I participate in many technical conferences every year, and I’m always struck by the way conferences treat their sponsors. Those that simply acknowledge sponsors for making the event possible are seriously stunting their community. Don’t do that! Your community’s commercial supporters aren’t parasites: they’re an essential part of your ecosystem.

If you’re a conference organizer, here’s what you should specifically not say from the stage:

“And finally, we want to thank our wonderful sponsors. We couldn’t hold this event without them. They pay the bills and make it possible for us to keep the attendee costs down. Please go visit them at their booths!”

Please stop doing this.

Huh? What is wrong with that? Seriously, thanking sponsors is a bad thing? What crack is Baron smoking?

No, seriously. When conferences thank sponsors for paying the bills and leave it at that, they create and reinforce a damaging dynamic, implying that:

  • The event is a charity; attendees owe sponsors gratitude, and are dependent on them.
  • Sponsors are there with an agenda of exploitation, a motive that isn’t the same as attendees’ and speakers’ incentive to contribute. The message is “we’re not sure why sponsors are useful, other than paying the bills.”
  • Sponsors are relegated to appropriate territory and involvement, sending the message that they’re not welcome as full participants and should stay within the proscribed invisible psychological boundaries. Sponsors are “othered,” in other words.
  • As a side effect, if you’re a vendor at those conferences, you typically have a miserable experience. The conference doesn’t understand what you need, and doesn’t try, and as a result you don’t get it. Name tags don’t have companies or QR codes for efficient followup. The evening receptions, food, and coffee breaks aren’t located to draw attendees to engage with sponsors; in fact sometimes it’s hard to figure out where the exhibit hall even is. And so on.

These may sound exaggerated, but once you’ve experienced it from as many angles as I have, it’s unmistakeable.

Conferences that fully integrate the commercial ecosystem into the event couldn’t be more different. They welcome and embrace full participation, without drawing attention to sponsors’ monetary contributions.

Why is this so important?

It’s because no tech product, project, or community is complete without full equal participation from the surrounding commercial ecosystem. Nobody’s going to care as much about the topic of the conference, and it’s not going to succeed as much, unless it has a business impact and active adoption and usage. And that requires full citizenship from vendors. You need vendors because your users/participants need them.

Let’s take PostgreSQL as an example, because it’s a community almost by definition; it isn’t owned by any individual, entity, or company.

  • You need vendors for support, training, partnerships, integrations, add-ons, third-party tools, and other peripheral stuff. The database isn’t complete without, say, ETL tools that interoperate with popular BI platforms or Excel or whatever. And most companies can’t use those products without commercial support. They just can’t. They even have policies enforcing it, because of hard-learned experience.
  • You need vendors to learn and support PostgreSQL’s unique needs. You want Red Hat listening to your problems with kernels or drivers; you want Hitachi to understand your storage needs.
  • Vendors contribute to product/market fit, carrying the message you need to hear about their customers’ requirements. Postgres would be much harder for enterprises to use without vendors contributing essential context about security, auditability, licensing, and so on. You can’t get this solely from companies hiring contributors. For every one company that hires a developer on staff, there are 1000 more that can’t or won’t. They can use Postgres, but they can’t or won’t contribute to building it. And their needs are no less important.

Conferences that recognize this strike a dramatically different tone:

  • Organizers integrate the community of contributors and the broader commercial community. They recognize that vendors add value.
  • Ideally, organizers recognize and explicitly affirm that vendors are inseparable from the community. They don’t acknowledge them as “donors.” They put them on the same plane as everyone else. The conference becomes the intersection of diverse perspectives, not cliques.
  • They recognize and endorse interdependence and mutually aligned incentives and outcomes. Attendees and sponsors are there for the same reasons: to teach, learn, share, build, advance, grow. To find their next job or to find the person they want to hire.

So, the next time you’re involved with organizing a conference, make sure sponsors aren’t relegated to the role of “making the event possible.” Ensure that, instead, they are integrated as a vital and essential part of the full picture, beyond the event itself. I promise you, from my direct personal experience, the event will be twice as successful, and so will the community the event promotes. You’ll close the loop on the virtuous cycle of benefit and reinvestment.

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