Growing Your eCommerce Site with Conference Sponsorships. A Chat with Devin Sears.
WP eCommerce Show

00:00 / 34:12

In Episode 75, we are taking a look at how sponsoring conferences can help you grow your eCommerce site. We touch on both conferences, and WordCamps, which are unique to the WordPress community and users.

To hear some great first-hand experience we invited Devin Sears, Field Marketer for Bluehost to give us some insights on what you should consider when making that first move in sponsoring conferences as well as having booths at a conference. You will even find a few good tips if have already dove into conference sponsorships on what you should expect and maintain in your marketing efforts.

We chatted about:

  • The challenge of smaller businesses having budgets for larger conferences
  • The value of sponsoring smaller conferences 
  • How to approach direct competition in conference sponsorships and vendor booths
  • Why you want a swag strategy
  • The benefits and challenges of having larger giveaways at your booth
  • What you should expect when it comes to ROI (return on investment)

Thanks to Our Podcast Sponsor: Bluehost


Bob Dunn: Hey, Everyone. Bob Dunn here, also known as BobWP on the web. Today we are taking a bit of a twist with the podcast when it comes to marketing your online store, or in fact any online presence you may have, when it comes to selling your product service. And that is the value of participating in industry conferences. Not talking here about a networking event, but rather sponsoring the event or participating via a booth, which conferences often call the expo part. In any case, I thought what better guest to bring on our show than Devin Sears, who does field marketing for BlueHost, the sponsor of our podcast shows. Welcome to the show, Devin.

Devin Sears: Thank you, Bob, and thank you so much for having me on the show. I know you and I have had the pleasure of working together a lot. So it’s nice to be a guest on the show once again. It is my second time. Hopefully a couple more times down the road.

Bob: Oh yeah, we’ll get you on again. Well, I know we have chatted and hung out a lot together. ‘m looking forward to picking your brain on this subject because it’s something a lot of businesses and online sellers can use. Devin before we get into this subject, can you tell us a little bit more of what that exactly field marketing is?

Meet Devin Sears, Manager of Field Marketing for Bluehost

Devin: Yeah. So it’s kind of interesting right now, especially in the tech industry, because there’s a huge push for digital marketing. As you know, that’s PPC, anything online like that. I do the kind of marketing for Bluehost that is pretty much everything else. You know, anything that doesn’t happen on the web, the interpersonal communication stuff.

I manage a team that goes to different events around the country, sometimes around the globe, and we advocate for Bluehost and a lot of it is educational, which I will get into a little bit more as we go through this podcast. But I love my job. It gives me a chance to travel and meet tons of people and it’s amazing. It’s a lot of fun.

Bob: And you’re very good at it, too. I will admit that sometimes with technology it takes you a little bit to get the job done but with the events, you’re really good.

Devin: I’m a little slow, Bob, but I’ll get there.

If budgets are tight, can a startup or small business start with small conferences?

Bob: Okay, so let’s start out with this question first. Any company that is a startup or smaller company, when they start thinking about going to conferences or being involved with them it, they will likely say, “What can I afford?” The budget, that’s a big barrier. Often the large conferences are pricey. Even though small conferences equals smaller attendance and fewer networking opportunities, will those still be worth the time and money? And if so, how should a small startup or small company prepare for that kind of an event?

Devin: I think it’s an awesome question and I think a lot of small businesses are wrestling with this. When we go from attendee to sponsor, how do we allocate that much of our budget toward just standing around, telling people about our company? And I think my answer for that would be to start long before the event actually takes place.

As a small business owner, it’s important to know where your customers are having pain and, obviously, your products should alleviate their pain. But I think it’s also very important to know where your customers vocalize their pain within the digital industry that we live in. Everyone has a voice on the Internet and a lot of people will go there to Twitter to forums to help desk articles to vocalize their pain and to look for help.

So I think before you even go to an event, it would be helpful to find where your customers vocalize their pain online. A lot of times that will be Twitter or some random form that’s about your product. It can be beneficial, before your first event, to go in and help those people and assist them with whatever struggles they might be having, and establish yourself online somewhere within that community as someone who is knowledgeable and helpful. Once you start doing that for a bit, you start to get a reputation. And people will know who you are. That is huge. Because once you arrive at the event as a sponsor, you have this reputation. People know who you are. You’re not just someone standing around hoping that someone will come up and ask who you are and what you do. You have already established yourself. 

To answer your question about choosing a large or small conference, I think you hit the nail on the head with the budget. Most small businesses are not going to have the budget to go to the bigger conferences. And I think it’s wise to not spend your budget on a bigger conference because there’s going to be some big competition there.

