I am consistently impressed by the number of great technology conferences, hackathons, and meetups organized directly by their communities. Organizers bootstrap the event with support from universities, corporations recruiting developers, and companies like 10gen that offer technology products and services.
Since 10gen frequently falls into the categories above, organizers of these grassroots events contact me about supporting them through sponsorship. Hence I thought that I would provide some insight into the evolution of my thinking when it comes to investing in community events.
When I joined 10gen, we were completely focused on adoption, educating the community about MongoDB, and gaining traction. We spoke at local user groups and any conferences that would be interested in learning about NoSQL. We sponsored events to get exposure, but we had a tiny marketing budget so I always negotiated the lowest tier.
As the company grew and hired a sales team, it became necessary to think more critically about how we invest our marketing dollars into developer events. We also had lead generation targets to meet, and events seemed like a great way to accomplish that. It soon became clear that we needed to be more systematic in how we evaluated participation in events.
Initially, it was tempting to measure the success of our participation in an event by looking at the number of leads we gathered, and the subsequent activity. Leads are a concrete, measurable metric, and we can clearly track the conversion to a sales opportunity. This approach biased us towards doing larger sponsorships where we could have a booth. When we have had booths at events, we are able to scan visitors, get their contact information, and sell to them. And with a bigger marketing budget, it seemed logical that we invest in a larger presence at events.
However, after investing in many expensive trade shows, it became evident that the value of a few hundred email addresses couldn’t justify the tens of thousands of dollars that we would have to spend on a booth rental, travel, handouts, and staff time. In addition, the people we met in these booths were generally new to MongoDB. I felt that the conversations we had were valuable for adoption, but most of the leads were not ready for a conversation with a sales rep.
Anecdotally, I knew that the interactions at these events were having an impact. For example, at a MongoDB conference this year, I spoke with a large enterprise customer who told me that they first heard about MongoDB at OSCON two years prior, when one of my colleagues presented. We didn’t sponsor that year, so our investment was just travel and time. It was impossible to track that particular conversion, but that presentation was clearly crucial to that customer’s adoption of MongoDB.
We needed a broader framework for measuring value of each component of event participation. For each event, we started to look at all of the benefits of participation, and assign monetary values to them. What is it worth to us to have 100 people sitting in a room listening to a presentation about MongoDB? How about an attendee speaking with an engineer? How many of those conversations can we have at an event? What’s the value of everyone at the conference going home with a MongoDB coffee mug?
We enumerate each of the items of value associated with participating in the event, assign dollar values, estimate the number of impressions, and total. We then compare to the cost and use this data to prioritize the events. We try to align our budget according to the company expansion and sales goals, so that we are investing in the right territories and so that we don’t end up spread too thin.
Interestingly, I feel that we’ve come full circle: we started as a scrappy startup doing small sponsorships, talking to people at user groups, networking in the hallway track. We experimented with bigger events, but came to the conclusion that the real value of events isn’t in a huge booth, but in the meaningful interactions that we have with individuals. It’s harder to measure this, but it’s a philosophy that is increasingly informing my thought process. Over time, I have started to internalize the values from this model and it’s immediately evident the type of investments we should make.
Based on this model, our approach is increasingly shifting from large trade shows to supporting lots of small community events with small sponsorships. When we participate in an event, we emphasize sending the right speaker and encourage them to work the hallway track. I think that this approach maximizes our reach.
In the next few weeks, I will write a follow up post about how we measure the value of our MongoDB conferences, using some more concrete values.