15 Tips for Networking at Conferences

“Well…I could have learned all of that online.”

That was my major thought after the first conference I attended years ago. I left feeling as though I had been cheated out of hundreds of dollars for information I either already knew or could have easily found online. I mean, sure, there were a few “golden nuggets” of info here and there, but I just didn’t “get it.”

As I went to more conferences, I soon realized that it wasn’t the conferences’ fault that I left feeling slightly empty. I wasn’t being cheated…I was cheating myself.

I simply missed out on the most beneficial part of attending conferences…networking!

Think back when you went to school…or maybe you’re still in school. Did you enjoy the lessons, textbooks, homework, etc? Or did you enjoy the friends, jokes, sports, games, and everything else that came with socializing?

That simple realization completely flipped my opinion of conferences. Networking for me has become far more valuable than the info I learn sometimes. Even if you’re not a social butterfly (trust me, because I’m not), you can still apply these easy tips for networking at conferences to get the most out of your conference experience!

Before the conference

1) Check the agenda

The very first thing you should do when registering for a conference is check the agenda. Make notes of the sessions that you absolutely don’t want to miss, but also be sure to note any speaker you don’t recognize. You’ll need those names for the next tip.

2) Do your homework

Homework? Who wants to do homework? Well, this homework can make or break your conference experience. This is where you check out those speakers you didn’t recognize to see who they are, what they do, where they work, what they’ve done, etc. This will help you narrow down the sessions you want to attend.

3) Shout out

If you have a decent social following or can target a hashtag, forum, blog, etc then shout out to people asking if they’re attending the conference and who their must-see speaker is or the session they’re most interested in. Not only will this help you decide, but it also creates a connection to someone else going that you can build on when you get there.

4) Register for everything

Okay, so you have your list of sessions. Get registered for them! I’ve been to conferences where sessions were “sold out” so be sure to get this taken care of as early as possible. Also sign up for any special breakfast, lunch, dinners, parties, breakouts, etc that may be offered. Basically, get your schedule out of the way so you can relax. Nobody likes trying to figure these things out at the last minute only to hear everyone in the session next door laughing, clapping, etc. It’s that, “crap…I picked the wrong session feeling.”

5) Know where to find food and fun

Everyone eats…and a lot of people drink. Check out the places around the conference to get an idea of what’s available and what’s good. When you find yourself with someone or a group at a conference that wants to head out for appetizers, dinner, drinks, etc then you can avoid that blank stare & shrug when someone says, “what’s around here?” You can jump in with “I hear there’s a great Italian restaurant right around the corner..sound good?”

6) Pack some essentials

Make sure you come to the conference with business cards or something you can give people to remember you by and contact you. Oh…and bring mints…or gum…pretty self-explanatory.

7) Know who you are

Most everyone at conferences are all about the what you do and where you work. Be prepared to answer those as interestingly as possible. Do you sell cow manure? Well, tell people you’re #1 in the #2 business. Find a way to make it stick out. Also, talk about things on a “relational” level…where are you from? Do you like sports? What team do you like? Any hobbies? Be a human…not a business card.

8) Get an idea of who they are

If there are people you want to meet, find out a bit about them…not on a psycho-stalker level though! Do they have an odd name? How is it pronounced? Have they helped you succeed in any way at all such as a tip, tutorial, plugin, etc? Be prepared to thank them…sincerely. Most people love knowing what they’ve done has helped someone in some way. It’s about the easiest way to break the ice there is and can build a connection much faster.

During the conference

9) Step up and speak up

This may be the most difficult hurdle for you to overcome. When you get past this, though, your conference-going experience will completely change and you’ll never view conferences the same. Trust me…it happened to me.

P.T. Barnum once said, “You know I had rather be laughed at than not to be noticed at all.” Step up..speak up…lean over and say something…don’t interrupt, but jump in conversations when appropriate. Giving and receiving business cards is fine, but listen and at least act interested…people like to feel interesting!

