In June 2023, Barn2 Plugins sponsored WordCamp Europe (WCEU) for the first time. Here are Co-Founder and CEO Katie Keith's reflections on their first time sponsorship experience, with tips for future WordCamp sponsors.
We did it 💪
This year, I had the amazing opportunity to not only attend this event, but to step into a role I'd never filled before - that of a sponsor, alongside my husband/co-founder Andy and 4 members of the brilliant Barn2 team.
Here's the story of Barn2's first ever WordCamp Europe sponsorship - and all the laughs, lessons, and love for the WordPress community that came with it.
Why we decided to sponsor WordCamp Europe
For years, it didn't occur to us to sponsor a WordCamp - let alone a huge one like WCEU!
I've attended nearly every WordCamp Europe since 2017 - Paris, Berlin, Porto... I've also attended a few other WordCamps, including some local UK ones and WordCamp US in 2022. However, I had always been an attendee and never a sponsor.
I liked the freedom of being able to plan my time (i.e. get up late!), attend talks, network freely, visit sponsorship booths, and take breaks when I wanted. Also, for a long time Andy and I attended WordCamps without a wider team. It felt like being WordCamp sponsors would be a huge commitment that would make the conference less enjoyable.
I realised that if we became WordCamp sponsors then Andy and I would have plenty of help. Seeing my team members bonding in person - having previously only met online - also made me wonder how much more we would bond working together on a company sponsorship booth.
As a result, I decided that Barn2 would sponsor WordCamp Europe 2023 as an experiment.
The preparation process
Preparing to sponsor WordCamp Europe was a LOT more time-consuming than I had anticipated! This involved:
- Signing up as a sponsor, paying, signing a legal agreement, and sending information plus your logo etc. to the WCEU sponsorship team.
- Choosing a location for the sponsorship booth.
- Preparing every detail of the sponsorship booth to maximise interest and engagement.
Choosing a location
Fortunately, I was at my desk when the email arrived saying that it was time choose a booth location. I clicked through immediately and chose what I thought was the perfect spot:
I got my first choice - a booth right outside Track 2, close to where food and drink were served and on the way to the toilets. This meant that lots of people would be walking past. It was on the end of a row, so there would be plenty of space to spread out and gather around the booth.
Luckily, my reasoning was correct and it did turn out to be an excellent high-traffic location. Nice!
Planning the sponsorship booth
Planning the details of our booth was a lot of work! At previous WordCamps, I had seen that some companies just put a few stickers or pins on their booth and kept the swag minimal. I wanted to do a more thorough job and provide good swag that would actively help people to remember the Barn2 brand, plus some activities to attract and engage people with our booth.
I hadn’t ordered swag before, so this was a lot of work - particularly since I live on an island (Mallorca, Spain). At WordCamps, I have always felt sad about the amount of non-recyclable plastic swag which is thrown away. As a result, I decided to order eco-friendly swag made of natural materials like bamboo, wood and recycled paper.
After researching swag companies online, I ended up ordering from a Slovenian company who offered free delivery to Spain - Habeco Promotional Gifts. Their website was impressive and my contact there was very helpful, but the results were disappointing.
Many of the Barn2 logos which were printed or engraved on the yo-yo’s, mobile phone holders and coasters were off-center. The tote bags had a printing error. When I complained, Habeco refused to rectify the problem and I ended up throwing away the worst items and using the rest even though the attention to detail was poor. As a company that prides ourselves on getting the details right, this felt bad for our brand.
A week before the conference, I ordered some replacement pens from Vistaprint. However, they missed their guaranteed delivery date so I had to leave for Athens without them. Amazingly, I managed to find a promotional printing company in Athens which kindly printed 250 pens for me and delivered them the next day! These weren’t eco bamboo pens like the previous ones, but at least we had some. I ended up salvaging about 50 of the least bad bamboo pens from the original order and also giving away the new ones.
I wanted to display our swag in a professional way, so I also ordered an A4 stand for our quiz poster, A6 leaflet holders, pen holders, a tub for giving away sweets, and even a little soap dish for our stickers! Amazon is great for that sort of thing.
I was aware all along that generating sales was not the main purpose of sponsoring a WordCamp. However, Mark Westguard from WS Form had told me that he ran a Black Friday-style sale which generated enough sales to pay for his booth last year - pretty impressive! I thought it was worth trying, so planned a 50% discount for WCEU attendees. The aim was that this would encourage them to visit our website and hopefully buy a plugin (or ideally the All Access Pass) before the deal expired.
