So you’re headed to your first (or 2nd, or 3rd) tech conference. Congrats! Conferences are a great place to meet people, learn new things and add a ton of value to your company or the organization you’re representing. But it can also be a little intimidating, overwhelming or just plain confusing.
I’m not here to pretend like I’m a conference expert. I haven’t closed a angel round during an event or signed a dozen customers over a weekend. I’m still working up to that level. But in the past seven months I’ve been to four different tech conferences in four different states and have cut my teeth a bit on the conference circuit:
- Ad Revenue (New York)
- Blogworld New Media Expo (Las Vegas)
- South by Southwest (Austin)
- Ad:Tech (San Francisco)
I’ve been lucky enough to have a great team with me including my CEO John Ramey and my coworker Ryan Hupfer who showed me the ropes and gave me great pointers. I want to share some of the things I’ve learned with other folks want to get the inside scoop.
1) Begin with the end in mind.
What do you want to get out of this conference? More downloads of your app? Buzz about your upcoming launch? Funding? A hire? A cofounder? When you are clear about exactly what you’re looking for, it makes it that much easier to actually find it.
In my mind, the number one reason to go to a conference is to meet interesting people, build new relationships, deepen existing ones and learn about “on the ground” info that you wouldn’t otherwise find elsewhere.
2) Act like a gracious host.
This is a great tip for becoming more social: act like the host. Introduce yourself to people who are standing around – as if it was your party / conference. Be nice to everyone, treat people with respect and try to be of service. It’s ok to spend more time with some people than others, but focus on giving everyone some attention. And don’t be afraid to say hi to anyone – you might just be who they’re looking for.
3) Go old school.
A lot of noise has been made about Bump and Hashable and other networking mobile apps. It’s true that these things are nifty and can facilitate the “let’s stay in touch” aspect of conference networking. But I believe everyone should still have a business card. Make it nice looking and use thick cardstock – I highly recommend moo cards as your provider here. Give people multiple touch points to remember you by – give out business cards.
4) Use the “two pocket” rule.
One of the things that people struggle with when using business cards is the actual giving out of the cards. It’s amazing how many more experienced people will fumble with a big stack of cards that are mixed with their own and other people’s cards. Find two pockets for yourself (I use the two back pockets in my jeans) and put your cards in one of them, and the cards you get in the other.
5) Lobby >> Panels.
Spend your time in the lobby and not in the panels. Most conferences bill themselves as “places to learn about cutting edge techniques and strategies” but honestly, most panels / workshops / speakers are just not worth it. Everything important is recorded or blogged about and you can read on that stuff later. Pick a few key panels that you want to attend (perhaps because you want to meet the kinds of people who are interested in this topic) and spend the rest of the time meeting cool folks (who are mostly hanging out in the lobbies!)
6) Share your learnings.
Not everyone gets to go to these cool conferences, (you for instance, up until recently), so give back to the community by sharing what you learned. Whether that’s through live-tweeting, blogging, sharing lessons with your coworkers over lunch or something else, I think it’s valuable for both you and others to capture and share the things you learned at the conference.
7) Take care of yourself.
Most people push themselves too hard at conferences and hit some major walls physically/mentally toward the end. They call it “South by SARS” for a reason =). Drink plenty of water, don’t eat too much random junk food that is inevitably doled out in very convenient locations and get enough sleep.
8] Follow up!!!
Grab that stack of business cards you dutifully collected during the conference and make sure to follow up with people. I usually separate my stack in 3 – people I don’t care to talk to, people I’d like to stay in touch with, and people I made a strong connection with.
I do nothing with the first stack, add people from the second stack to Linkedin and send them a lightly personalized form email, and send the last group a really personalized email and an offer to meet up in person again whenever we have a chance.
This is a super critical step and it’s best done the first few days after the conference. Not enough people do it and it’s a shame.
All in all, going to tech conferences can be a lot of fun, a great learning opportunity and a chance to make connections that add great value to your business and personal life. What lessons have YOU learned about conferences / events that you’d like to share? Add it in the comments!
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