Transform Sponsors Into Members To Increase The Value Of Your Conference

September 27, 2011

in Ideas

Photo by Kris Krug

Recently Joi Ito, the neo-director of the MIT Media Lab published a blogpost entitled Media Lab “Members” instead of “Sponsors” in which he defines that switch as one of the most important things he’s working on at his new job.

There is a subtle but crucial difference between the two subjects and it goes way beyond grammar. The key element is involvement. As conference organizers we often have to deal with sponsors that [in our opinion] don’t get what our whole conference is about and the opportunities that it offers, but we still need their money to run the event. This is especially true in events like PICNIC (in which I worked for the 2009 and 2010 editions), where the format is somewhat  different to that of many conferences (different vibe and rather edgier or futuristic topics).

Joi Ito writes (I highlighted some passages in bold) :

[…] Having worked with sponsors, and having fundraised for a variety of organizations, I believe the best relationships are those that are not purely transactional. When the relationship is based primarily on financial support, this sometimes causes strange power relationships and limits the field of exploration. Rather, I like working closely with funders/sponsors/members on a shared mission–exchanging ideas, coming up with new ideas, and building things together.

I want to get away from the idea that a sponsor is paying money for someone else to be smart, interesting, or productive. I believe that we really need to build a community–a kind of “tribe.” To better convey this, from now on I’m going to start calling the companies that support the Media Lab “members” instead of “sponsors.” Membership will not primarily be about financial support, but rather about the wisdom, inspiration, and reach these member companies can offer. It will also be about how they can enhance our ability to pursue our vision and impact the world. We will look for members who wish to join our community as active participants and contributors.

Raise your hand if you haven’t gone through the following situation when dealing with sponsors: You make an amazing presentation to prospective sponsors, showing them all the cool alternatives they could exploit, how it could tie in with their existing strategy, etc and at the end you get asked: “Ok, nice, but how big is my logo going to be on the web/signage and where do I put my booth?” Bonk – reset, restart.

How To Transform Your Sponsors Into Members

I don’t have a formula, but I can share some things that have worked in the past and I’d love to here about your successes (and failures) in the comments:

  • Show them your plans as early as possible: if you propose them something that’s already made, it’s less probable that they can take a real active part in creating the experience. While this might not be practical with all sponsors, consider sharing with recurring sponsors and with potential big ones what your plans are for the next event and ask them where could they add value for the attendee (note that the common goal should be to make the event more valuable for the participants/community first and then for themselves or the organizers).
  • Involve them in the co-creating of the event:  for example they could collaborate with the curation of a specific section of the program or a a series of workshops.
  • Have an outstanding speaker from your Sponsor/Member on stage (tricky one, read on): having a speaker from your sponsor is always a tricky issue. I like how TED had a separate event within TED Global 2010 which was dedicated to short presentations by employees from their sponsors. This was separate from the main TED talks and it was clearly stated that those who talked were sponsors (transparency is a good thing). Another good way of having a sponsor involved on stage without diminishing the event’s value is to look for a suitable speaker together, aiming to those game changers hidden somewhere in the research labs (hint: a marketing or sales manager from the local branch is not the kind of person you want to have on stage). Some other times having a big *real* product/service launch on the main room can be a good thing because it adds a news-factor (it positions your event as a place to break news).
  • Involve them in a long term collaboration: the idea of a membership should contain a long-term hope in it. Give precedence to existing members over competitors and devise a way in which they can sign-up for long but don’t feel trapped by a multi-event contract. Remember, it’s not a game where one has to lose for the other to win.
  • Host recurrent mini-events at your member’s office/HQ: if you organize a once-a-year-conference, then you probably suffer from a physical disconnect from your community throughout the rest of the year. Host frequent seasonal gatherings for your community of sponsors/members and participants (they can be of as little as 20 people) and have one of your members/sponsors act as a host by providing the location (eg. their own offices), welcoming role and maybe an interesting speaker. This mini-events could be 2 hour workshops, a meet & greet with a famous person (past, present or future speaker) or group discussions on relevant topics.
  • Give back to the member/sponsor more than he’s expecting (or than they payed for): showing goodwill first, giving without expecting something in return, will help pass the new concept that you are not reaching out only for the money. In the end -directly or indirectly- it always pays off, sometimes in unexpected ways.


Have any interesting Member-Sponsor experience that worked at your event? Please share it in the comments below!



  • Gianluca Abbadessa

    hey Gianfranco, i could mention a kind of event where i usually participate as a member: MPI Global Growth is the format of local events which brings Meeting Professional International brand, the event industry professionals’ community worldwide,  to the main italian cities to contact new members and fund the same events thanks to sponsors who get involved in creating the event.

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