Managing Your User Group: Sponsor Relationships

January 26, 2015

As a user group leader, you might have this feeling that you need to get sponsors for your user group. This is a common feeling!

In fact, it's one of the most common questions I get as the Director of Membership for INETA. I've seen groups that bend over backwards for sponsors, such as providing attendee lists (with contact information) or letting them do 15 minute sponsors presentations. Over marketing is a huge turn off for attendees, and has potential to limit the growth of your group.

For purposes of this discussion, a sponsor is a recruiter, headhunter, placement firm, etc. Pretty much anyone that wants to hire your talent pool.

Yes, venues are sponsors. Vendors are sponsors. But that's a different dynamic. The majority of user group "sponsors" are going to be companies looking to place workers.

I want to offer you a different perspective before you go out and solicit for user group sponsors:

What do you offer?
1. Access to a community of professionals interested and dedicated to a particular technology. 2. An environment specialized for engagement and learning. 3. Mailing lists (maybe) 4. Discussion boards (maybe)

Over all, you have a supply of talent. Nevermind the skill ranges, but you have a group of folks who are 10% higher than anyone else on the market. Why? Because they're showing up. That's worth gold and more to the right employer.

What do they offer?
1. Pizza money 2. Access to a hidden community of professionals they've placed in positions across the region.

I'm going to call #2 a farce and this is totally based on my experience. I've had many sponsors (recruiters) say "We'll send the word out to our people and see if we can get out to the group." But the people don't come.

So that leaves #1. Food. Drinks. Substance of some kind.

How does this empower you?
THEY need you more than YOU need them. Let's look at a worse case scenario: you have no sponsors for food.

Oh well.

When I started my first user group back in 2009, I was scared silly that people wouldn't show up because there was no free food. Put it this way: if someone is coming only for free food, you don't want them at your group anyway.

I begged for sponsors. "Please please please bring us free food."

Later, I started getting competition for sponsorships. These companies know what you have, and they WANT to be involved. Use this to your advantage. For us, it meant paying for the right to sponsor a meeting. Twelve meetings per year, that's something worth monetizing.

Take that last paragraph with a grain of salt. It's a real first world problem. Smaller groups might not want to pull that card, and that's okay. But don't bend over backwards for sponsors.

THEY need you more than YOU need them.

How can I supplement not having a sponsor?
Donations? A lot of smaller groups throw out a hat for pizza money, and people put money into it!

Try a shorter meeting without food?

Create a post-meeting outing that everyone is invited to. At our group, we started a tradition of going to a local diner for pie. Get creative!

Wrapping up
Running a user group is hard. Your thoughts on priorities might be out of line with what they really should be. Some of the best user groups I've been to have started in IHOPs or as meetings at a Starbucks.

You don't need sponsors. You want sponsors. And you hold the high card in this game.