The Barn2 quiz
I ended up choosing a quiz because it was simple for people to understand and easy to set up. SocialPoint provides a virtual trivia app for creating custom trade show booth quizzes. Their software wasn’t quite as professional as I had expected based on their sales material, but it was affordable and did the job.
SocialPoint provided a leaderboard displaying the top 5 scorers, and we promised to give an All Access Pass for all our plugins to the overall winner.
Keeping our designer busy
This was the first WordCamp where we’ve had an in-house designer at Barn2. Danny did an amazing job and really rose to the challenge. He designed everything we needed including our t-shirts, Barn2 stickers, all the swag, quiz graphics and backgrounds, business cards, QR code business cards to add to our name badges, plus leaflets promoting our sale.
A video for the big screen
The WordCamp Europe sponsorship team told me that our stand would come with a big TV which we could play a video on. We have a full-time Video Producer - Sam - so he worked with Danny to produce a professional-looking video showcasing some of our plugins on a loop.
It was difficult to know how to present our plugins given that we have 21 of them! We decided that the video should just focus on our most popular plugins, which made sense.
In addition, we decided to keep my MacBook Air on the table which would display the quiz leaderboard most of the time, and could be used to give individual demos of our plugins as needed.
My WordCamp Europe sponsorship experience
Setting up our sponsorship booth on the first morning of WordCamp Europe was pretty easy. Things were fairly quiet for the first hour or so, as people started to arrive. And then things started to take off!
Throughout the 2 days of the conference, people approached our booth non-stop. I couldn't believe it! People actually told us that they would have liked to talk to us but couldn't get close. Looking around, our booth seemed to be busier than most of the others - including the big sponsors in the main sponsorship hall 😲
We spoke with a huge range of interesting people, including:
- Existing contacts who I had met before and was pleased to catch up with.
- People I'd talked to loads online but never met in person.
- Other plugin companies who wanted to discuss partnership and cross-collaboration opportunities.
- Freelancers and agencies who were interested in our swag and asked polite questions about what we do. This led to several fruitful discussions when they discovered that we had a plugin that would benefit them or a client, which we then demonstrated for them on my laptop.
- People who follow me on Twitter and wanted to meet in person. Several told me that they really appreciate how openly I discuss running a WordPress business in my tweets and how useful they find it in growing their own business. I really appreciated their feedback, especially since I only joined Twitter in October last year.
- People also came over to say how much they like the WP Product Talk podcast which I co-host with Matt Cromwell from StellarWP/GiveWP.
Honestly, I have never talked so much in my life! But it was amazing and I met so many awesome people.
My team did a fantastic job networking, as I realise this isn't really in their job descriptions! I was amazed by what good salespeople we have on the team 🤩
The quiz was a big success and 145 people completed it. We ended up awarding an All Access Pass to the top 5 on the leaderboard, instead of just having one winner as planned.
Being interviewed 📽️
On Day 1 I was interviewed for a video by Freemius, and on Day 2 Jamie Marshland interviewed me for the WordCamp Europe livestream. We discussed my experiences as a first-time sponsor. Sam was also interviewed about his experience of attending his first WordCamp.
Sam also made this amazing video of his own personal experience of attending a WordCamp for the first time:
The rest of WCEU (and Athens)
Of course, my WCEU experience wasn’t just about sponsoring. It was also an opportunity to spend time with my team and other WordPress friends, explore Athens for the first time - and spend a rare child-free week with Andy!
Our first full day in Athens, Andy and I meet our team members (plus James Baldaccino from Ellipsis) for a boat trip along the Athenian coastline. We had hired a beautiful old wooden boat, the captain Symeon was fantastic, and we enjoyed a delicious Greek buffet. It was a lovely opportunity to get to know our team members better in person, plus some of their partners.
After that, we did a 3-hour escape mansion at Paradox Project. This is basically an escape room but much bigger and longer. It was great and we worked well as a team, escaping with 7 minutes to spare 🗝️💪
I even went to some talks!
These are the talks that I found the most useful:
- A panel about the importance of building partnerships and how to do it.