It can be appealing to think, okay, if we go there, we can speak with all 3000 attendees of this conference and that would be huge exposure. But you have to consider that you’re not the only sponsor that has that thought. You’re going to be battling it out for the attention of those people. And as a small business, you’re likely not going to be a headline sponsor. So you know you’re going to be at one of the smaller booths, perhaps tucked away in a less than prime location. So I think the best thing to do is to first establish your presence online within the community and then start going to the smaller conferences. If you look around, you can find some that are a little bit more budget- friendly. As your company and your community grow, you can start considering larger conferences. Even here at Bluehost, we don’t go to any huge huge conferences outside of WordCamps and, obviously, WordCamp US and WordCamp Europe. We’ve grown to love and respect that community, so we love participating with it.

How should a sponsor or vendor present themselves to stand out at a small conference?

Bob: You’ve talked a bit about competition already and how in a larger conference you’re going to have more of that. But even in a smaller conference, there is always going to be the chance that there’s a competitor or two or maybe three whatever, depending on the conference and how they choose their sponsors. Is there anything besides what you’ve mentioned, if they go a smaller conference and there are two or three competitors? How should they present themselves to help them stand out without being like, hey, you know I’m better than those guys over there which of course nobody’s nobody’s going to do. How can you make yourself special or do you just kind of go with the flow?

Devin: My personal belief is this. Be aware of them but put the majority of your efforts into focusing on your products, not theirs. Essentially, don’t sweat what they’re doing so much. Focus on creating a great product and teaching people about it at the event. Conferences are sometimes the personified version of a business market so you could ask the same thing: how much credence should you give to your competitor in a regular market? And obviously there’s a ton of information and opinion about how to deal with a competitive market and your competitors within that.

Keep your head down and focus on creating a great product. Your customers are the ones you should be focusing on, not your competitors. If you provide something that your customers love and you listen to them, that’s going to be your best way of standing out and not not being distracted by the peripheral competition.

Bob: So don’t stand there and let your blood boil and go, “Why do they have so many people over there? This is starting to piss me off.”

Devin: I wouldn’t worry about. I mean, just be aware. You could walk over and observe and say, okay, they’re doing that. That’s something I might be able to integrate into my strategy or, that’s a really cool product. It seems like a lot of people like it. Maybe I can integrate that into my product line. But, honestly, I would leave it at that.

Any tips for selecting the right swag to give away at a conference?

Bob: Okay, let’s talk about swag. I have a two-part question. WordCamps are notorious for swag. Everybody wants to go and pick up stuff. You know, hats, stickers, whatever. Should a company strategize what they give away or does it depend on the conference? For example, Bluehost may say, hey, this giveaway works for just about any conference. And the second part: can you give us a few tips for choosing what you’re handing out?

Devin: Yeah, for sure. So a quick story on swag. About 10 years and 50 pounds ago, I was a runner. I ran semi-competitively. I used to have an entire drawer of my dresser just dedicated to race shirts, you know? And let’s be honest: no one out there needs one more T-shirt. But I think that we all love getting swag because it’s kind of a badge of honor, like that rite of passage, that you showed up to this event and you participated in it.

I think your choice of swag is driven by two things: your community and your budget. Personally, we strive for things that are affordable and appealing. Most conference attendees wouldn’t really complain if Bluehost started giving away branded Lamborghinis. You know, who would complain? My boss. So there’s definitely a balance between affordable and appealing and I think it takes some trial and error. Some companies really do strive to have custom swag for every conference they go to, but I personally would recommend against that.

Because the last thing you want to do is have a bunch of swag that’s been custom- branded for a single event, and once the event is over, have 300 items left over that you can never use again because it was for a specific event that happened back in 2010.

Bob: Oh yeah. Makes total sense.

Devin: Our strategy is this: have timeless swag. I’m sure you’ve seen our t- shirts, but there’s no date on them. It’s just basically some branding between the host and WordPress. And we’ve found that to be effective because it takes a whole lot of stress out of trying to customize it. However, I have seen other people at WordCamps do customized swag. They’ll do stickers or things like that. And I think it’s worked out really well for them. So I think it’s just about knowing your community and being able to find something that people will will love so that you don’t have to take any of it back to the office. Because if you have customized swag, you don’t want to hold onto that because you’re never going to be able to use it again.

What about big-ticket giveaways?

Bob: What about giveaways? I know you have experience with those and I’ve seen vendors at other conferences that give away national product packages, sometimes even laptops and iPads. There are some considerations to make when you’re giving away a high-ticket item and the expected outcome is huge. Can you share some thoughts on that? Is it going to make a big difference in terms of the goodwill generated through this kind of giveaway?.

