A year ago at this time I was trying my best to lay out a convincing case for my bosses to send me to a content marketing conference. They bought my arguments, and before I knew it I was on a plane to San Francisco.
I showed up for the workshop the first day, ready and eager to learn, only to realize I had no real idea what I was doing.
Sure I had brought a ton of business cards and had a vague idea that I would “make connections” while on the trip, but that was about all I had given myself to work with.
Through complete and total luck I actually did meet some awesome people who continue to be both friends and valuable professional connections, and I also learned quite a bit about navigating the unique universe of marketing conferences.
I’m now a fairly seasoned conference pro (you can even see me speak at the Intelligent Content Conference and Content Marketing Conference later this year), and I want to share my hard-won steps to winning at marketing conferences.
Step 1: Why Are You Going to This Conference?
If you’re going for the pure purpose of professional education, that’s great. Put down your precise learning objectives, and then lay out which sessions are going to get you there.
Think of it like drawing up a personalized lesson plan for yourself.
Then when you get back you can show exactly what you learned and from whom. Managers love that sort of stuff.
Other potential conference attendance goals might be:
- Professional networking and building connections
- Establishing partnerships with other companies or websites
- Exploring software solution options with vendors
- Spreading brand awareness for your own company
None of these are exclusive; it’s likely you’re going with at least a couple of these in mind.
The point is that you need to know exactly what you need to accomplish, hope to accomplish, and have no interest whatsoever in accomplishing.
Without this understanding you won’t be able to evaluate the best way to spend your time during the event, so don’t skimp on the self examination step.
Step 2: Get the App ASAP
Most major conferences these days have a dedicated app that you can download, and I recommend grabbing it as quick as you can after registration.
Fill out all your details so people can connect with you there if they choose. In my experience most connections still happen out of the app, i.e. on LinkedIn, Twitter, or via email, but if people want to manage their conference relationships with you this way you should be able to do so.
My favorite use of conference apps is to manage your schedule during the conference, as they can give you alerts when your sessions are starting or when it’s time for a coffee break. If your preferred session fills up or gets canceled you’ll get instant notifications through the app.
Finally, many sponsors also run contests via conference apps, which can be a fun diversion if you need to switch mental gears for a while.
Step 3a: Follow the Right People
(This one is dependant on Step 1, so if you haven’t nailed down your explicit conference goals you’ll need to do that first.)
This step is one of the most time consuming, but also one of the most critical.
You’ll need to figure out who at the conference can help you most effectively meet your goals, and start establishing a connection with them before you get on the plane or walk into the convention center.
The simplest way to do this is a good old Twitter list.
If the conference has a Twitter list of all their speakers, subscribe to it and then use it to follow the ones who are experts in your area of interest.
You can also sort the conference speakers based on track or subject and just follow those individual speakers.
A more involved ways to do this is to take a spreadsheet or Trello board with all the speakers and/or attendees you want to connect with, then create a workflow for yourself to follow.
- Follow on Twitter
- Subscribe to email newsletter
- Share their content
- Comment on a blog post
- Repeat steps 3 and 4
- Reach out directly
As you can see, this is a pretty time consuming process. But if you want to have a shot at Step 4 you need to be on a first name basis with the people who can help you meet your conference goals.
Step 3b: Stalk the Hashtag
You’ll most likely find yourself doing this naturally while you seek out and engage with conference influencers, but if it doesn’t happen organically you need to devote some time to it.
Get a TweetDeck column running and keep an eye on discussions around the hashtag.
This is fantastic way to learn who is running things behind the scenes at the conference, who the regular attendees are, and which speakers are the most open to engaging with attendees.
It also gives you a better chance of getting engagement and interaction if you’re tweeting during the conference itself.
Conference hashtags can get pretty wild and crazy during the event, and if people recognize your handle you stand a better chance at getting retweets and replies in the fast and furious Twitterverse.
Step 4: Set Individual Meetings Whenever Possible
It’s very tempting to say things like, “Let’s connect at the happy hour on Tuesday” and move on, but these sorts of casual rendez vous rarely work out in a crowded conference space, particularly if you don’t know your connection in real life yet.
There’s very little chance that someone’s LinkedIn profile picture will be sufficient to let you recognize them in a crowd of hundreds of strangers, so don’t rely on conference events for meetings.
Even if it’s a quick half hour breakfast or a happy hour drink right after the conference ends, set a specific time and place outside of the conference for important meetings.
Always exchange cell phone numbers with these folks in advance too. It may seem weird to give someone your number when you’ve only ever direct messaged them on Twitter, but you’ll almost certainly regret it if you don’t.
I had planned a lunch meeting at museum that turned out to be closed on the chosen day, and I was trying to change the location via LinkedIn messages while on a subway with very questionable wifi. I would have given my left hand for a cell phone number at that point.
Step 5: Plan Your Agenda
This one may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s something that you can easily neglect, particularly if your event doesn’t require you to register for sessions in advance.
Even if you know you’re going to learn a particular skill or attend a particular track, you should look at all the session descriptions (yes, all of them). You will almost always find one that unexpectedly strikes a chord with you and makes you want to make sure you don’t miss it.
Put your first choice sessions on your personal calendar, the app agenda, or both so you can make sure to work around it. Then fill in your other choices around your can’t-miss session(s).
Make your agenda a living document and come back to it periodically in the days leading up to the conference, because while you’re finding folks to connect with you may find new can’t-miss sessions that didn’t originally resonate with you.
Step 6: Deviate From Your Best Laid Plan
Worst last step ever, right? Just hang with me; it’s actually a good tip.
When I went to my first Content Marketing World last year I had no idea that there would be so much extracurricular stuff going on, but since I had done Step 3b (Stalk the Hashtag) and Step 2 (Get the App), I got notifications about super cool events that were going on after the conference ended each day.
Some of the events were huge gatherings at bars or restaurants that were sponsored by different brands or software companies, while others were people who just wanted to connect with other like-minded folks in a no pressure social setting.
For a mildly introverted writer like me, these latter events were perfect.
They weren’t full of hundreds (or thousands) of other attendees all trying to use up their drink tickets; instead they were focused around a niche interest and included just a handful of people.
Knowing that I was going into a room of other writers who just wanted to have a drink and talk content was fabulously liberating after spending eight hours mainlining session information.
I hadn’t planned to go to any of these micro events (they were usually squeezed into the hour and a half between the end of the conference the evening entertainment), but I made some of my most valuable connections there.
No matter how meticulously you’ve laid out your conference schedule, try to be spontaneous and embrace the organic opportunities that are part of real life events.
Sometimes, plans are made to be broken.
Bonus Step: Explain Your Conference Success Really, Really Well
If you follow these steps you have a very good chance at totally killing it at your next conference.
The final step, however, is to convince your boss(es) and colleagues that you totally killed it.
A very clever book called, The Art of Explanation is a great place to start, as is this guide to proving conference value.
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