- James Giroux's talk about TeamWP's recent industry-wide survey. I was proud that he mentioned Barn2 as a case study as we recently worked with him to survey our own team members 😊
- I also watched one of Emilia Capital's Dragon's Den/Shark Tank-style sessions, where new WordPress companies pitched for investment. I love that stuff and felt proud that when it was time for Yoast and Marieke to ask questions, they raised the same issues that I had already thought of myself 🎓
- It's always interesting to see Matt Mullenweg's latest thoughts in his keynote Q&A session, but the questions are frustrating. Ever year, people ask the same questions - usually in a blatant attempt to promote their own product in the guise of a question.
After the party, Andy and I joined the lovely people from StellarWP at 2 bars, including an incredibly random medieval-themed bar called Excalibur - complete with 80’s rock music and a glass floor with a sword in the stone and dragon underneath! Not what I’d expected to find in Athens…
The official WordCamp after party was a disappointment because I haven't enjoyed nightclubs with loud music for over 20 years 👵. It was far too loud to talk to anyone (which was kind of the point of going!), so after queuing for drinks we gathered outside and networked on the pavement next to a main road. This was actually quite fun as there were various people I knew there. I met some interesting new people, and also spent time with some of the Barn2 team again. However, I hope that future WordCamps learn from this and realise that it’s essential for after parties to include party areas AND quiet areas for networking.
After a lazy day on Sunday recovering, we visited the Acropolis with James Kemp and then met Chris and Will from LifterLMS for dinner.
On Monday, Andy and I spent the day seeing the rest of the sights of Athens. Overall, I was disappointed with Athens as a city - most of it is very loud, dirty and uncared for. I was expecting it to be a truly historic city full of beautiful old buildings. However, while we saw one or two nice areas, the vast majority of the city is ugly and built-up. It’s worth visiting the main sights like the Acropolis and trying some local restaurants, but that’s about it.
When you sponsor (or even attend) a WordCamp, your work doesn't end when the conference finishes. It's important to keep working afterwards to consolidate your hard work and evaluate the event so that you can learn from it.
Social media and videos
During and after WordCamp, we spread the word by sharing photos and comments about the event on social media (mainly Twitter).
In addition, Sam recorded lots of video footage during the conference. He then edited this into several videos which were published a few days after we got home.
Following up with contacts
There were lots of people to follow up with after WordCamp Europe finished. This included:
- Emailing a free All Access Pass to the top 5 winners of the quiz.
- Sending an email to the other 150 people who took the quiz, offering them 50% discount as a "consolation prize".
- Individually following up with the people who we had networked with and exchanged business cards with.
Advice for other WP companies considering sponsorship
- Choose your spot carefully (and early).
- Plan your swag well in advance, order samples, and have it sent direct to you rather than the venue.
- If you have a team, brief them thoroughly in advance. Create a rota to ensure that there will always be someone on your booth.
- Consider in advance who you want to target and what you will say to them.
- Make an effort to leave your booth and explore the rest of WordCamp. This means attending some talks and visiting the other sponsor booths.
- If you're an introvert, then try to plan in some quiet time as part of each day - even if this is just attending a talk or crashing in your hotel room for half an hour before the first party. On Day 1, I networked from 8.30am to nearly midnight without a break. While I coped ok, I did get a headache and was taking painkillers by the evening. On Day 2, there was a gap before the parties started, which made a big difference.
- Have fun!
How much swag should you bring to a WordCamp?
Before sponsoring WordCamp Europe, I did lots of research into what quantity of promotional items/swag to bring. The lack of clear guidance was frustrating, but I got clues from:
- Researching online articles about how much swag to bring to trade shows per attendee. The general rule of thumb is to order enough swag for 25% of attendees to have one item. However, there will be more demand for more expensive items than cheaper ones.
- My colleague Amir asked other sponsors how much swag they had brought and given away at WordCamp Asia in February. I compared this to the attendee figures to calculate the equivalent figure for WCEU and adjusted it based on the likely popularity of each item he had asked about.
- Speaking with people who had sponsored previous WordCamp Europes such as Mark Westguard from WS Form and Adi Spiac from TranslatePress.
Armed with this knowledge, I made my best guess. I ordered the swag with the intention of running out of everything, but not too quickly - a difficult balance! As a small company, I didn’t want to overspend - but I also wanted to have plenty of swag available.
In the end, we had:
- 100 tote bags, 150 coasters/bottle openers and about 310 pens to give away freely on our booth.
- 50 notebooks, 60 mobile phone holders and 70 yo-yos for people who completed the quiz to choose from.
- 300 Barn2 stickers.
