How many lanyards do you have in a drawer somewhere? How about free T-shirts? Pens? Stress balls? Could you name the companies behind the logos for any of those?

Event sponsorship can be tricky, especially for small companies.

Events often offer tiered sponsorship packages, based on monetary value. The “platinum” level tends to be reserved for the Googles, Microsofts, etc. of the corporate world. Small companies can rarely afford much beyond the “Hey, thanks!” level, and you can end up feeling pretty overshadowed.

Various small companies I’ve worked for have had guidelines in place to make event participation more valuable – both for our company and the event. Because here’s the thing: Whether your company is at the top or bottom level, it’s easy for sponsorship to be a big waste of money. It’s also easier to figure this out in advance than try to scramble to determine what you will agree to or what you will propose when the deadline is tomorrow.

Similarly to how we have ad blindness on websites due to seeing irrelevant stuff over and over, we have a blindness at events. Do you recall the logos and names of companies from banners, table cards or lanyards at past conferences? Me neither.

Now, you might recall who was behind a particularly cool or welcome stunt or offering. At BlogHer one year, a salon served champagne and chocolate-covered strawberries. You could get a neck and shoulder massage or makeup touch-up. It was all courtesy of Bing. But did that make me become a Bing user? Sorry, no.

On the second morning of that conference, when we’d all enjoyed ourselves just a bit too much the night before, there was a bar serving mimosas and bloody marys for a bit of hair of the dog. Much appreciated, but do I recall who sponsored it? Nope.

The crux of good sponsorship is generally personal involvement. If we’re not going to have bodies there, it’s probably not a good fit. Whether speaking or on panels, doing demos or mentoring at a hackathon, small companies often find more value in having boots on the ground than logos splashed all over.

People are more likely to remember that guy/gal from Company X who helped do Y. And next time they know someone who needs help with Y, there’s a good chance they’ll recommend Company X. Or at a future event, if things went well and attendees spoke highly of your involvement, the organizers may come to you, rather than you needing to approach them.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have something cheap to hand out as an easy future reference. Laptop stickers, business cards, or what have you. (Yeah, people still use business cards sometimes – who knew?) Clever doodads with your information on them can be useful, but only if they’re more useful than clever. The key is to know your audience.

Sure, companies who can afford splashy presences and activities have their people at these events, too, but they kind of tend to . . . blend together. Especially if they all wear company shirts or uniforms. And it’s a lot easier to ping someone you followed on Twitter, or send a quick email, than it is to navigate a big company’s circuitous and anonymous contact channels.

When you connect at an event with someone from a small company, the odds of that person being the one who handles That Thing are pretty high. Because at a small company people wear a lot of hats. And if the person doesn’t handle That Thing? They are one degree of separation from the person who does. Easy peasy.

It depends, to a point, on the type of event. For conferences, workshops, hackathons and other assorted tech events, there’s a good chance there’s a role where you can help out. Tech skills, organizing skills, etc. are usually needed. Even at big conferences, there are often smaller workshops, info desks, drop-ins and other areas set up to help attendees. This may be a useful niche. (Though a speaking slot has bigger visibility and can more broadly showcase your expertise and offerings.)

So how do you get your foot in the door? Ask. If you have a connection to the event organizers, inquire directly. If not, use the most relevant contact channel, which might not be the sponsorship one. That said, don’t just spam all of a conference’s email addresses because you have no clue.

Make it about the event. Yes, you want to get involved; no, you can’t offer them a big bucket of money; but you can offer this, this, or this, and would like to help. Perhaps you can bring a few bodies. Or if it’s an ongoing event series, perhaps you can arrange to be involved over time. Not having to staff events entirely anew every time is a great relief to organizers.

Be aware of fiscal and political realities. Events need money to run. The bigger the event, the more money is needed. Sponsorship dollars make many things possible and tend to make for a nicer experience for attendees. So while your alternative ideas may be viable and welcome, don’t expect the platinum sponsor treatment. Your presence may very well also require financial sponsorship. But the companies who pony up big bucks should get respect and exposure for it.

Rely on yourself for your exposure. Talk to as many people as you can. Tell them who you are and what you do. (Get your elevator pitch down before the event.) And most importantly, make yourself as useful as you can. That will make you more positively memorable than any banner, no matter what the size.

Photo: Lanyards by Simon Collison is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech.

About The Author

Melanie Baker

M-Theory is a guest column by Melanie Baker, who is a big fan of building communities and working with geeks. She spends her days fixing the internets (in a way), writing, chasing her puppy, and creating fanciful beasts out of socks.