Ah, SEM conferences.

Knowledge sharing. Inside jokes. Epic after-parties. There’s nothing like working in SEM to fill you with a paranoid frenzy about staying on top of the latest trends, reading the latest posts, or, if you’re that good, writing them yourself. And there’s no catharsis like an SEM conference, a chance to share achievements in Excel’s Index/Match and landing page design with a like-minded community.

And that got us thinking.

There are so many great conferences. Who wouldn’t want to attend them all? Who wouldn’t be willing to sacrifice a handful of vacation days to make it happen?

But even if we had the time, we would still need the money. So how can you raise money to attend more conferences?

How to Raise Money for Conferences as a Small Digital Agency

If, at your SEM behemoth, your answer has always been simply to remind your boss to buy your ticket and book your flight, maybe this post isn’t for you. As a small agency, we don’t have the luxury of a corporate slush fund. So we decided to create our own.

Our SEO team was inspired by a side project that generated $51,365 in 60 days. That’s right: A handful of clever employees made a quick $50k by designing and selling plastic masks of popular emojis. It was inspiration but not a perfect template. We didn’t have the upfront cash (surprise) to invest in inventory. Nor did we want to take on the potentially crushing burden of fulfilling orders for a viral campaign.

Instead, we tapped our most valuable asset, the underlying characteristic of why the side project was successful and could be successful for any great marketing team: Ingenuity.

Getting Started

After white-boarding an array of revenue-generating options (more on some of those below) we settled on an idea that kept reemerging – funny digital marketing t-shirts.

Image of t-shirt

Market research was easy. We all loved digital marketing, scoured the Internet obsessively, had a bit of disposal income, and still hadn’t come across any must-have swag for our team. Throw in a few uninspiring Google searches for “SEM t-shirts,” “PPC t-shirts,” and “SEO t-shirts,” and we had a decent, if anecdotal, confirmation of scarcity.

After all, it’s not as though we had hidden our SEM interests—if someone had been running a paid campaign for digital marketing gear on Facebook or Twitter, we would’ve seen it. (Let’s be honest: It would’ve stalked us across the Web for weeks).

Initial, informal brainstorming for t-shirt ideas was mostly about taking notes on our casual conversations. We don’t usually go a day without uproarious laughter in one section of the office or another, and SEM puns are a gag of choice:

It practically rolled off the tongue. You might see some of these ideas soon.

When Small Means Fast

Still, we’d be the first to admit that the gap between clever ideas and saleable merchandise can be daunting. But that’s where, as a small agency, limited resources became assets. Efficient communication, processes, and approval made us nimble—and fast.

Will the head of our company sign off on us spending at-work time on the project? Check. Can we make an all-call for help across SEO, PPC, and design teams at the company meeting on Thursday? Check.

From there, we spent a week getting company-wide (there are about twenty of us) input on any t-shirt design ideas. A volunteer team of editors sat down the following Monday to prioritize development of our first four shirts. We handed those concepts to our in-house designer and began turning around finished shirt designs that same week.

We had already discovered the perfect outlet for our products, one that solved our two challenges of upfront costs and inventory fulfillment: Teespring. If you’re not familiar, Teespring allows you to create t-shirts and put them up for sale without investing in inventory. You set a sales goal and, once the goal is reached, Teespring prints and ships the t-shirts for you. If no one buys the shirt, it never gets printed. Teespring keeps a portion of the revenue, of course, but creators incur no risk. Not a bad deal.

From there, it was just a matter of setting up targeted social media ad campaigns to get our design in front of the right people. And we sat next to and across from those experts every day. Management even chipped in for the initial marketing budget.

Other Ideas

And while t-shirts are one way to do it, they’re far from the only concept. We considered the possibility fundraising through a Kickstarter or Indiegogo campaign and donating a portion of total proceeds to charities in the conference host city. We also thought about developing a 2016 calendar, which would have saved us any up-front investment—we would print only as many as we sold in advance.

Funny videos. Push-up contests. Leveraging our professional and hidden talents for freelance work. There was no shortage of avenues. But, at the end of the day, t-shirts allowed us to maximize our advantage by doing what we do best, digital marketing.

Why You Can (and Should) Do This, Too

As with almost all things in life, there’s a benefit to earning your way. There’s also the morale-boosting perk of cross-departmental collaboration and getting to see your digital marketing skills pay off directly for you and your team. This neglects to consider the benefits to clients, too, who ultimately reap the rewards of a highly educated team.

We know we’re not the only small agency out there, and we know we’re not the only ones doggedly trying to tap into the high-level conversations that push our industry forward. You know you already have the marketing skills and, we’re willing to bet, the creative ideas to generate a product to bring to market.

From concept development to conference attendance, it’s an opportunity for team unity, personal improvement, and one hell of a great time with your digital marketing friends.

Just don’t sell t-shirts.