Conference vendors abound. Running a startup, you'll get plenty of offers from a variety of people plying their trade, promising leads and glory. How do you tell if any of them are actually legitimate and worth your money?

The conference business must look like a good racket from the perspective of a startup. The conference holder guarantees no actual sales, they collect their money (often tens of thousands of dollars) up front, if anything goes wrong at the conference it's usually too late to do anything about it, and they chisel for every dollar (hundreds of add-on dollars for power, garbage, shipping, wifi).

For all these reasons, it's worth approaching conferences with serious skepticism.

Most are junk. Most won't bring you any qualified leads to follow up with.

  1. Large attendee numbers matter until they don't

Calculate how long you have to talk to someone to qualify them. And then calculate how many qualified leads you generate from a conference. If you're at a conference with bad product-market fit, or bad product-buyer fit, you'll spend a lot of time (and therefore money) teaching people who are never going to buy about your product.

Just because 10,000 or 100,000 attendees roll through a conference doesn't make it good for your business.

At major conferences, you'll find most attendees are junior employees or end users of tech--not decision makers or people in a position to impact or introduce you to a buyer.

"But wait," you cry, "it's good for exposure! People will see our name."

Sure, but at a big conference they'll also see a ton of other companies too, and you'll be lost in the blur.

2. Booth areas are like weddings

Ask vendors how they set up the booth area, and what scheduled events get attendees into there.

It's just like the dance-floor-and-bar-relationship at a wedding.

If you want people dancing, the drinks line needs to be in the same space.

If the bathrooms and coffee aren't anywhere near the breakout and seminar rooms, attendees aren't going to come in. If the drinks receptions aren't in the vendor area, attendees aren't going to come in.

If the conference schedule has a drinks reception in the booth area, what has the conference done to encourage attendees to talk to vendors? Are they doing some kind of "treasure hunt"/raffle where attendees have to collect stickers from each vendor to be eligible to win a prize? If so, more the better. Anything that makes attendees want to talk to vendors is good. But the attendee will only speak to you for two seconds--to get the stamp and win the prize--not because they genuinely want to buy your product.

You need to get them to pay more attention, and spend more time with you (this is also why it really matters that the audience at the event is actually your right target market. Otherwise this whole event and the time you do get is just a waste).

At Dispel, we get a couple of extra minutes with prospective leads by having another game (we like plinko) that lets vendors win something inexpensive like American-made socks (don't forget the $20/50 rule for U.S. Government employees for doing give-aways at conferences). That gives you a little extra time to chat with the prospective lead, they'll feel a little more relaxed with the situation (no one likes having to beg for stamps), and we find they'll usually ask about what the company does once they've won (plinko is hard to lose).

3. How do you possibly quantify a conference cost?

It's always bizarre to get a price quote of $20,000 or $48,000 or $195,000 for a conference. You're paying for booth printing and construction, flying your team out and housing them, and getting nickel and dimed for each little thing. How do you even begin to quantify a lump request of tens of thousands of dollars?

If it's a B2B conference (I can't speak to selling B2C, so someone else chime in for that), we break it down into a quantifiable number of guaranteed interactions. Whatever leads your team tufts up from social interactions is on you--and the conference vendor can't stand on any claim of credit for facilitating them. Just take the conference price (the fully wrapped total price) and divide it by the interactions with qualifiable leads the conference guarantees.

If you know the average cost of a qualified lead, now you have some way to break down a conference price. If your cost of qualified lead is $300 on average, and a conference is coming out to be $1,500, then you have some way of marking it out.

YMMV, but I don't like paying large fees for big conferences with no guaranteed interactions. They're really expensive, and the conference organizers just don't care. They have no liability--no skin in the game to help you. In their eyes you're the commodity.

4. What's the list of attendees actually worth?

Most conference organizers will present you with a list of Fortune 500 company names and titles (VP of Operations, CISO, Technical Lead). And then ask: "are these companies you want to do business with? And are these titles the right ones?"

Sure, I'd love to do business with all the Fortune 500.

I'm pretty sure every B2B company would. Look at all those fancy logos! We'll have the best presentation slides with lighthouse customers ever.

Rubbish.

Yes, those are lots of logos. But the titles and logos are generic. Does the conference organizer know what buying priorities the companies have and what initiatives do they have going right now? If the CISO for Microsoft is coming and they don't have budget or a program for your product category, then beyond getting a tiny share of the CISO's mindshare for two minutes it's going to take a lot of work on your team's part to convert them from a prospect into a qualified lead. Also, big corporations can have very long sales cycles. And they probably buy from system integrators they work with, not startups.

5. The quick wrap-up.

TL;DR Beat up the conference organizer and get the attendees' buying objectives. Divide the total conference cost by the number of guaranteed interactions to get your cost per lead; if it's higher than your normal cost then don't do it unless there's some special reason.

Be sure there are sufficient attendees who match your buyer profile, and that they're not so diluted in the masses that you'll never be able to connect with them.

The conference must be organized to get prospects in front of your reps. If you have a booth and staff, then the conference format must be structured to get prospects to the booth.

If you can get the explicit buying needs of the attendees up front, that's worth a lot more than promises of lots of big companies.