Forward Thinking

How to Avoid Pay-to-Play Pitfalls

Attendees can smell a sales pitch a mile away. Here are four ways to keep both your sponsors and attendees happy.

The seventh of the TED Commandments — “Thou shalt not sell from the stage: neither thy company, thy goods, thy writings, or thy desperate need for funding; lest thou be cast aside into outer darkness” — is especially timely advice. As more sponsors embrace content marketing or thought leadership as arguably the most powerful strategy for improving perceptions of their brand, conference-speaking slots are increasing in value. Conference business models in this area vary greatly — from stringent rules about featuring only education champions to flat out selling keynote slots to the highest bidders.

I’m not sure if pay-to-play has ever been defined in the context of conferences. A good working definition might be: an organization, person, or firm that writes a check and receives stage time on the conference program as one of the benefits. Stage time can range from a five-minute-interruption market-ing slot to a full-session buyout. Some organizations limit commercial presentations to the exhibit hall. Others sell concurrent and/or keynote slots on the main program.

I used to be strongly opposed to pay-to-play, but I’ve come around a bit. In some industries, thought-leadership investment opportunities will absolutely make or break a sponsorship program. Many sponsors have grown more sophisticated and recognize that breaking TED Commandment No. VII wastes a prime opportunity to make an emotional connection with their target market.

If your conference incorporates pay-to-play, here are a few attendee-centric concepts to help guide the program design: 

1 Transparency

Attendees can smell a sales pitch a mile away. In your conference marketing, final program, and mobile app, be sure to clearly state that this session is sponsored, presented, offered, or organized by the sponsor.

2 Choice

Attendees vote with their feet and don’t like being held hostage. Pay-to-play programming ideally should have non-pay-to-play education offerings at the same time. Exceptions to this can be sessions that benefit attendees — like during a free meal or other tangible offering to participate.

3 Vetting and coaching 

Some organizers put a lot of extra effort on the front end, working closely with sponsors to ensure that the content and presentation is helpful and forward-leaning for their target audience. They collaborate on session designs, learning outcomes, and slide decks to make certain that programs provide valuable takeaways.

4 Performance based 

I haven’t run across this yet, but it’s an approach more pay-to-play models should consider adopting: If, as a sponsor, your session is a hit and non-salesy, we want you and your money back next year. If it bombs and comes across as a sales pitch, we either don’t want you back or you lose your place in line to select the most highly valued opportunities. 

Dave Lutz, CMP

Dave Lutz, CMP, is managing director of Velvet Chainsaw Consulting.