The battle of the West Coast technology conferences is offering something more than name-calling right now: millions of dollars in free advertising to top presenters.

Thanks to the generosity of sponsors and partners, lucky companies presenting at TechCrunch50 and DEMO will have the opportunity to win a hefty amount of free advertising. TechCrunch50 will be giving away at least $1.3m in ad credits and DEMO plans to give away $2m in ad credits.

Having worked with a number of early-stage web ventures over the years, I’ve seen just how difficult marketing can be for young companies on limited budgets. Invariably, there has been a common refrain: “if we had more money to market the business we could [fill in the blank]“.

Generally, I’m of the belief that it’s not that simple. While marketing is important and it can be very hard to market effectively with a tight budget, a big budget doesn’t guarantee success. After all, some of today’s most successful startups spent very little on marketing. Google’s popularity, for instance, didn’t come from a Super Bowl ad. Facebook and Twitter didn’t go viral with expensive ad campaigns either. Yet plenty of companies that spent big bucks on marketing are no longer with us. Pets.com, anyone?

Clearly, there’s more to startup success than the amount of money a new company can spend on advertising. Which begs the question: will the recipients of the ad credits being given away at TechCrunch50 and DEMO really benefit from them? Or is the free advertising being given away little more than good advertising for the two tech conferences?

I for one plan to follow the companies that receive the free advertising. Of particular interest to me:

  • How well recipients run their campaigns. Even though the startups receiving free advertising likely won’t have much control over the inventory they receive, it would be interesting to evaluate the quality of campaign execution. Will creative and copy, for instance, be managed haphazardly or will it be thoughtfully developed and refined over the course of campaigns?
  • How much attention is paid to ROI. Will the companies receiving free advertising treat it like it will never run out or will they make the effort to monitor ROI so that results can be maximized?

While I doubt that the startups or tech conferences themselves will make it a point to provide case studies detailing how advertising credits are spent, it will be interesting to see if the credits do anything to change the typical spike-and-drop traffic charts that are familiar to so many companies that launch to fanfare and then grapple with the real challenge every new company faces: how to build momentum and keep it going.