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More than two years ago Inc. covered the "unconference" trend. The general idea is a conference with sessions determined by the participant's passion and desire to teach or learn a specific thing. Inc. recently included an "unconference" session at the GrowCo Conference where each table discussed problems that the participants needed to solve.

BarCamp is a prototypical unconference, typically focusing on creating new Web applications or software programs. The event is usually free, with the organizers obtaining space and sponsorship to cover costs. One group of companies has looked at the attendees of a typical BarCamp and has seen the opportunity to sponsor as a way to participate and obtain feedback for their own businesses. Don't think of this as a way to sponsor a tech event—consider how you can find your market and talk to them at the right time.

According to Jonathan Kay, ambassador of buzz for virtual phone system provider Grasshopper.com, "Most of our customers have one to 10 employees, so that on a business level, when they're starting [a] company, designing their websites, starting up, they're thinking about phone numbers at that time. They don't want their cell phone number on their website; they want to share a number that makes them sound larger than they are. We find these entrepreneurs at BarCamps.'

Kay started traveling around to BarCamps, participating and running panels. "We bought beer afterwards to enable people to network and chat. The feedback we got was unbelievable. We had one on one conversations with 50 or 60 people, living our mission. We hate the idea of traditional sponsorships. Most sponsors pay money and don't show up—we paid, showed up and participated.'

Grasshopper recently sponsored BarCamp Boston, and it has plans to sponsor a bunch of other camps along with Wufoo, MailChimp, BatchBook, and Shopify under the "BarCamp Tour" moniker. "We actually had a longer list of companies interested, but we wanted companies that engage their customers and understand the value of the one-on-one basis. We see Shopify's hackathons and MailChimp's developer fund and we know they get it," Kay says.

Jay Neely, one of the organizers of BarCamp Boston 6, said that having the BarCamp Tour companies there was important. "It was great to have such entrepreneurial spirit represented. We always have lots of entrepreneurially curious folks as attendees, but we usually have larger companies as the top sponsors," he says. "It was great to have these smaller companies be there and show a different side of things. By the nature of bar camp anyone can present and join in—and every time I saw folks from these companies they were adding value."

Kay, along with the teams from the other companies participating, has tapped into their customer communities and has generated awareness of their products, good will, and relationships by not just sponsoring, but also by participating.

How are you reaching your customers? Let us know more in the comments.

Last updated: Apr 22, 2011




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