We have a few questions here about the conferences worth attending but I'm trying to nail down some conventional wisdom about budgets allocated to conferences. All things considered from merely attending (which has its cost) to a booth to full blown sponsorship; what have you found works best and when?
Ignore size and the opportunity to network (because you can network in any context). How do you frame the discussion around what to spend against conferences. Do you consider booths after the product or business has reached a certain stage? Is it ever worth sponsoring things? If
Booths tend to be very expensive at established conferences (from $5K to $20K). If your goal is only to pick up endusers, you can do the math and figure out very quickly that it's not worth it.
Think of it this way: with $5K budget, the conference may bring you 100 people that you actually talk to (foot traffic), of which less than 10% will actually go to your site. That's not a great CPM! With the same budget, you could do much better online.
One of the things that keep amazing me is how much bigger the online world is. You can literally move thousands of people with one click (not always, sometimes). Try doing that at a conference.
The main reasons for attending conferences: to show that you are a player to the other players in the space (competitors, partners and media).
You should attend conferences but getting a booth or sponsoring one is a waste of money for a startup. The return is so small that spending you scarce money to make a big splash or even on a booth just does not get a good return.
Conferences are single events. Sure, they always linger on the web but your money is better spent directly talking to customers or making promotional materials that have wider appeal.
Try to submit papers to conferences and become a speaker. This is a lot more efficient way to attend conferences than paying registration fees or renting a space in the expo floor. It's a free way of spreading the word about your company assuming that you have something to say other than just simply trying to sell your product.
Conferences are like school, you get out what you put in. I saw first-hand a startup I worked for throw away their money on conferences, stupid gimmicks, and magazine ads.
If you are going to setup a booth at a conference, have some goals set beforehand, and reach them.
If it's sign-ups, set a number and get the sign-ups. Why not be able to take payments on site?
If it's connections, define who you want to connect with, what they can do for you and what you can do for them, and make it happen.
If it's to make your competitors quake in their boots, make the ground move!!! But don't be gimmicky, be serious. Be a player.
Passing out thumb-drives with your logo on them isn't going to do anything for your company and your competition may laugh at you. Worse, you give them fuel for their fire...."Look how sad our competition is, wouldn't you rather do business with a winner?"
It is hard to give a specific answer to a general question, other then saying "it depends".
For most web-based startups, while attending conferences might be worth the cost (time and money), getting a booth makes no sense given the cost to benefit ratio. On the other hand, if you want to get into places like tech crunch, you might need to go to some conferences in the valley.
If the conference includes a competition, and you manage to win, it might get you investors, and be more then worth the costs. Checkpoint software, the company that invented the firewall in the early 90's did just that.
If your product is not web based, it might be very relevant to showcase it in a conference, once your product is ready. The company I work for (a startup with 20 employees) is showing its product, a biometric security system for highrise buildings, in a multifamily conference in Las Vegas right now (yesterday and today). Yes, its expensive, but our customers are not web savvy, and its hard to reach them any other way. I still don't know the results of the conference, but I hope it will be worth the investment.
I might be able to give you more specific advice if you elaborate more on your product and the current start of the company.
If you don't mind, I want to ignore your command to ignore size. :-)
Because: I've found that the small conferences are extremely effective and the large ones are not.
I mean that both in the sense of absolute results (i.e. number of leads or number of sales directly attributable to the conference) and especially in ROI (i.e. leads/sales versus $ spent).
Another point: It's not the money, it's the time. The time to create banners, give-aways, shipping stuff, dealing with the mafia (I mean the show-services people), travel bookings, and of course the time away from the office.
That adds up to far more than the $10k for the booth. Decide whether THAT is worth it.
Tip: Start with local conferences, however small or even if not exactly the right fit. Gives you practice without a lot of the headaches.