor after the show. What do you think?
We can combine BriForum sponsorship packages with banner ad packages on BrianMadden.com (and maybe BriForum.com) to give the sponsors more exposure. Since we already have ads on BrianMadden.com, this shouldn’t really upset anyone too much, right? (And for those who it does upset, why? Why shouldn’t we have ads to make money to pay for all the time we spend writing articles and maintaining the site? Should we switch to a subscription model where you pay for the content instead?)
Fundamentally, the sponsors of BriForum want a chance to pitch their products to as many attendees as possible. In the past we offered “sponsor lunch sessions,” where sponsors could give 30-minute presentations in the breakout rooms during lunch.
Attendees hated these because they made lunch too long and cut out valuable “real” session time. Sponsors hated these because they said that everyone was eating their lunch instead of attending their sessions. So Emily and I decided to cancel these sponsor lunch sessions. (Starting with this next BriForum, they are no longer an option.)
But of course sponsors still want to be able to present their products and solutions. So what if we create an option where a sponsor can pay maybe $5,000 to buy a “real” session slot? We’d of course limit this to only two or three per conference, and we would label it to make sure that everyone knew it was a sponsored paid-for session. Would that be okay, or is that selling out?
Five-minute Live Sponsor Commercials
Another cool idea that was suggested was that we could sell very short (5 min) slots to sponsors before some sessions. Think of this like previews before movies in the cinema or like commercials before a tv show. I’m thinking the way this would work is that we’d let a sponsor make a 5-min presentation before the “main” presentation during some breakout sessions. (We could have a big clock and cut them off at exactly 5 minutes.)
We’d have to work with the schedule and the presenters to make sure that the sponsors didn’t take away any time from the real session.
Why not just lower the event expenses?
All of these ideas are about ways to sell more sponsor slots by increasing the value that the sponsors get out of their sponsorship money. Of course we could also make up the $100,000 shortfall by lowering our expenses. However, we really try to keep the event as low-cost as possible. (Did you know that I personally print the name badges in my house myself before the event? And then I get all my friends to come over to help me stuff them into those plastic inserts?)
All that said, we can certainly lower expenses, but to do so means that we would have to eliminate something. So if you were going to cut something from BriForum, what would it be?
- Fewer sessions?
- Fewer speakers?
- No party?
- No food?
- No WiFi?
- No video recording?
- Move the event to somewhere like Omaha, Nebraska instead of Chicago?
- Fire Emily and make Brian and Gabe each work 20 more hours a week?
One final thought about BriForum and profit
While were having this whole conversation about BriForum, and while we’re talking about money, I want to make one thing clear: we do not make any profit on BriForum. This is not our goal. Our company makes money by selling ads on our website, by selling books, by teaching classes and selling training DVDs, by consulting, and by me speaking at events around the world. Our goal with BriForum is to break-even so that we can continue to do it for a long time.
(Of course we understand that there is a HUGE marketing and “brand” value for us to do BriForum. But if you look at the expenses and the income for a specific BriForum event, our goal is to break even.)
There have been some who have told us that was stupid, or who think it’s crazy that that we must be making money. I’ll tell you this though. Before 2005, I had never ever put on a conference. (Thankfully Emily knows what she’s doing!) I’m coming into the conference business with fresh eyes. And let me tell you.. You will not believe how freaking expensive EVERYTHING is in the conference business. If you think that we can do it cheaper, then please, send me your ideas. email@example.com I’d LOVE to lower the expenses of BriForum. (But before you email me, call some venues and find out how much they cost. Find out how much catering is. Do some math and figure out just how much the 2.84% credit card processing fee will be. (Hint: Over five-freaking-thousand dollars per conference!!) Figure out how much airfare and hotels for 30+ speakers and staff will be. And if you can do it for less than $300k, let’s talk!
The bottom line is that I love BriForum. I think it’s an amazing event. It’s going great in the US and we’ll continue to do it for a long time. The BriForum Amsterdam 2007 planning is coming along nicely. We were overwhelmed with session proposals and will announce the sessions soon. Even if we don’t get one single additional sponsor, we will have an AWESOME event in Amsterdam. (It’s just that we don’t want to spend $100,000 of our own money to make it happen.) So please, share your thoughts and ideas below!