There have been some blog posts floating around about a new PASS Summit policy. Most of the posts have been either misleading or ill-informed about why this new rule came about. Last year there was a sh*tshow of bad marketing and sales practices:
- Two vendors did a bulk drop of branded promotional items in the Community Zone. They literally turned an area intended to be about chapters, networking, and #SQLFamily into a their own company litter box.
- A vendor lefts stacks of promotional items on booths of sponsors in the exhibit areas. Yes, a vendor who did not pay to sponsor the event used the booths that other vendors paid for to attempt to distribute their marketing materials.
- I heard of other things happening from sponsors, but did not witness them. They were right along the lines of those two things above.
So PASS has come out with a new rule about exchanging stuff at the PASS Summit. They are now going to attempt to limit exchanges to business cards only. I think this is way too specific of a rule definition, but unlike the other bloggers, instead of making this a post about how awful the board is, I’m going to offer up win-win-win alternatives below.
Some of the comments on these posts have been made in an attempt to soften the “guerrilla marketing” bad behaviours I mentioned. They claim that the board wants to limit small, personal exchanges of gifts like ribbons and stickers, both very common conference exchanges. In the space community, these also include mission patches and pins. I don’t believe the board wants that, but they have certainly put that in writing.
First, the rule right now only applies to speakers. I’m not sure if it applies to attendees, but I’d want any such rules to apply to everyone at the event.
Feral Cats and What’s That Smell?
The issue isn’t about personal exchanges of gifts. The issue, as all of us know here but are pretending we don’t, is the literal carpet bombing of commercial collateral, including promotional, branded swag in community areas, empty session rooms, empty tables, restrooms, hallways, charging areas, etc. I do not support the claims that this type of feral-cat like spraying of vendor materials is “Community over Sponsors” behaviours. It’s about sales over members. Don’t kid yourself. Consultants are vendors. InfoAdvisors is a vendor. I’m a vendor at these events because I work for a vendor.
Consultants are vendors. InfoAdvisors is a vendor. I’m a vendor at these events because I work for a vendor.
All that spraying smells. It’s only community if your business belongs in a back alley. It’s only community if you think of attendees as “prospective invoices”. It’s all litter box marketing.
That isn’t about gifts. It’s not about community.
And what has happened is that the “arms race” mentioned in one post has now become such an embarrassment to the community that our professional association has had to step in and make a rule.
Update: One vendors claims that the sponsors asked him to drop swag on their tables. “it just looks like litter boxing” (paraphrased). The two events I witnessed involved the sponsors throwing the swag in the garbage and asking “WTH was that?” I’m going to guess that “being invited to give out swag at the booths” is a giant misunderstanding. Ha ha. : ).
The New Rule Isn’t Right
I agree that the limiting to business cards is a unacceptable way to draw the line on this “I don’t see you all as community but as potential invoices” behaviours. But the real fault is on the people who need to have the event as a “sell-first, avoid you later” event.
Saying they can’t afford to have a booth isn’t accurate. It’s affordable. Many smaller vendors have booths at SQL Saturdays and at the big show. It’s very affordable, especially if you share with other vendors. Which is a great way to have a booth because who wants to man/woman/kitten a booth for the entire conference?
Should you have to have a booth to exchange stickers or ribbons? No. But when sponsors get other people’s swag dropped on their booths, or when the community zone becomes a porta-potty for marketing materials, we’ve lost our path. No matter what someone tells you, that’s not community. It’s seeing our event not as a Connect. Share. Learn. event. It’s about seeing our event as a Speak and Sell event.
Blame for the new rule goes 100% to the folks who did these things. Okay, maybe I’ll blame the board 10% for coming with a new rule that isn’t quite a win-win-win solution.
This Ain’t the Tea Party
If you think telling sponsors “we’ll take your money, but others can turn the community zone into their own “rogue exhibit hall” is good conferences sales point, I suggest we just give away exhibit booths and charge everyone the real price it costs to put this on. I’m guessing that registration will cost about the same as a 7-day cruise. Or it will be like a local user group meeting, with fewer people. Austerity might be your political stance. Telling people to just change jobs if their employer won’t pay $7k for them to attend Summit is a nonstarter.