10) Take notes

Sure, you’re going to take notes during sessions, but some of the most important notes you’ll take will be on the backs of those business cards you just took. Don’t necessarily take notes in front of the person, but when you find a moment jot down some tidbits about them. Did someone have a family? What were their names? Were they about to change careers? Use these tidbits to reach back out to them later after the conference..again, not in a psycho-stalker way…but in a sincere “I’m not trying to sell you something” way.

11) Social networks

Many conferences make heavy use of twitter and hashtags. Some conferences have their own social networks. Whatever is being used…use it. Use it before, during, and after the conference. If people see your tweets, posts, pics, etc then your name will stick out to them…again making it easier to break the ice. Retweet people, respond, and be social…don’t just lob random tweets out and expect interaction.

12) Current profile pics

This is something I’ve seen a few people do at conferences that’s simple yet effective to do. Just change your social profile pic on twitter, Google+, etc each morning of the conference so people can see exactly what you look like. They’ll see your tweets and will easily be able to pick you out of a crowd if they run into you! So leave the 50 gallon pink cowboy hat at home.

13) Be quotable

Okay, so you’re using social networks and perhaps your pic looks exactly like you. All of that is fine and dandy, but being quotable, retweetable, shareable, etc is often the quickest way to stand out at a conference. Perhaps you simply post a stat or insight from a session that other people love and start retweeting & sharing. They probably heard it too, but you just saved them from having to wear out their fingers posting it also.

The first time I attended the ExactTarget Connections conference (which is awesome by the way), I posted a small tweet about a feature request I was hoping they would launch. During the keynote, the COO of ExactTarget showed my tweet in front of the crowd of about 1,500 and called me out. At first, I had the “oh shoot, what did I tweet?!” feeling. But that mention in the keynote opened a lot of doors for me during the rest of the conference…all because of one little tweet.

As you start getting retweeted & shared, your name starts becoming more and more recognizable. Maybe you whipped up a list of twitter & Google+ links for all of the speakers…people at conferences often eat this sort of thing up and will share it in a heartbeat. Be useful and quotable.

14) Grub together

Don’t eat alone. Don’t make excuses. Your smartphone can wait. Sit with people you don’t know and strike up a conversation. Who knows who you’ll rub elbows with. If everyone is on their own for dinner and you don’t know anyone, just hit up twitter to head out with others who are in the same boat as you…there ARE others. My longest-lasting connections have been made this way. It works!

After the conference

15) Put those business cards to use…tactfully

So the conference is over and hopefully you’ve had a blast learning tons, meeting new people, and all that fun stuff. Now you have a bag full of swag and a gazillion business cards. What do you do with the business cards? I can tell you what not to do with them…don’t hit the people up and immediately try and sell them your product or service. You’ll just get lost in the blah blah blah of everyone else contacting them right after the conference.

What I like to do is gather the business cards of people I want to remain in contact with and then try and connect with them on LinkedIn, twitter, Google+, etc. If I add them on LinkedIn, I always include a personal message about it being nice to meet them and then try to include something funny or memorable from when we met at the conference. When I met Matt Cutts for the first time, it wasn’t in a crowded line with everyone else…it was in a lobby hallway with about three other people. I mentioned how relieved I was that he (as the head of spam at Google) had no idea who I was! He got a good laugh out of it and I mentioned it later on twitter…to which he replied. I wasn’t picking his brain for tips or asking why Panda hates me…I just had fun with it..and so did he.

Other tips

Here are some other great resources for tips on networking at conferences:

BlueGlass’ 7 Ways to Network and Be Social at Conferences
Todd Malicoat’s 15 Ways to Be a SEO Conference Douchebag
Todd Malicoat’s SEO Conference Tips & Tricks
Jim Boykin’s Conference Tips and Conversation Starters
Lynn Terry’s post on Attending Live Events with an Objective in Mind

Bonus tips

Do you have some tips you’ve picked up from going to conferences? Please share them in the comment section below!

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