How To Be A Brand At A Conference
How To Be A Brand At A Conference
How To Be A Brand At A Conference

Having organized a fair number of events and spoken at a fair number more over the years, I’ve become quite observant when it comes to how sponsors get involved. At a panel discussion for a Social Media Club chapter event last year (the location and topic will remain confidential), I was rather disturbed at the regional sales manager for a big brand. He was on the panel, which was talking about the industry that his company was in. Yet when the discussion turned to him with a legitimate question about how his company was dealing with issue X or Y, it took him about five seconds to flip the answer to a pitch for a new product line.

Sponsor money is necessary to offset the costs of events and sponsors need to get something out of the experience or it’s not a good investment for them. But the last the crowd at any learning or professional development event wants is to be sold something.

Liz Strauss SHowing Off Mark Horvath's New GMC...
Image by Geoff Livingston via Flickr

While I was not able to attend SOBCon this year, Liz Strauss’s phenomenal blogging for business event held this time of year in Chicago, I saw the updates via Twitter and several caught my attention.

GMC, a SOBCon sponsor, showed up and took the stage, but did something ridiculously cool and uncharacteristic for a big brand. They gave a GMC Terrain to Mark Horvath, a homeless advocate who travels the country chronicling the plight of those less fortunate that all of us through his Invisible People web TV series.

Geoff Livingston was there and has some pictures and more on his blog.

There was no suit on hand to bask in the pseudo-altruistic applause. There was no corporate press release (that I know of). The brand folks let SOBCon roll out a neat outdoors presentation to Mark, but it was about him and his efforts, not GMC. They provided value to the audience by showing they get it, that they’re one of them (SOBCon attendees) and they too admire Mark for his work.

I’m sure someone in a board room somewhere asked why the unveil wasn’t on Oprah or why the 6 o’clock news wasn’t there to cover the thing. I’ll answer them: Because it wasn’t about GMC. It was about Mark and SOBCon and the essence of why everyone was there. They were there to be a contributing member of Liz Strauss’s event and community. GMC is going to reap benefits from the act for yeas to come from very influential people.

I wasn’t even there and it makes me proud to know GM gets it. Will it make me go out and buy a GMC tomorrow? No. I don’t need a new car right now. But will it put them closer to my consideration set when I do? Damn right it will.

Good on ya GMC. Thanks for being a part of something more than hocking your wares. We do appreciate it. Even if the Chicago Tribune didn’t deem it worthy of coverage.

Disclosure: General Motors once hired me to speak to their corporate marketing team. I have no current relationship with the company, however.

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About the Author

Jason Falls
Jason Falls is the founder of Social Media Explorer and one of the most notable and outspoken voices in the social media marketing industry. He is a noted marketing keynote speaker, author of two books and unapologetic bourbon aficionado. He can also be found at
  • I have probably been to 100 business conferences in my career, and I have NEVER seen a company present their brand in such a positive and impactful way as GMC did at SOBCon. I think none of us who were present will ever forget that moment, and Mark’s reaction. What a great way to align their brand with something truly transformative and positive in the community. I LOVED it!

  • Casey

    Also..Murphy USA gave Mark a year of Gas, and McDonald’s gave him free meal vouchers.

    • Thanks, Casey. Well done on both counts. Appreciate you adding that info.

  • Jason,

    I was there. It was really cool. You’re right; it wasn’t about GMC. it was about Mark. And the homeless.

    I’m not an American car buyer. Yet.

    Will I consider a GMC Terrain? You betcha. And it’s only because of the cool thing they did.

    The Franchise King®

  • Hi Jason-

    As a first-time SOBcon attendee who had little idea of all that Mark Horvath does, or of why he is important to the larger SOBcon community, I was a bit miffed at the start of the giveaway roll-out. There is nothing I like less than being marketed to about a product I’ll never buy, in a room I can’t escape, where I’ve already paid to be. Those obstacles raised, I was in tears by the end of the giveaway. Ultimately, the giveaway/recognition did achieve its goodwill goals.

    My one takeaway of how to do better would have been to find some way to enroll the newbies (or for that matter, to warm up the whole group) by having given even a five minute into to Mark and his work near the start of the conference. (Perhaps, under the guise of introducing us to Sunday morning’s event and the non-profits involved in that). That way we could all have shared fully the goodwill that GMC extended.

    And, while I’m unlikely to buy a GMC vehicle myself, one of my SOBcon pals sent her mom to the GMC website to consider exactly the vehicle that they gave to Mark. Hmm.


    • Thanks for sharing that perspective. I obviously wasn’t there for the
      whole experience, so it’s good to understand that better.

  • Amazing what brands are doing at conferences these days, thanks for sharing mate!

  • Thank you! very interesting article. Good examples and clearly thoughts.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the hat tip, Jason. It was really special, and very emotional. Mark deserved the ride from a karmic level, and GM earned a lot of good will on this one. This was a win-win on many, many levels. Great cause marketing.

  • Hey Jason, GMC actually had a press release on their media site the day they gave the car to Mark. See it here: That doesn’t diminish what they did, in fact I would have been disappointed if they didn’t have a press release.

    But your point is a valid one. What brands should understand is how they are perceived by the audience when they go into self-promotion mode. If they did, they might avoid the pitch.

  • Anonymous

    Hey Jason – you bring up a really important point. And while I think the GM example is a good one, i don’t think its one many people can relate to, as well…we all don’t have cars to give away =)

    But the point remains extremely valid. When a speaker or panelist spends more than 30-45 seconds talking about themselves or their product/service…it actually turns me off from their company all together…as clearly they don’t get it. What we have found useful is simply stating in one sentence your company’s value add…saying this is NOT the time to discuss if further, but if you wanted to chat about it later I am around all day/night (and then actually make yourself available to chat/meet new people).

    We then proceed to add real value, based on whatever the topic is. We give real numbers, experiences, and examples. By adding real value and leaving the audience with real actionable advice…they will be 10 x’s more likely to Google your company.

    Thanks for raising awareness to this issue…In fact we just had an article written up in INC about the idea of “Sponsorship as Participation” – you should check it out!


  • Fantastic post Jason! Simply your position and wonderful thoughts on this post displays that you clearly get it.

    All the best,


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