The fact of the matter is that community events the size of Summit (thousands) can’t happen without sponsors. Ensuring that sponsors get what they pay for is not “putting sponsors over the needs of attendees”. It’s about running an event that is affordable and sustainable. Sure, it’s a balance. But pretending that somehow non-sponsoring vendors should be allowed to use sponsor resources for their own needs is naïve at best. At worst, it’s painting the situation as being something it is not.
Data. Get Your Data Right.
It’s misleading to say that these rules happened because PASS wants to cater to sponsors over community. A few overly-greedy, it’s-all-about-money people have caused this. Focus your ammo on the right malicious “users” of PASS.
What I Want the Rule to Be
I’ve talked to board members and PASS staff. This is what I want the rule to be. I think it’s a win-win-win for attendees, consultant and sponsors.
Personal, one-on-one exchanges of low-cost items like the ones below should be allowed and even encouraged.
I don’t care if those things have your name, your favourite tagline, your picture, your cat-owner’s photo, or your logo. They key here is one-on-one, personal exchanges of low-value, often fun, things. I also don’t want to have a detailed list. People love to have a check box set of rules, but that just leads to people finding loopholes. Heck, I love sharing space swag at non-space events. Especially collectibles that are older than most of the attendees.
Update: What do I mean by exchanges? I mean giving out these low-cost items in trade for the other person’s similar item or for some other value. One year at EDW I asked people to tell me they “loved their data” to get a ribbon. Hearing people say that was a small but important value to me. I may have done that at Summit one year as well. The key is these are still one-on-one exchanges. And none of them happened from the podium. Selling while presenting should be a paid session.
Ribbons, stickers, stamps are all part of the geek community and I want that to continue to be a part of Summit.
Bulk distributions of marketing materials, flyers, branded materials should require some sort of sponsorship level. As should the distribution of more expensive swag, cars, real tattoos, kittens, and $20 bills.
Distribution of items on sponsor booths without their permission should not be allowed. Bulk distribution on the exhibit floor without being a sponsor or in the Community Zone should not be allowed.
The Community Zone Should Be a Sales-free Zone
The Community Zone should be sales-free, as far as I’m concerned. It’s the violation of this rule that I think should cause people not to be invited back to the event. Attendees should have one area where they aren’t treated like invoices. Having to put this into a rule makes me sad. People should just understand this is how life works.
Maybe we need a $500 sponsorship level for those vendors whose business is doing so poorly they can’t afford a booth. Or for independent consultants. Again, this is for people and organizations that want to do mass distribution of marketing materials and collateral, not personal exchanges.
A professional association should indeed help all members be great at what they do. Whether they are consultants, software vendors, contractors, full- or part-time employees, retired, whatever. But that doesn’t mean that a professional association event must provide a sales opportunity in every part of the event.
This proposal is a win-win-win because attendees can keep doing what we’ve always done. Vendors can still do their sales things, but appropriately. Vendor sponsors can keep getting value out of their sponsorship dollars without some on other vendor being a feral cat and bragging how “sponsoring a booth is stupid when you can just do guerrilla marketing.” Our sponsors are part of our community, too. In fact, organizations can be members of PASS if the sign up.
The world does have bigger problems. But the posts that have been coming out have not been giving the full picture, nor have they offered up a balanced solution. I think it’s good that this year several people came forward to complain to the board that the stuff people have been doing has crossed a line. It may not really be an “arms race”. But is has been escalating. Houston, we’ve had a problem. It stinks. It’s time to fix it. Let’s all work together to get it right, before the urine smell kills the whole event. If you have other ideas, I’d love to hear them.
This is some of the feedback I got for speaking up.
I’ve never attended a SQL Saturday Ottawa yet (there’s always been a scheduling conflict). I was not in Ottawa that day. I was at a NASA Armstrong Teacher Educator event.
This is how nasty this whole discussion as become. A vendor took a bunch of my tweets over the last year, some about these behaviours, some about my dislike of the things that Mr. Trump says, and some about God knows what else and made a video saying I’m mean. Then this video became a facebook post on the vendor’s own Facebook wall.
A few people spoke up and this commenter deleted his comment after a while. The vendor did not delete it. The commenter did. Remember this when you are thinking about win-win-win solutions. This is what’s at stake. This why bad behaviour leads to more bad behaviour. I’ll still keep blogging about it. And people will still comment on ME instead of the issue.Its what is broken with our community. Talk about bad behaviours, not people.
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