Devin: Yeah, the big-ticket items are huge at conventions and not just at WordCamps and not just in the tech industry. I think anywhere there is a convention or an expo or a conference, you’ll find giveaways and that’s because, for sponsors, it drives traffic to the booth and it promotes interactions. Often you drop a business card into a bowl or you put your e-mail address on an iPad. I’ve seen different sponsors use them in different ways. Though they usually say, we’re going to contact you later with offers with the company if you put your e-mail here on the iPad. But obviously that’s great for the attendees because they can win cool things for very little effort. You know, like you drop your business card in there and maybe you flag a couple of e-mails they send you as spam. Or maybe it turns out that you really like what they’re offering and you end up being a customer, but all you have to do is drop that business card in and you might win something super cool.

It’s kind of interesting, though, because sometimes the traffic that you incentivize with the big ticket giveaway ends up being slightly skewed. As a sponsor you obviously want people coming up to your booth and talking to you about your company. You want them to be excited about your product just like you’re excited about it. However sometimes you get this skewed traffic because they’re just trying to win that iPad or that trip to Cancún or whatever. They’re not sincerely interested in your company.

But personally, we do a giveaway as I’m sure you’ve seen before. We do it partially for the interactions. Obviously we want people to come up and speak with us at our booth. But a lot of it is also for the community. You know, we love the community and we love giving back to the community. After going to classes for a long time some people think, if I leave now I can still catch the tail end of a football game or whatever it might be. So we’ve actually found that giving it away at the very end of the the conference incentivizes people to stick around and attend one or two more classes. So that’s actually one of the reasons we’ve continue to do it is because we’re seeing a pretty high spike in people sticking around to the end of the conference so they can participate in the giveaway.

Should we always look for an ROI when participating in a conference and how do we measure that?

Bob: Now my last question is probably the biggest. We’ve talked about budgets, swag, but there’s always that ROI, return on investment. For those not in the Word Press space, we’ve been talking a lot about WordCamps and I’ve heard some of the vendors say that the participation in a WordCamp is about giving to the community versus expecting a large return on their investment. Now for some people they may be thinking I’ve got to have that good ROI. Is it really wise to be so focused on that? Can somebody actually plan and say, I’m expecting this much ROI or is that even predictable? 

Devin: It’s a huge question and I’m sure you and I could speak for hours on this, so I will try to keep this concise and useful. If I’m missing something, remind me and I’ll make sure to make sure that we cover everything here.

Let’s start at the top level. Whenever you sponsor any event there’s an expected ROI. What that is differs widely. It might be community interaction. It might be brand impressions. It might be PR. In some industries, it might be sales. I think it depends on the conference you’re attending and your objective as a business. Because I think the majority of conferences are set up for this. Lots of vendors do scans or something like that, where every time an attendee swings by your booth you can scan their badge real quick. It gives you all of their information and allows you to contact them to to send them promotions after the conference. So I think that’s the most obvious answer. People are looking for lead generation and sales.

However, I think it’s really tough to gauge and I think it depends a lot on the conference and your audience. Circling back to what we were talking about earlier, I see myself as a community advocate for Bluehost when I’m at a WordCamp, when I’m traveling around to different events. I also find myself an advocate for the community to management when I get back in the office. And what I mean by that is that every marking initiative has to have some sort of return. That’s just business, you know. And if you don’t have a return and you keep dumping money into it, that’s a poor business decision.

For our ROI, we are somewhat nontraditional. I mentioned a couple of times that we love the community and being a part of it. We’ve seen the different things that can be built on the backbone of WordPress. And there’s other builders out there and I’m sure they’re great builders as well. So when we go to these events, we want to facilitate that activity. We want to make it easier for people to be successful online. That’s why oftentimes, if you swing by and talk with us, people will occasionally ask us about a WordPress issue they’re seeing. Well, whether it’s a customer with us or even with one of our competitors, often we will say, “Yeah, let’s take a look. We want to get this solved for you.”

Our strategy is twofold. One: to create positive brand impressions. We want everyone, when they interact with Bluehost at an event, for it to be a positive experience for them, whether that’s getting a free T-shirt or pen or sunglasses, or winning our giveaway or fixing a website, we consider that a positive brand impression. Any experience where they interact with us at the booth or even not at the booth, say we help carry something to a car, we want people to have a positive interaction with us and our team.

And the other thing is for us, it’s an educational play. Bluehost is doing some pretty cool things, we’ve got some pretty cool new products that we’re working on and and there’s not always a great way to let the community know. So often when we are at these events, it’s educational, you know? We’re not swiping credit cards, we’re not trying to get people to sign up on the spot, but we are trying to educate them and say, Hey are you aware that we have this or that we’re working on building this new thing? And there’s a third part to our strategy and that is the feedback loop.

