WordCamp Europe 2017 opened its call for sponsors at the end of 2016. The organizing team is embracing the challenge of delivering value to sponsors with workshops for those purchasing the two highest sponsorship levels:
This year, for the first time, we are introducing a third track during both conference days. The third track will be solely dedicated to sponsors, giving you the possibility to either hold a talk or a workshop. Like the other two tracks, the sponsor track will have a dedicated space (capacity for approx. 200 people), where the audience would have the opportunity to hear more about your business and product. You can decide whether you would like to use your time to talk more about your business, or to showcase.
The sponsors track has since been renamed to sponsors workshops, but the concept of a dedicated track remains the same. According to WCEU Sponsors Team coordinator Noel Tock, WordCamp Central’s transition into a public benefet corporation affords WordCamps more flexibility than previously allowed.
“This means we’d like to experiment with different concepts — seeking a higher return on investment for sponsors whilst at the same time protecting the core experience of the WordCamp itself,” Tock said.
The new sponsors workshops target large companies, but WCEU organizers have also created a new concept for small businesses. Those that made less than one million Euro in 2016 will qualify for an affordable booth in the middle of the event.
“Similar to TechCrunch’s Startup Alley, we want to help highlight smaller companies or ones that have just started out,” Tock said. “Simply seeking out sponsorship funds the fastest way possible would not be fair to attendees. This helps makes the conversations and experiences a lot more diverse and balanced.”
The sponsors workshops will not need to go through an approval process. They are perks belonging to the Super Admin and Admin sponsorship tiers and these top-level sponsors will have different options for how they want to use their slots.
“They can run user workshops, pass on their slot to smaller players (plugin and theme authors) or find other creative session ideas,” Tock said. “The workshops will be clearly labeled and we’ll seek to provide an agenda/schedule on the same timeline as regular speakers.”
The Challenge of Delivering Value to Sponsors Without Stifling the Spirit of WordCamps
WordCamps are traditionally locally-organized, informal events that bring together attendees from all walks of life. Affordability is one of the hallmarks of a WordCamp, and ticket prices normally range from $20-50. The low cost of entry makes the events more inclusive, keeping the camps from becoming relegated only to elites and those who work for large companies. At a WordCamp, one can meet anyone – core developers, educators, CEOs of multi-million dollar companies, new users, developers, bloggers, and e-commerce store owners.
To give you an idea of how uncommonly low WordCamp ticket prices are in comparison to other tech conferences, DrupalCon ranges from $450-600 per person. PHP UK tickets for the conference days are in the neighborhood of $500 and PHP[World] is nearly double that at $900. CSSconf EU tickets are $430. ReactEurope, which is also being held in Paris, released its first round of tickets in the range of $680. WordCamp Europe tickets are €40.00 (approximately $43) because the vast majority of the cost of attendance is subsidized by sponsors.
Now that WordCamp Europe has been running successfully for five years, Tock said it is easier to get sponsors on board. Sponsorship cost per attendee is one of the contributing factors. In 2016 WordCamp Europe sold 2,199 tickets and organizers expect to sell more than 3,000 this year.
“If you compare the perks and size of the audience, you’ll find that WordCamp Europe can be anywhere from 20% to 50% cheaper then comparable WordCamps,” Tock said. “The bang for buck has meant we have a lot of returning sponsors.”
However, as WCEU attendance and the event’s financial requirements have grown, so has the challenge to deliver value to sponsors who are contributing greater sums of money.
“Asking potential sponsors for a few thousand a couple years back was easy enough,” Tock said. “Now that we’re looking for 50k+ Euros from certain sponsors, we need to up our game with it. This means early communication, well-defined packages, and more creative perks.” This year those perks include 360° booths, 30-second ads between talks, after-party branding, and the new sponsor workshops.
I spoke to several other organizers of comparably large WordCamps and all of them were intrigued by the idea of sponsor workshops and interested to see how the experiment turns out.
“I think on the surface it could be considered a controversial idea, but in reality it’s just giving sponsors a different kind of voice,” WordCamp Miami organizer David Bisset said. “If it’s done in a way that treats all sponsors fairly and is a voluntary track, then in some ways it doesn’t differ from a sponsor area, outside of narrowing the spotlight.”
Bisset said he’s interested to see how successful this approach is but notes that it probably would only work for the largest WordCamps.
