Conferences, sponsors, ads and newsletters

Oil IT Journal editor Neil McNaughton recalls an early brush with the ‘infomercial,’ dissects recent trends in conference sponsorship, free newsletters and Oil IT Journal’s paid subscription model.

A funny thing can happen on the road from university to life. Leaving academia and throwing oneself onto the job market can be scary. There is a temptation to turn back into the academic world and hang on for a while—perhaps for a PhD or even a complete change of tack. For me, just after my MSc, the temptation to change momentarily overcame—for reasons which I won’t bore you with now. Just as I was ready to ‘be’ a geophysicist, I decided that, no, a medical degree was what I really needed and another six years of study!


Fortunately the madcap scheme did not get further than the interview which went down like the proverbial lead balloon. The interviewers spotted me as a phony as soon as I opened the door and just had to ask a couple of killer questions to expose my lunacy and then chat for the regulation ten minutes so that appearances were saved.


In the meantime though, I got an introduction to both marketing and the business tenet that ‘there is no such thing as a free lunch’. During my brief period as a medical groupie, I was invited to a drug company presentation followed by a ‘free’ curry. Birmingham, UK, at the time home to a proud geophysics MSc course, is perhaps better known as the birthplace of the ‘Balti’ curry which, when it finally came was indeed extraordinary—the only time that I have eaten gold leaf.

Myocardial infarct?

But free it was not. As a geophysicist, whose only concession to ‘doing’ medicine was the purchase (but not the reading of) a chemistry textbook, I knew nothing about medicine. And before the curry there was an hour-long infomercial. The drugs and diseases wafted over my head. All I can remember, many years later, was talk of ‘massive influx of e-coli’ and ‘myocardial infarct’ but I wasn’t clear whether this was one disease or many. Subsequent googling suggests that the only context in which these symptoms appear together is if you are blown up. Perhaps it had something to do with eating too much curry?


But the presentation was my first infomercial. In the nearly forty years that have elapsed since then I have heard quite a few more and have even given a few myself. Without claiming to be an expert on the subject (I never did go back to study either medicine or advertising—just ploughed right on with the geophysics) I would claim to have developed a certain sensitivity to the sales pitch. I would therefore like to share some thoughts as to what has turned me on recently and what has turned me (and quite a few others) off.


Starting a new conference is an entrepreneurial gamble on the intrinsic interest of a new field. If you bet right, in a few years you may have built up a following of end users and buyers—which in turn will attract notice from the vendors.


This leads to another potential income stream for the conference organizer, but one which is not without its pitfalls. The worst case scenario is of course the one where your sponsor gets an automatic right to present. Sometimes this means that listeners who may have paid a couple of thousand bucks to attend are forced to hear a sales pitch which, in other circumstances, the vendor would probably pay them to hear. This is a worst case marketing scenario—a real turn-off.


IT isn’t always like that. Some conference organizers keep the bar high and ensure quality from vendors and users. Some vendors may be are a bit more inventive—presenting company case histories or even sponsoring a third party, perhaps academic, presentation.


For conference organizers and for that matter newsletter publishers, balancing the benefits of advertising/sponsorship and direct sales is something of a conundrum. Today, publishers, whether they are of humble newsletters or national newspapers, face a similar dilemma to the conference organizer—is your revenue to come from advertising or subscriptions? Is your content to come from advertisers, end users or what? The end member of the publishing spectrum is the freebie—with finance from advertising and, in some cases, even content being paid for along the ‘vanity publishing’ model.

Fools bargain

I can’t help thinking that the freebie paradigm is something of a fools bargain for the advertiser. If you are a reader, do you like reading the ‘guff’ of the press release? If you are a writer, reflect on whether folks are really going to plough through four pages of your ramblings! And if you are an advertiser, what is the point in having an ad in a publication that is not going to get read? Advertising in this context is something of a fool’s bargain.

Raison d’être

The above made me reflect on what we are trying to achieve here at Oil IT Journal. Without getting too religious (we are trying to make a living like the rest!), I think that there is an answer to the publisher’s conundrum above. Just as the organizer ‘bets’ on the interest of a new topic, we try to collect ‘stuff’ that, in our opinion, folks should be reading about. A monthly gamble on what is important today and tomorrow.

Tell a friend

Which kind of defines our role—get read! Is it working? According to our ‘Urchin’ (a.k.a. Google Analytics) monitor, our website received just over 100,000 visitor sessions (nearly one million hits) in the first two months of 2008. We now have 50 paid up corporate licensees to our million-word plus archive including 11 in the supermajor/NOC category. And we send out nearly 400 paid for paper copies of Oil IT Journal every month—all paid for by people who actually read it.


As for advertising, we don’t want to rock the apple cart with flashing jpegs and pages of ‘guff’ but we have introduced ‘sponsored links’ from our online content and RSS feeds which provide an unobtrusive connection from our content to whatever an advertiser wants. Which of course might be just ‘guff’ but we hope not. It could be a link to an insightful White Paper that just begs to get read too!

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