Because I started with Bluehost by working the phone support, I have a soft spot in my heart for customers who are struggling. That’s why whenever anyone comes up to our booth, even if they had a not-so-positive experience, which happens occasionally, I tell them that I’d like to hear what happened to them: I want to know what your experience was and how we handled that and what we can do better. Having that feedback loop, I can then go back to the office, to the director of tech support or someone else in upper management and say, hey, these are some of the things we’ve been seeing. I think we should focus on adjusting X, Y or Z to give our customers a better experience. Let’s try to alleviate that pain point for them.

I realize that is kind of nontraditional because we’re not going back and saying that we helped seven websites or that we smiled at 20 people or we gave away 15 shirts. I but l am super lucky to be with a company like Bluehost because I feel like they get it. The management gets it. No one is breathing down my neck, saying how come you’re not getting more sales from these events. Instead I have them reaching out to me and saying, hey, do we have any successes from the event this weekend? And sometimes it is like, yeah, we had someone that had a struggle with their website and we were able to resolve it. In 15 minutes, we were able to get them back on their feet. Because a lot of people attending these events are struggling with something. They need to know what the next step is. And when we have the opportunity to sit down with them and to speak with them and to work things out with them, then that’s what we consider a success. Bringing this full circle, that’s one of the reasons I love my job. It’s for the community and what’s good for the community is the good of everyone.

I don’t know if I touched on everything, Bob. Is there anything I should elaborate on?

Bob: Actually I think you covered it because it’s a great lesson, especially for businesses that are looking to get into sponsorships and participating in events like this. A lot of times you get fixated on the ROI, getting X number of signups or whatever. And like you said, for some businesses, that’s what they’re going to seek out. But how you take the approach of all that other stuff and how invaluable that is because, especially with online, you are not a physical business, interacting with your customers one-on-one. But attending conferences gives you a chance to do all the things you talked about. And you learn more about what their pain points are. Because it comes across so much different and often much more personal in person. That’s good food for thought for anybody thinking of going this route and wondering what to expect. There are so many other elements that will help your company be a success and it isn’t just always the monetary element. Those interactions to build relationships with your customers is invaluable.

Devin. I agree 100 percent. I bring that up because if there is someone out there that has a small business and you’re thinking about attending, or even recently sponsored something, if you came back and you looked at how much it cost to fly yourself or a team out there and you compared that with how many signups you might get, don’t be frustrated and don’t mark it up as a failure if the monetary value of your signups does not surpass the cost of the conference. From a financial standpoint, it might not have been highly effective, but you are building relationships and delivering positive customer experience. In my opinion, that counts for so much more than just dollars and cents.

Bob: Exactly. Thats one of my reasons for going to WordCamps and you and Bluehost sent me do one recently and will be sending me to another one next month. This is what I love about WordCamps: meeting new people, talking with people, building those relationships. A lot of us, even outside the WordPress space, are online a lot and there’s not that human, personal interaction. That’s very valuable for a company, to be able to connect with their existing and prospective customers. You will be remembered much more than any tip you put in your newsletter or blog post.

Well, this has been cool. You’ve given a good bird’s eye view, especially for people who are starting to consider this with their small business or startup. I think you made it a lot more clear on how they can approach this and how they might want to twist their expectations a little bit and think, hey, you know, maybe I’m thinking the wrong way and maybe it’s time to try it this other way and see how it goes. They may be surprised and find out that it’s actually the better route.

Devin: It’s a lot of fun, you know. And there’s still strategy that goes into it. You know, it’s how do you help the customer most effectively or how do we make sure that that it’s benefiting the WordCamp and the community because that’s what our goal is at the end of the day.

Where can we find Devin Sears on the web?

Bob: Well, this has been a great show and I don’t know if there’s somewhere on social that you like to connect with people. I know you don’t get to every WordCamp but you go to quite a few. I would suggest anyone going to a WordCamp to check out Bluehost. Go to their booth meet some of the people. There’s some really cool people there. And when Devin’s there, that’s good, too.

Devin: Slightly less cool, but you know.

Bob: You’ll love meeting him.

Devin: Thank you, Bob, you’re too kind. But to answer your question real quick, there’s a couple of different ways. I’m on Twitter at @DevinTSears. Feel free to shoot me a tweet or to DM me. I’m pretty reachable that way. You can also tweet Bluehost. That gets to me a little bit more slowly but if you DM or tweet Bluehost, that usually pops up on my radar as well.

Bob: All right. Well, thank you for taking the time to come on the show for the second time. We’re going to figure out what the next time will be. But thanks for making the time to be here.

Devin: Hey, you’re very welcome, Bob. I always love helping you out and I love being on the show. I think it’s awesome. We love it.

Bob: All right. Take care.

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