The ROI of SQLSaturday

Andy Warren, 2016-11-09

Following up on my notes about the 2016 SQLSaturday Roundtable I wanted to write more about the ROI of SQLSaturday. I suppose there are many ways to measure it, but I think it boils down to two views:

  • How many people did we train/hours we deliver to our members? That’s what we’re in business to do, right?
  • How much revenue did we drive back to PASS, primarily in the form of Summit registrations?

PASS puts a decent amount of money into SQLSaturday. A full time evangelist plus their travel, hosting the site, making improvements to the website, creating the event logo images, responding to web site problems, organizing the Roundtable and putting some direct money (though less now) into each event in the form of sponsorship. I’m not sure of the exact number, but it’s probably $200k-$400k per year, out of a $5-8mil/year budget. In return PASS gets brand exposure, a continuing list of new attendees and CRM type data on those returning, and a chance to further serve those. They are a super-sponsor, getting the entire list, an advantage no other sponsor gets.  Good deal? Maybe.

In a perfect, or even better world, we’ve see a nice upsell path from attending SQLSaturday to attending the Summit (the money maker). In practice that number is very low, at least as far we can tell looking back five years and not having a perfect “member id” for each member (they often use different emails for SQLSat vs paid events). As is currently assessed SQLSaturday is “losing money” – which is acceptable or not depending on the state of the budget, whether you think “losing” money on anything is bad, and how you see the overall role of PASS. That lack of growth has contributed to a view from at least some Board members that SQLSaturday is decreasing Summit attendance/growth (though I hear it grew 10% in 2016), a position so far not supported with data and one that seems non-intuitive to me. Those two things plus some short of budget shortfall due to an overly ambitious revenue projection have led to cuts in how much money goes to events from PASS for sponsorship.

Why don’t our attendees go to the Summit? Easily the number one reason is cost! It’s a very large spend, many are reluctant to even ask, and fewer still get approved. It’s often a multi year effort, or one that is done when negotiating initial salary and benefits. We can’t (probably) make it cheaper long term, but we would surely work on giving those not-attended-yet people more of an incentive (first time cost of $1000 for example). We could do more to reach the decision maker directly. There’s no doubt I take this “failure” to drive Summit sales personally. Those of running these events are pro-PASS, pro-Summit, and we do what we can, but we’re running the event. Our job is to show people the value of learning, get them thinking about learning more, and to get them into the system. The job of PASS and its marketing team is to find ways to reach those contacts and guide/incent them to attend other events, paid or unpaid. I’m glad to do what I can to help, but if this isn’t the target audience to market to, what is? How do we not see this as a marketing failure? Setting up a table and staffing it with a regional mentor is a start, but it’s superficial.

I was stunned to hear a Board member tell me people are opting out of Summit because they can just go to more SQLSaturdays (leading him to think we should do fewer of them). Is this true, where is the data? It defies intuition at best. No one skips the Superbowl to go to 4 local high school games, regardless of the quality of those teams. If it it true, then what? That’s an interesting discussion. They go to multiple events because they enjoy them and can afford them. How many go to multiple events per year? I’d be surprised if that is a large number, not counting speakers.

I heard about “speaker exhaustion”, a problem that I don’t see but might exist, and is easily fixable. I heard about reduced sponsor participation, or at least the inability to scale it up as we grow. Both in the context of reasons to do fewer events and to make them smaller.

I get PASS has to pay the bills. I’m not opposed to being smarter about how we send out money. For example, lets offer more money to first time events, or to events that cannot find a free venue. I’m not opposed to doing less for a year if we had a shortfall. Maybe it’s time to wean from that entirely, but that cost – about $60k – is noise in the PASS budget.

Ranting and frustration aside, it’s the nature of a quasi-not-for-profit to struggle with balancing the need to raise funds vs using those funds to do go good. What I don’t want to see happen is a return to the bad old days where PASS spent basically nothing on anything besides Summit, a game of make money so we can grow staff and make more money, over and over. That’s a tough balance without some guiding principle or goal that I’m not sure we have. I’ve wondered more than once if we didn’t need PASS.COM and PASS.ORG as two different companies, one for profit with a mandate to put x dollars/percent into the other.

Why does this all matter? I feel like the Board is making decisions about the growth, size, etc, of SQLSaturday based on an incomplete view of the world. We can cap spending, cap the number of events, do other defensive things, or we can ask “how do we change the game so we can train more people?”. Steve isn’t wrong to think about 500 events a year. Not events for the sake of events but to reach people that want to learn, grow, join the craft, be part of our community. That’s why we started this, why so many of you lead and speak and volunteer at these events. If we can help with the ROI, that’s good. If we have to get less support, let’s be smart about what support matters. We need a longer and better conversation about the two conflicting but valid views of ROI. I think we can achieve both, but we don’t do it by pulling back.

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