How to Avoid Pay-to-Play Pitfalls


The seventh of the TED Commandments — “Thou shalt not sell from the stage: neither thy company, thy goods, thy writings, or thy desperate need for funding; lest thou be cast aside into outer darkness” — is especially timely advice. As more sponsors embrace content marketing or thought leadership as arguably the most powerful strategy for improving perceptions of their brand, conference-speaking slots are increasing in value. Conference business models in this area vary greatly — from stringent rules about featuring only education champions to flat out selling keynote slots to the highest bidders.

I’m not sure if pay-to-play has ever been defined in the context of conferences. A good working definition might be: an organization, person, or firm that writes a check and receives stage time on the conference program as one of the benefits. Stage time can range from a five-minute-interruption market-ing slot to a full-session buyout. Some organizations limit commercial presentations to the exhibit hall. Others sell concurrent and/or keynote slots on the main program.

I used to be strongly opposed to pay-to-play, but I’ve come around a bit. In some industries, thought-leadership investment opportunities will absolutely make or break a sponsorship program. Many sponsors have grown more sophisticated and recognize that breaking TED Commandment No. VII wastes a prime opportunity to make an emotional connection with their target market.

If your conference incorporates pay-to-play, here are a few attendee-centric concepts to help guide the program design: 

1 Transparency

Attendees can smell a sales pitch a mile away. In your conference marketing, final program, and mobile app, be sure to clearly state that this session is sponsored, presented, offered, or organized by the sponsor.

2 Choice

Attendees vote with their feet and don’t like being held hostage. Pay-to-play programming ideally should have non-pay-to-play education offerings at the same time. Exceptions to this can be sessions that benefit attendees — like during a free meal or other tangible offering to participate.

3 Vetting and coaching 

Some organizers put a lot of extra effort on the front end, working closely with sponsors to ensure that the content and presentation is helpful and forward-leaning for their target audience. They collaborate on session designs, learning outcomes, and slide decks to make certain that programs provide valuable takeaways.

4 Performance based 

I haven’t run across this yet, but it’s an approach more pay-to-play models should consider adopting: If, as a sponsor, your session is a hit and non-salesy, we want you and your money back next year. If it bombs and comes across as a sales pitch, we either don’t want you back or you lose your place in line to select the most highly valued opportunities.