Selling WordCamp sponsorships and catching shade

How to promote luxury services and silence the haters. (Yes, this applies to web design and development, too.)

speaker in front of wordpress logo

WordCamp US is back in a big way this year, and we’re excited! This week, the organizers released pricing for WordCamp sponsorships, and promptly caught some shade on Twitter for the cost of the advertising packages.

The Twitter comments didn’t really reach a satisfying conclusion (do they ever?), but the basic idea was that, because attendance is lower due to venue limitations this year, it may or may not provide a good return-on-investment to spend tens of thousands of dollars to sponsor the event. Which raises the question: when you buy a sponsorship, what are you buying? And perhaps more importantly: if you’re hosting a WordCamp, what’s the most effective way to help sponsors see the value of participating?

As the resident MasterWP sales guy, a seller of sponsorships, a sponsor of WordCamp US (and many smaller events), and an experienced Twitter shade recipient, I have some ideas for helping future WordCamp teams sell more, better differentiate their high-end sponsorships, and take it in stride when people complain about pricing. And even if you’re not selling sponsorships, this strategy applies to your WordPress products and services, too.

First, the disclaimer. I signed up to purchase the $1,500 WordCamp US sponsorship this year for MasterWP (we chose the cheaper one because we don’t need/want a physical table in the sponsor hall). The original Twitter poster works for LiquidWeb, which (via StellarWP and LearnDash) is a sponsor of MasterWP. (It appears they will be sponsoring WordCamp as well.) We’re also sponsoring travel for some WordCamp speakers, one of our employees is on the organizing team (though not directly involved in sponsorships), and I’ve been both a critic and supporter of some of the WordCamp US organizers’s decisions here on MasterWP.

The people asking for discounts aren’t your customers

Although the person who started the Twitter conversation is prominent in the industry, I would argue that he is not the ideal target audience for the WordCamp sponsorship, by virtue of the fact that he is leading off the conversation by (in a somewhat indirect way) asking for a discount. When “buyers” of our web development services, courses and themes tell us in our first e-mail or call that we are out of their price range or they’d love a discount, we immediately mark those people as low-likelihood prospects. There is a whole psychology around this from the standpoint of the customer (or non-customer, more accurately), but as a salesperson with limited time and energy, the best play is just to disengage or gently refer that person to another solution if they’re leading off by saying how expensive you are.

Likewise, the WordCamp organizers shouldn’t spend much time trying to convince someone of the value of their sponsorship after that person has already led off by questioning the value. If you show up at a BMW dealership saying, “Hey, this thing gets me from Point A to Point B just like a Kia, but it’s triple the price,” the salespeople aren’t going to rush over and try to convince you of the value of a luxury vehicle. They’re going to ignore you and focus on the actual customers. It seems like the organizers did their best to justify the sponsorship prices and maybe even got a little stressed out over the manufactured controversy. I would recommend that they simply focus on selling to people who are actually buying, rather than trying to convert complainers into customers (which never ends well). One of the most counterintuitive things we teach our sales team is that it is OK (and in fact good!) to just click “dismiss” and never respond to a message from an obviously low-quality prospect. It’s awkward the first time, but it makes your life way better in the long term.

It is 100% OK not to appeal to everyone, even if they @ you on Twitter about it.

There’s much more to a sponsorship than 650 people

It’s a bit of a bummer that attendance at WordCamp US will be capped at 650 this year, but the organizers searched high and low for venues and made the best choice they could under challenging circumstances, this being the first year back in person after two years of digital summits during the pandemic. The hotel looks beautiful, and our employees are pumped for a long weekend in San Diego. That said, I think drawing a straight line between “number of eyeballs at hotel” and “value of sponsorship” misses some key benefits of the sponsorship.

WordCamp US is clearly the flagship industry event of the year, rivaled only by WordCamp Europe. But many companies specifically prefer the North American market over the European market (or vice versa), so for a large number of potential sponsors, this is the big one. WordPress co-creator Matt Mullenweg keynotes the event, and it’s generally viewed as an “anyone who’s anyone will be there” experience among WordPress pros. So, as WordCamp starts sending out all its promotional materials, posting about sponsors on its website, etc., it absolutely makes sense for a company to want the Platinum sponsorship spot, which costs $60k. Sometimes you really do want to make a show of being the biggest and best, and the Platinum sponsorship allows four companies to do that.

