True confession: until last month, I hadn’t been to a multiple day conference in almost five years.
I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that in public, but the truth is, I just didn’t HAVE to. My business has grown steadily from referrals and my social media presence. So it just didn’t seem essential to hop on a plane and spend thousands of dollars and three valuable days for an experience that might not prove worthy of the investment.
And it’s not like there is one place where my sweet-spot clients congregate.
But let’s just call it what it is: I’d gotten lazy.
Instead of meeting new people live and in person, I was settling for phone calls and emails. That’s good up to a point (it certainly is time-efficient), but it can definitely start to resemble a bubble.
A random email snapped me out of it: a law firm mentioned they were co-sponsoring a national 2-day conference right here in Los Angeles.
A few clicks (more on that in a moment) proved this was a good idea and—boom—I was in.
Of course, you know that’s only the beginning. So here are the steps I followed—and heartily recommend for you too—if you want to make the most of your investment.
Step 1: Who will be there? Not every conference makes it this easy, but mine kept a weekly list of attendees in a searchable excel document. While I only found one name in almost a thousand I actually knew, that turned out to be serendipitous since he is a highly accomplished networker within that industry. I emailed him for an opinion about the fit for me and his hearty enthusiasm sealed the deal.
Had any of the other attendees been on my radar, I’d have emailed them in advance, asking for a time to meet over coffee or a drink in one of the many breaks designed for that purpose. Instead, I elected to double-down on meeting new people.
Step 2: Get your talking points down. OK, so no one ever likes spending time on this, but it’s the price of admission.
Why are you here? Who do you want to meet? What’s your commitment to this group?
Digging down into the attendees and their most pressing issues, I decided to focus not on their firms (that were larger than my typical firm clients), but on their personal brands and ambitions. On their brand, digital presence and media.
Did it resonate with all? Of course not. But since I was the only one there doing what I do, the right people remembered me. One even dragged me across the room to meet someone he thought I should know.
You want to think about your story—how does it relate to the typical attendees at your conference? Is there an aspect that you might want to specifically emphasize as you build relationships? Jot down your ideas and don’t be afraid to switch it up on the fly if your first attempts don’t resonate.
Step 3: Assemble your marketing collateral. This might be as simple as making sure you have enough business cards (and giving yourself time to order new ones). But it’s also your chance to get creative on how you approach your presence.
As a first-timer with this group, I wanted to keep it simple. My business cards are bold and colorful and since this was a financial audience, I was pretty confident they’d stand out in a sea of white and blue.
I stowed some larger 4×6 (branded) cards in my purse for my own notes—and wound up jotting down some helpful info for a couple folks (it’s surprising how much the old-school approach is appreciated when they have a drink and a plate in their hands).
If you know the group well and it’s worth more investment, you might consider setting up a separate (non-public) page on your site and printing the URL on a special version of your cards. The page might have a special download for members or a call to action to encourage them to connect with you.
Step 4: Plot your conference strategy. I like to have a plan going in (but am ready to pivot where needed). In this conference—where about 90% of the attendees were men—they created an opening women’s lunch program. I signed up for it and was hugely glad I did.
I walked out with two invitations to significant events that would be populated with my ideal clients. And perhaps more importantly, met four women who become touchstones for the rest of the conference. One introduced me to a fellow “virgin” attendee, another made sure I was on an exclusive list for an upcoming event.
I was able to introduce one to her perfect potential client and have a sidebar with another that helped her solve a marketing problem.
It helped going in that I had made the decision to act as newcomer—a learner just looking to meet new people and understand their business. I wasn’t looking to sign clients, just to start some opening conversations.
I attended every break-out session, even the deadly-dull ones. Being seated gives the opportunity to have real dialogue vs. the sometimes idle chit chat around the drinks table. And I didn’t miss the networking breakfast or frankly any chance to break bread at a round table where you meet everyone.
And I discovered a weird little tactic at this conference entirely by accident. My phone was out of juice and the recharging station was packed. So I found a cozy bench, plugged my charger in and checked emails. The first time I did it, someone plunked down beside me, introduced himself and started a conversation. So I did it again, just as an experiment—ditto. Over two days, I met five interesting people just by sitting on a bench. Who knew?
Step 5: Be engaged. Think of being 100% present as a gift you give each person you meet. Who wants to talk to someone looking at their phone or over their shoulder?
Being an attentive listener (which includes asking thoughtful questions) is highly underrated as a first point of connection. I heard some fascinating stories and connected on different levels with an assortment of folks.
It’s also a great strategy for introverts. Facing 10 strangers around a table or 200 in a cocktail party can be pretty intimidating. But if you focus on just one person at a time and learn their story, it’s all of a sudden manageable.
Step 6: Manage your energy. When you plan your conference experience, pay attention to your highest priorities and save your highest energies for those.
For example, I knew the networking breakfast would be key for me, although it meant leaving my house at the crack of dawn. So I didn’t stay for the after-party the night before (and had a chuckle with a few hangover victims, who didn’t show till mid-morning).
Take breaks if you need them to get away from the constant noise and interaction. Introverts this means you! There is no shame in managing your energy so the entire experience works for you.
Step 7: Follow up. This is the single most important thing you’ll do. The faster the better.
Personal emails, LinkedIn invites, forwarding something you promised. Get their info and their essence into your contacts management system while it’s fresh. Not only will it make you memorable (since it’s a surprising minority who do this well), the outcomes might just surprise you.
A new client. A referral. A life-long friendship.
Step 8: Evaluate. You don’t have to have a swanky CRM system to decide whether a conference worked for you.
You went to this event with a set of expectations—how’d it go? New relationships, new clients, more visibility for your business, speaking invites—how did you do?
Be dead honest with yourself: is this a conference you’ll want to attend again or is this a one-and-done? And if it’s a keeper, be sure to check out other free or pay-to-play options for next time—like reserving a booth, sponsoring a session, moderating a panel or joining a committee. You get back what you put in.
So obviously after a 5-year break, I’ve surely missed a tip or two. What’s worked for you lately (or what do you now avoid like the plague)?