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
- 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
- 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
- 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
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