“I honestly don’t know which side of the fence this lies on in regards the spirit of WordCamps,” Bisset said. “There have been controversial issues and challenges regarding sponsors and WordCamps in the past. It’s a challenge to give sponsors the most bang for their buck, treat everyone fairly, and be a model WordCamp. The jury is still out.”
WordPress Orlando organizer Lisa Melegari thinks the idea of sponsor workshops may bring some legitimacy to what is known as the “hallway track,” where attendees congregate when not attending a session.
“I think it’s a really interesting concept,” Melegari said. “There’s already the joke out there that there’s a phantom extra track at most WordCamps – the Hallway Track. I think this would take that and actually give some legitimacy to the myth.”
Melegari said WordCamp Orlando organizers have seen a significant shift in sponsor availability and enthusiasm in the past few years, especially after WordCamp US launched. She said their local camp lost several past sponsors to the larger WordCamp US. Other sponsors have decided to just focus on local camps and some have dropped sponsorship altogether.
“I really think we need to give our sponsors more opportunity to benefit their businesses, since their success allows them to continue to support our camps,” Melegari said. “Is it worth an entire extra track? Maybe not. That would put an unfair burden on camps that already have difficulty getting space and could deter sponsors from supporting a camp that cannot offer that accommodation.”
Melegari said she likes the idea of allowing sponsors to have a more prominent demo opportunity as long as it doesn’t overshadow the speakers, who volunteer their time.
“Having been a speaker with a very low attendance at a few talks, it’s disheartening, but understandable that another speaker’s talk is more popular,” she said. “I would be afraid the sponsor track would take away the spotlight on speakers.” From an organizer’s perspective, she is interested to see how sponsor workshops can deliver a better value for sponsorship.
“We really do need to provide a better case for WordCamp sponsorship besides exposure, because many of our recurring sponsors have a smaller and smaller pool of new eyes every camp,” Melegari said. “If we are going to keep growing in camp numbers, we’re going to have to figure out something to keep all the camps financially afloat.”
Alx Block, WordCamp US 2015-16 Organizer, understands the importance of sponsors and volunteers, who covered the bulk of the $516 actual cost per person for the most recent event.
“I think that we’re at an impasse when it comes to adding value for sponsors, especially at the larger camps,” Block said. “On the one hand, each sponsorship is really a scholarship for attendees, allowing each camp to greatly reduce the ticket price so that more people can attend and get value from the camp. On the other hand, there’s limited value for the sponsors in terms of ROI. We’ve never thought of it as a business investment, but it’s certainly time to think about that more.”
Keeping ticket prices low, putting on a quality event, and offering an array of perks for sponsorship is a tremendous balancing act for organizers. WordCamp Europe is one of fastest-growing camps that has experimented with doing this at a larger scale every year.
“When you get into the larger dollar amounts that larger camps ask, it’s a different kind of ballgame, and I think that we need to revisit the value that a business receives as part of their sponsorship,” Block said.
“I think something like sponsor workshops is a really neat idea. I can imagine that it doesn’t come with much overhead in terms of actual planning, and will give the sponsors something solid that they can plan for in terms of being able to pitch their product or service.”
Historically, workshops have been events that are ancillary to the main tracks. WordCamp Europe’s plan to run them alongside speaker sessions is a bold experiment. Sponsors will have a great deal of flexibility with how they can utilize their workshop slots, so it will be interesting to see if they choose to incentivize attendance in some way or opt to pass them along to other speakers as a sponsored talk.
“I think there’s a line between a sponsor ‘track’ and sponsor ‘workshops,’ which WCEU hasn’t clearly defined yet,” Block said. “I’m sure that their intention isn’t to have 1/3 of the talks be by people who paid to be there. From what I understand, the intention is to have the top-tier sponsors (maybe 4-6 of them) present on a smaller stage in a kind of rolling fashion, to supplement the full tracks – meaning, it would be a great place for an attendee to go during a time when neither of the other sessions appeals to them, or they’re interested in learning more about a specific product.”
Block said he has seen this type of sponsor perk at other non-WordPress conferences and has sat in on sessions that piqued his interest.
“But this is the real question in my mind: Can we offer something like this without turning WordCamps into a trade show?” Block said.
“I think now that we’re growing so much with these large camps, it’s the perfect time to ask these questions and figure out exactly what type of event WordCamp is. We grow as the community grows, and WordCamp should always reflect the community’s interest. If there’s interest in giving sponsors a place to talk about their wares, I’m all about it, but I’d always want the community to come first.”