How to get the most out of Conferences

By Haley Lloyd, 14 November, 2019

You walk tentatively into the sprawling entrance hall of Moscone, joined by a herd of men and women dressed just like you. Looking around, trying to find a familiar face, you observe you all are sporting gigantic, ridiculous name tags, but the colours vary, displaying just how many marketing dollars were spent on the ticket. Your iPhone dings, "Welcome to the 8th Annual...", annoyed, you dismiss the notification and open up the App you were told to download a month ago. The spinning wheel of death goes round and round until a rudimentary interface appears with a customizable agenda. You haphazardly add a few sessions to your calendar, turn off all notifications, and head into your first session.

In 2018 the conference industry generated a staggering 30.3 billion dollars and have become a huge part of tech companies marketing strategy and spend each year. Sponsoring, hosting, or simply just attending, the costs are exorbitant—but hey, if Nickelback performs, it's worth it, right? Wrong. Nobody would pay $1,100 for a Nickelback ticket. Shouldn’t we look beyond the free sandwiches, swag, and 3.5-star hotel suite, and, you know...work?

T-7 days til conference start

The days leading up to a conference are likely similar to most days. You're leaving to schmooze a crowd, but that doesn't mean that your work stops. However, like most things, conference prep requires planning. It's good to think about and write down goals for what you want to get out of it. Depending on what your objectives are for attending, some of your goals might include;

  • Are you looking for vendors for your product or service?

    • How many options would you feel successful coming back with?
    • “I want to return to work with 5 potential vendors I can contact within the month.”
  • Are you researching new technologies?

    • What technologies are you most interested in?
    • “We’re interested in speaking at least 4 reps of products that we can add to our in-house capabilities in the next year.”
  • Are you generating new business?

    • “During the conference, I would consider it successful if I can back with 20 interested leads and follow up with them in the following week.”
  • Are you looking for advice?

    • “We need advice on how to create highly personalized marketing emails. I want to have at least 10 ideas on how we can create, and send those emails over the next 3 months.”

The nature of the conference can influence your goals as well, so try to use the SMART framework when creating them. That way you can be sure they are achievable.

Most conferences now have an app for their attendees. Download it and explore its (often limited) features before getting there so that you can at least familiarize yourself with the topics, speakers and attendees. Often, you can authenticate through LinkedIn, which allows you to message your fellow conference-goers beforehand. Specifically, this can help with scheduling meetings with people you're interested in chatting with. When messaging them through social media or through the aforementioned app, I keep it light and friendly, like this;

Hey Allison,

I noticed on the Twilio conference App that you were attending. I'm a big fan of Conde Nast's Marketing emails and would love to chat about how you've achieved such a high degree of personalization. Would you let me buy you a coffee on Thursday morning after the keynote?

Looking forward to it.

Haley

This is not a time to be shy people, make connections! Who you know matters.

In the thick of it

Have a positive mindset—I can't stress this enough. Leaving your family, home, and obligations can be stressful and overwhelming but everyone is experiencing the same challenges. To make the most out of your attendance, be social. This is very difficult for a lot of people, so I have come up with a few ways to combat your nerves:

  • To get comfortable, start by chatting with the people at booths. It's their job to chat about their product or service to as many people as they can. Use them to get your confidence up, and practice your pitch.
  • Make eye contact. Try to avoid looking at your phone, and smile when you look at people. Chances are they will start up a conversation.
  • Find people in the room who are as shy or shyer than you are, and ask them how they are doing, or what they’ve enjoyed about the conference so far.
  • Ask everyone you talk to how you can help them. It could be as simple as an introduction but they are likely to return the favour.
  • Suggest going for a walk outside of the conference hall. Often, leaving the hall makes people feel more comfortable and loosens up the conversation. There are often general areas where you can grab a snack, drink, or coffee and sit.
  • Typically conferences have lunch included. Use this opportunity to to sit with people you don't know and engage in the conversation. Don’t know who to sit with? Just find an empty chair at a table and as if you can join them!

While the purpose of everyone being there is work-related, make your conversations personal. If you want to build a long-term relationship, having a memorable exchange to reference is important! Don't let those exchanges go to waste—ensure that after the conversation you take detailed notes of who you met, where and when you met them, and any special bytes about the conversation you remember. This will help you immensely when following up.

Post-Conference

Follow up is such a critical step in the process that most people forget or don’t bother doing at all. When you're on the plane, look at your calendar and reserve a couple of hours the next day you’re in the office for follow up. Having conversations fresh in your mind, along with the detailed notes you took helps to create emails that resonate. Here is an example of an email I would write:

Hi Tim,

It was really great to meet you at the conference in San Francisco on Thursday. I appreciate your perspective on how my team and I could maximize our ROI at the various conferences we attend. You mentioned a few things that we could immediately put into practice, so thank you for that!

I’ve added you to LinkedIn so we can stay in touch. Feel free to ping me if anyone or anything comes to mind that you feel I should know, and I will do the same.

Looking forward to next time, (hopefully over better sandwiches),

Haley

Notice that my email is highly personalized, mentioning the day we spoke, and hopefully triggers a memory for him about the bad sandwiches and associated conversation. The message is appreciative, as well as offers a promise of looking out for them in the future. This builds a good foundation for a mutually beneficial relationship that supports both people's goals as opposed to just one or the other.

It's important to debrief with your Marketing team as well. Review:

  • Your initial goals

    • Were they met?
    • Exceeded?
    • Were the attendees what you expected?
  • Quality of the Speakers
  • Was it well-organized?
  • Business as a result of attending
  • Is it worth investing next year?

    • Attending?
    • Sponsoring?
  • Collateral

    • Is the current marketing collateral effective
    • What needs to be created?

Be transparent about your challenges and successes (or failures). Your honest feedback will help your team to decide whether this conference is worth investing in in the future. If opportunities arise in the future, ensure you complete the feedback loop by communicating and demonstrating that business was generated as a result of attending.

Conferences are a great way to source inspiration from people and products in your space. It allows for personal dialogue between many individuals in one place, creating opportunities for business, feedback, inspiration and connection. Just attending, however, isn’t enough. Make the most of your investment, and maximize the possibilities for good things to come out of it. You may be surprised at what you can achieve within the span of a single conference when you put the effort in.