I arrived in Sandy, Utah this evening – which is just south of Salt Lake City – to participate in the second SharePoint Saturday Utah event in the state. My co-organizers include Joel Oleson, and also Josef Nielsen, who also runs the Utah SPUG in case you didn’t know. But at the tail end of a meeting in Bellevue before I departed for the airport someone commented on the “state of SharePoint community events” which got me thinking on the way down to Utah. Specifically, I’ve been thinking a lot about the SharePoint Saturday and other similar community-led events. People have been reaching out to me regularly to talk about the events I’ve helped organize, and to ask my opinion on what is happening within their regions.
Why me? I’ve put together SPS events in Los Angeles, Silicon Valley, San Francisco East Bay, Sacramento, Utah, Bend, and Redmond, and lent support/influence (and sponsor contacts) for additional events in Portland, Vancouver, New Hampshire, Florida, Hawaii, and elsewhere. And I plan to help coordinate a few more this year – including this weekend’s Utah event, repeat performances at Vancouver, Redmond, Silicon Valley, Phoenix, and probably Bend, as well as help launch Boise and (I’m hoping) Calgary.
I have strong opinions on what works, where some events have failed, things to avoid, and ways to keep these things going strong. I thought I’d share some of these opinions to help the user groups and organizing committees out there who may be considering the launch of a new event, or want to figure out how to make existing events more successful. So I’ll address some of the most common questions I get asked:
Are there too many SharePoint Saturdays?
I get asked this question a lot. My short answer is No. My long answer is that we need to let the market adjust. What I mean by this is that any organizing committee needs to listen to their community and take an honest look at whether there is a desire and the support to make it happen. It is amazing that a couple communities are able to support 2 events a year (Boston, Twin Cities) while others struggle to fund a single event. Some regions are losing attendees. Some are struggling to find sponsors. You need to understand why. Are you trying to do too much, too soon? Annual events may be too much – both for attendees who may have access to other training resources or events, or for sponsors who may not see the value in sponsoring every time. Poll your users. Talk to sponsors. Figure out what your region can sustain. I do think that some regions need to do fewer events. But if sponsors are signing up and people are attending, then the market is telling you they want what you’re selling.
Why am I having trouble finding sponsors?
Two answers here: you’re charging too much, and not providing value. The most common problem I see is that some SPS events are charging way too much. $3500 for what amounts to maybe 250 names on an opt-in list and a couple hours (cumulative) of talking to passersby's is very expensive. Some may think that sponsors paying for these events do so largely “for the community,” the reality is that with any event, you need to think about the sponsor ROI, and make sure you are providing value. My philosophy is to only raise the funds you need to hold the event. My goal is never to see how much I can raise, or how many sponsorships I can sell. Granted, there are SPS events in cities that are very expensive, so they need to charge more. But the point of SPS was never about lavish venues, flashy speaker dinners and activities, or expensive parting gifts. It’s about delivering world-class content to regions and communities that would otherwise never have a major conference in their area. In a couple of the events I help organize, we are dropping the cost of sponsorship because, frankly, we raised too much money last year. We want to keep the costs low so that sponsors see value and want to come back. The other half of that is to only sell the sponsorships you need, keeping the ratio of sponsors to attendees low so that 1) attendees don’t feel bombarded by sponsors, and 2) sponsors get the max value and plenty of talk time with attendees. That drives value to sponsors.
Don’t we need a speaker activity and gifts to attract the best speakers?
No. These events are about community. Most of your SPS speakers should come from the local community, augmented by outside experts and MVPs to provide a well-rounded schedule and content variety. Here at SPS Utah, we’re holding a ShareSki event the day before as another way the community can connect, with a sponsor offering to pick up the tab for lunch (in this case, Axceler). The only other thing that I insist on budgeting is a speaker dinner – a fun activity that builds camaraderie and community. But that’s it. We’re not even doing speaker shirts this year, because the bulk of feedback from speakers is that they wear them once, and that’s it. So we’re saving the money, selling fewer sponsorships. Speakers will get an attendee shirt (which is also optional, but we did it this time). My point is – speakers apply to present to share their knowledge with the community. If they are doing it for perks and door prizes, you don’t want them as speakers. Simple as that.
