Of course you might say. Isn’t that the whole point of advertising budgets, promotions, and deals? Sure it is, but I’m not talking about those kind of things. I asking whether you would pay a fee to walk in the door and make a pitch for one or more of your products? Again you say sure, I’ll even take you out to lunch or perhaps bring a couple of pizzas and sodas in for your team to enjoy while I demonstrate our latest and greatest products over lunch so it doesn’t cost you any work time. Or if it is morning, how about some bagels and coffee while we demo our new system?
Well, if you work for the government, these might be considered bribes. Yes indeed, the people who make the laws know that government workers are so underpaid that a few slices of pizza or a bagel and coffee would be all it takes for you to sell your soul, or your company’s soul, for that shiny new object the vendor is dangling in front of you in their slide presentation. Maybe that is the way our politicians operate, but I seriously doubt that most professionals in the business world would be persuaded to make a purchase based on a pepperoni pizza and cup of coke. I certainly would not.
So how can a vendor of a new product get that product in front of an audience without crossing the line? Actually, it is easier than you may think. The way I am going to suggest is that vendors actively seek out user groups and events sponsored by user groups and support them. I belong to a couple of user groups and I’ll tell you from experience that a user group meeting without food, especially if the group meets after normal work hours in the evening, brings much lower attendance than a user group meeting with food. But who should pay for the food? Should the user group collect dues and use that money to buy pizza, sandwiches, or whatever it is they want to have at the meeting so hard working people will come to meeting right after work foregoing their normal evening meal at home?
That’s a possibility or at least it was years ago when you stored your programs on punch cards, but collecting dues from attendees at a user group meeting will probably decrease attendance when most people can find the same information in a white paper or through a free webinar on the Internet. So how can a user group survive? My answer is to enlist vendors who are willing to help defray the cost of the meeting location and food. Depending on the expenses of your group, you may only need one vendor. Others groups may require two or more vendors if the meeting location or food is expensive due to the number of users attending the meeting.
So what should the vendor get out of this? The user group should be willing to give the vendor five to ten minutes to pitch their product, talk about their company, or anything else they want to say. They should not be a main presenter for the meeting unless they present a topic that applies generically without focusing on their own product or service. For example, a consulting company can come in to present how to improve the efficiency of your T-SQL statements as long as they don’t turn it into a presentation about how their product or service is better than everyone else’s product. After the presentation during a social/networking time, they can pitch their product to whoever is willing to listen, but not during the main presentation. The same goes for recruiters. We had a recruiter at one meeting give a ‘state-of-the-industry’ presentation and talk about what makes a good resume and how to answer questions at an interview. They did not directly promote their services or their company so it was fine.
You might want to come up with a schedule of how much you want to charge vendors and what they get out of it (a mention during the meeting, a 5 minute pitch about their latest product, or the chance to present the main topic). Most vendors are fairly reasonable to work with. And if they violate the rules and go into a sales pitch in the middle of a main topic discussion, ask them politely to hold that topic for the networking time and to continue on with the regular presentation.
So what about those companies that want to charge a vendor to come in the door? Perhaps the answer is to work through local user groups to sponsor the groups in exchange for the ability to talk to the attendees. Don’t forget to send special invitations to the user group meeting to those companies to which you want to market. That will help everyone. It will bring more attendees to the user groups. It will give the vendors a chance to get in front of a targeted audience who potentially wants to see and hear about their company, product, or service. Finally, the employees who attend the user group meetings can extend their network of peers and perhaps learn a thing or two that they can bring back to their workplace.
And the best thing is, none of this is illegal. …Yet.
In full disclosure, I’ve been a big proponent of user groups since my early days in a group named DPMA back in the mid 80’s. I continue to be active in SQL Server and SharePoint groups as well as a regular attendee and speaker at SQL Saturdays, Code Camps, and SharePoint Saturdays. I hope to attend an IT Pro Camp later this summer as well. In fact, two Saturdays from now on April 28th I’ll be speaking at the SQL Saturday in Jacksonville, FL talking about using DAX in PowerPivot. These events provide a full day of free training and usually include breakfast (donuts, bagels and coffee) and lunch. These events are paid for by the vendor who will also be there with tables to talk with you about their latest products or services. Many of the vendor also have their own give-aways as well.
So if you are a vendor, support your local user groups. We are waiting for you. And if you are an attendee at one of these events, stop to talk with a couple of the vendors to learn what they do. You never know when you might need their product or service.