- 300 leaflets promoting our sale.
Amazingly, we managed to give away all the main swag! An hour before the end of WCEU, we still had quite a few bags and pens left. However, we left them on the table while we were watching the closing remarks. I was happy to see that everything had gone when we returned. We had too many stickers and leaflets, but they were cheap so it didn't matter - that was intentional to make sure we always had something to give away.
Hopefully if you sponsor a WordCamp in future, you can use the above data to make sure you order the right quantity of swag.
Costs and ROI of sponsoring a WordCamp
A lot of people asked me what it cost to sponsor WordCamp Europe. We paid:
- $2,500 for small business sponsorship (the cheapest level that includes a booth)
- $1,883 for swag
- Total: $4,383
These are the direct costs which are specific to being WordCamp Europe sponsors. In addition, we needed to pay for the team's hotel and travel costs, team t-shirts, WordCamp tickets, and other expenses which would have been the same even if we didn't sponsor. In total, Barn2 spent €13,256 on WordCamp Europe 2023.
Can you calculate the ROI of sponsoring WordCamp?
In theory there are several ways that you can try to calculate the return on investment (ROI) of being a WordCamp sponsor:
- Direct plugin sales - At the time of writing, we haven't yet tracked any plugin sales using the discount code which we gave to attendees. I will update this article if sales do start coming through!
- Impact of partnerships - It's also difficult to calculate the financial value of the partnerships that we arrange as a result of sponsoring. How do I know if we would have partnered with the same people if we weren't sponsoring?
- Branded organic search - Matt Cromwell mentioned that one way to calculate the ROI of sponsoring WordCamps is to look at branded search after the event. So far I can't see any increase in Google Analytics, but I'm only writing this 3 working days after the conference. However, even if the number of branded searches did increase, how could I calculate the financial value of this?
- Number of leads - Someone else suggested that I could calculate the ROI by assigning a value to each potential customer who we talked to at our booth. However, I have no idea how likely each person is to convert into a paying customer, so it feels like guesswork to me.
Financially, it's practically impossible to calculate the return on investment from sponsoring a WordCamp. The above give you hints as to whether it made any difference, but there's no definite answer.
But that's not really the point...
As you can see, I have no idea whether the financial benefits of sponsoring WordCamp Europe outweighed the costs. However, that's not why people sponsor WordCamps. If I could track the ROI financially then it would be a huge bonus, but that would a side-effect rather than the main goal.
Having a sponsorship booth undeniably raised our profile in the community. For two days, people constantly approached the Barn2 team wanting to connect and learn more about us. That must be worth something, especially in the long-term.
But the main benefit was the impact on the team. At previous WordCamps, we have met up as a team and done lots of networking - but never in such a direct, planned way. Never as a single unit, all working together towards a common goal.
As sponsors, all team members - from developers to marketers - worked together to promote Barn2 in a positive light. It was the first time they had interacted directly with potential customers, and this experience made our products much more real to them. This will have an impact on their day-to-day work: Now they know who they are building the products for.
As well as helping to make our plugins better and more customer-focussed, I believe that being WordCamp sponsors has created a happier team and made each person more likely to keep working at Barn2 for longer. Recruiting and training new team members is an expensive process, so retaining the awesome people we already have is a valuable benefit. As I said, sponsoring WordCamp cost us $4,383 - that's a small amount compared to the cost of having to replace a valuable team member.
Will Barn2 sponsor a WordCamp again?
I believe that the benefits to the Barn2 team alone made it worth sponsoring WordCamp Europe. In addition, sponsoring allowed us to network with far more potential customers and partners than we otherwise would have done. This raised our company profile and brand awareness.
And importantly, sponsoring WordCamps is an opportunity to give back to the WordPress community. So many amazing people volunteer their time to organize these conferences, which change so many people's lives, that this is a huge benefit in itself.
After returning from WordCamp Europe, I was hoping to become a sponsor of WordCamp US. However, I soon discovered that this would cost $5,000 rather than the $2,500 I had paid for WCEU! That's pushing it a bit, so instead I'm hoping to sponsor WCEU next year, and possibly WordCamp Asia too. Watch this space!
A lasting impact
We had a blast sponsoring WordCamp Europe. It wasn't just about getting our name out there. We also got to connect with some awesome people from the WordPress community. We learned a lot, and the experience has brought the Barn2 team closer than ever.
I can't wait to do it all over again next time!