What are the components of a successful SPS?
Good speakers, a variety of topics, and something for lunch. That’s it. A speaker dinner is optional. Attendee shirts and raffle items are nice to have, but optional. I’ve been to several events that didn’t have the budget for raffle items, and instead relied on the sponsors to provide books and shirts and a few prizes. In some cases, the local SPUG provides items. In the early days of SPS, pizza was the food of choice for lunch. Cheap, hot, and simple. The focus should be on the content and building/supporting the community. I am also a huge fan of giving tables to any regional SPUG, Women in SharePoint, or other related organization that will help extend the community. Because that’s what it is about.
What should sponsors expect?
Different events have different types of sponsors. Most sponsors expect to receive a list of attendees who opted-in to hear from the sponsors. For those who pay a little more for the privilege, a sponsor should also get a table at the event and the right to distribute handout materials, allowing them to interact with the attendees. I’m amused when I hear someone complain about getting emails from sponsors following an event, or of being “harassed” by sponsors as they try to move between sessions at an event. Some call sponsors a “necessary evil.” That’s a screwed up perspective, if you ask me. The sponsors are what make these events possible. As much as the organizers like to think of themselves as the catalyst, sponsor funds make it all happen. But sponsors shouldn’t expect red carpet treatment. The organizers have provided an opportunity, and it is up to the sponsor to drive value out of the event. Talk to people, share knowledge, spark their interest in learning more. Sponsors need to use these events to connect with the community. If they do that, they’ll get value.
How do you manage the collection of funds?
This is one of the more difficult aspects of organizing. In most cases, I try to work through the local SPUG, which usually has non-profit status or an LLC. For the last Sacramento and Bend events, my company collected fees and paid out all expenses and reimbursements. Boston uses the model where each expense is sponsored rather than collect a central fund. The danger here is that a sponsor may drop the ball – and suddenly you have 200 people and no pizza to feed them. The model requires vigilance on your part to make sure sponsors follow through. I am considering starting my own LLC to help with the financial management of the events I help organize, and am exploring the tax liabilities of providing that kind of support. Just because you operate as a non-profit doesn’t mean there are not tax implications.
What are the biggest mistakes organizers make?
Attempting to do too much. My advice is to keep it really simple.
Focusing too much time on getting a big name at the top of the billing. I am moving away from the idea of a keynote speaker – Twin Cities does an opening with housekeeping, then begins the first batch of sessions. I love it.
Don’t bring in a band or something else during lunch that may distract attendees from talking to the sponsors, because lunch is the primary time for those conversations.
Wrap it up quickly – if you have a raffle at the end, get through it as quickly as possible. Sessions are done, people want to go home or make their way to the SharePint, so don’t extend the finale.
But the biggest mistake is what I outlined at the beginning of this article: don’t charge too much. You need to keep control of your budget, which will help you control your sponsorship fees. We’d all love to hold our events at the Westin or the Marriott, but when your baseline venue and food costs start at $24k, you’re moving in the wrong direction. Find a cheap or free venue, such as a community college or training facility. Keep food costs low (usually the most expensive item), and be ready to cut items like attendee and speaker shirts, raffle items, or even the speaker dinner if you’re just not able to meet your minimum commitments. That’s how I handle the events I help organize: I start with a goal, but do not spend a dime until I know I have met my minimum budget to even hold the event, and then when the event get the green light, the organizing committee expands the sponsorship base so that we can add in some of the nice to have items. The biggest mistake organizers make, by far, is losing control of their budgets. Manage it.
Oh yeah, and stay on top of sponsors who have signed agreements to sponsor, but then take forever to pay. Cash flow is king. It's alright to fire sponsors who are flaky. It's not like you're raising hundreds of thousands of dollars, and their $1500 is make or break. Be nice, but stand firm on payments, so you don’t get left holding the bag.
I hope all of this helps. I’ll respond in the comments to any other questions, and would love to hear your feedback.