I also think it’s a bit short-sighted to think only about those 650 attendees as potential customers. Yes, if you are selling a $100 plugin, it would be hard to make your money back from direct sales to attendees. But this is not an AdWords campaign – there are tons of second- and third-order benefits from being a premiere sponsor. For example, tech companies routinely spend $20,000+ per employee when hiring with the help of a recruiter. What if you meet six great potential employees at your sponsor booth? The deal then pays for itself many times over.

Likewise, many WordPress companies are keen to make new acquisitions and partnerships. How much would it be worth to a Platinum sponsor if their placement as a top-of-the-line WordPress company meant winning the next big plugin acquisition over a competitor? You can spin this idea any number of ways – the bottom line is that it pays to be perceived as the best in the industry, and the higher-end sponsorship is one component of that strategy.

Psychological pricing anchors kill sales

That said, I can see why a potential buyer might not immediately consider all those intangible benefits when looking at the sponsorship pricing page – it focuses heavily on the basic, tangible things, like the size of your logo and sponsor booth, while largely ignoring the many more-important benefits I addressed above. I’d argue that selling a luxury product (i.e. a platinum sponsorship, a $1,000 course, or a high-end website development project) is more about the intangibles than the tangibles. If you want tangible, go buy a Kia, and you will be very happy with your ROI. If you want to sell high-end stuff, you really need to speak both to logic and to emotion. Right now, the sponsorship pitch does not do that, and one result is that we see people on Twitter making a direct “price anchor” comparison to WordCamp Europe, WordCamp Atlanta, and other smaller events that do not have the same cachet or long-term branding benefit as WordCamp US.

We also see people talking about inflation, which immediately tells me that they are in a commodity mindset rather than a luxury one. Inflation matters for milk and gas, but shouldn’t really affect your decision to stay at the Four Seasons – you’re choosing luxury for reasons unrelated dollars and cents. Nobody who is reclining in a first-class seat is worried that the guy squeezed between two cranky strangers in 36E is getting a better ROI.

If I were rewriting the pitch for sponsors (which I hereby volunteer to do), I would spend most of my time differentiating the luxury sponsorships ($15k+) from the rest. Right now, I am able to buy a $1,500 sponsorship without much fear-of-missing-out – in fact, the only significant differentiator is the size of the booth, and since my employees don’t really want to sit at a booth, we are losing nothing by choosing the smallest package. The ideal (from a sales standpoint) would be that I feel pangs of regret for spending $1,500 when I could get something fabulous and irreplaceable for $15,000. (Think Motel 6 vs. overwater bungalow.) This could include some of the stuff I talked about above, as well as relatively inexpensive but extremely rare experiences for those sponsors. Could we guarantee them the penthouse in the hotel? Could we ensure that we will make room for their employees if tickets sell out? Could they get to have lunch with Matt Mullenweg? A backstage pass to something cool?

By really nailing the intangibles for those premium sponsorships, you completely take away the price anchor and switch your buyer from the commodity mindset to the luxury mindset. How can you say something is “more expensive” when it is a completely different emotional experience? It’s simply not comparable to other options, and that is the whole point of luxury sales. This is how we sell high-end web projects – it’s not just about the code, it’s about the peace of mind that your project will be delivered on time and on budget, and that your mission-critical investment is in good hands.

I have no doubt that the sponsorships will sell like hotcakes, because I know many of the major companies in the WordPress space already see WordCamp US as a premiere event worthy of a major investment. However, at the margins – for sponsors who are on the fence or who could jump to a higher sponsorship level – the sales approach makes a huge difference, and could generate hundreds of thousands of dollars of new revenue for the event if presented as a luxury rather than a commodity. The more successful WordCamp US can be, the bigger and better an event we’ll get in future years – so I encourage you to spread the word about the amazing intangible benefits of being a WordCamp sponsor. If you want to be a WordPress industry leader, it’s the best show in town.

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Rob is the CEO of HDC and the Publisher of MasterWP.

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