Too often, when companies research conferences to decide if they should attend, they only look at the program. While the program is probably the most important element to any conference, the value of an event extends far past the agenda. And in order to tap into all the value a conference can offer, you need to realize that you aren’t going to a conference just to learn. In fact, you need to realize that you’re going to a conference to play three roles:
1 – You are going to learn.
2 – You are going to network.
3 – You are going to create content.
Let’s look at each now:
Attending a conference to learn – This sounds like a no-brainer, of course you are attending a conference to learn, why else would you go? But the mistake that too many companies make is they send someone to attend the conference, typically an entry or mid-level employee, and tell them to take as much notes as possible. So that’s exactly what they do, and they don’t learn very much, because instead of paying attention to the speakers, they were too busy taking notes. So when they get back to the office and the boss asks what she learned at the event, she drops a pile of notes on the boss’ desk, which are then typed up and distributed to the team. Congrats, you just paid $2,000 for information you could have gotten from reading a few blogs!
When deciding who should attend an event, send the people that would most benefit from learning while there. Don’t send them so they can store as much information as possible to regurgitate to the team when they get back. Send them so THEY can learn, and explain to them that the event is for their benefit. I guarantee you that if they can focus on what they can learn from the conference, they’ll come back to the office with MUCH better information to share with the team, because they will have paid attention and actually LEARNED something. This is another reason why you send Social Media Managers and CMOs/Brand Managers vs ‘the marketing/social media guy’ you hired last week.
Networking while at a conference – Let’s be honest, many of us HATE to network. Especially if you’re an introvert like me. But with proper planning, the networking process can not only be a much smoother experience, it can be very beneficial to your company!
The first thing to do is start researching WHO will be at the event as soon as possible. Now the event itself probably won’t release a list of attendees, but for bigger events especially, there will typically be attendees interacting on social media sites prior to the event. Often, these attendees will be using a hashtag in association with the event (if they are on Twitter), which makes them even easier to find. Some events, like Blog World Expo, even have chats on Twitter in the weeks leading up to their events which is a fabulous way to make connections so that when you arrive at the conference, you already know some people!
Now as I said, I am an introvert, and I absolutely HATE networking. Seriously, I am really uncomfortable meeting and connecting with strangers. But when I attended SXSW last year, I had an amazing time and it was mostly due to the networking I did during the few days I was in Austin. Starting in January, I began seeing who was attending SXSW, and made a list of the people I wanted to connect with. Then I contacted these people and set up one-on-one meetings with them. It worked fabulously! In years past, I would have seen that a person I wanted to connect with would be attending, and just thought ‘oh well I am sure I will bump into them in the hallways, and I can say hi then!’ And then of course if I did see them, I never would introduce myself. But with this approach, I met them in a one-on-one setting, which was much more comfortable for me as an introvert, and it was a big reason why SXSW was such a success for me last year.
Now on the flipside, Blog World was a networking disaster for me, because I didn’t follow that same plan. I spent almost all of my time working on making sure that the Live #Blogchat during Blog World was a success (and it was!), that I didn’t focus as much on networking. So I had fewer meetings, and found myself seeing people I wanted to connect with in a crowd, and not feeling comfortable connecting with them. I know Lisa Petrilli advises these one-on-one meetings for introverts as a great way to network as well.
So with some prior planning, your conference experience can also lead to some valuable networking with potential clients, customers, and partners!
Creating content at a conference – This is where I think many companies totally miss the boat when it comes to attending conferences. There is SO much value that can be extracted from creating content at an event. You can take pictures, and then share those pictures with your audiences on your blog and Twitter followers. You can do recap posts with fellow attendees and especially conference organizers absolutely LOVE!
And a big advantage is, you can do interviews with speakers and attendees. Let’s say you work for an SEO firm that has a blog. You’re blogging every day about best SEO practices, but guess what, so is every other SEO firm. But let’s say you attend a Social Media event and Google’s Matt Cutts is speaking. If you could snag 5 mins with Matt to interview him about the state of SEO and then post that on your blog, do you think that MIGHT get your firm’s blog some new attention? Of course it would. And if you don’t have the ability to do a video interview, get a voice recorder (I use this one from Olympus) and do an audio interview. But if you have an iPhone, you should be able to do either a video or audio interview. Tom Martin has been creating amazing video interviews for years with just his iPhone.
Whenever I attend events I am always looking for ways to create additionally content, and if nothing else, I try to always do a recap post, to share what I learned and my impressions of the event. And let me tell you, these posts are very popular with event organizers, in fact when I arrive an event, they will often connect with me and ask me if I will be doing a recap post 😉
So there’s some ideas to help you get the most out of your next conference experience. Really, as high as fees and travel costs are these days, you can’t afford to just go to an event and take notes for 8 hours, then leave. But if you go realizing that you are there to learn, network, and create content, the overall value you get from your next conference can make the price you pay to get there, a bargain.