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What to do AT the Conference: Rocking SXSW and PubCon

Submitted by on Monday, 14 March 2011No Comment

In my last post I shared tips about what to do in preparation for a conference.  Planning who to meet, knowing what you want to achieve and doing your research.  In this post I want to focus on things to do at the conference to help you achieve your goals.

In the 5 years I’ve been speaking at conferences I’ve seen a lot and experienced a lot.  The goal of attending a conference (or speaking at a conference) is to turn one opportunity into many opportunities.  Ask yourself, how do I get more out of this conference.

A friend of mine, Saul Colt, is really, really good at this.  He often comes up with extremely creative ways to get attention for the businesses he works with.  He is usually dressed as a human billboard, and even had custom running shoes made with his company branding.  He also plans extremely clever marketing events.  Last year at SXSW he created a newsletter every night for his company and hired people to slide them under the doors of all of the downtown hotel rooms.  They got kicked out of most hotels, and I’m sure this year security at the hotel will be on the alert, but he got some pretty amazing buzz for it the first year.

While you may not have a business to promote, or want to be a human billboard, there are a number of things that you can do to get the most out of the conferences that you attend.

Here are 10 things that you can do AT the conference to make a bigger splash

1) Create Conference Specific Materials

I mentioned this in my last post, but it can really set you apart if you create specific materials for the conference.  Rather than handing out generic promotional materials, create something different for the conference.  If you can make your material – business cards, fliers, etc more relevant for the conference you will get better results.

2) Balance Breadth and Depth in Networking

There is a fine line in networking between hanging out for too long with the same people and not spending enough time with anyone.  I’ve seen both fail (and I have been guilty of both at some times).  Spending too much time with a small group often happens naturally.  We meet people.  We like them.  We hang out with them.  The problem with this is that you aren’t meeting new people.  Don’t get sucked in to one specific crowd the whole time.  Get out of your comfort zone and branch out.

The opposite is also a problem.  You know, the drive-by networker who talks to you for 2 minutes, tells you what they do and then moves on to the next person.  Take some time to develop a deeper relationship with the people you meet.  Usually after a conference I have a stack of business cards, and there are some people who I can’t remember at all.  Make sure you are building quality relationships.

3) Ask Questions at Sessions

I learned this strategy by accident really early on.  I was at a local marketing conference, and I made it a point to ask a question at every keynote and session that I attended.  (NOTE: I didn’t just ask irrelevant questions, I made it a point to come up with smart and relevant ones).  I was amazed at how many people came up and introduced themselves to me because they began to recognize me as asking questions and thought I was worth connecting with.  I actually landed one of my first clients this way.  Asking questions at sessions is a GREAT way to get on the radar screens of both the speakers and the other attendees.

4) Be the FIRST to arrive and the LAST to leave

Seriously.  This matters.  Get there early and arrive late.  Spend as much time as you can at the conference.  Who cares if you are tired.  Sleep on the plane home.  There are  attendees who are night-owls and early-birds.  By making the morning and the evening rounds you will catch both of them.  The early bird and the owl both get worms in this case ;-)

5) Attend the social events

I said this in the last post, but you would be amazed at how much business happens at the night events.  Seriously.  This is your chance to build Know, Like and Trust.  You can have informal conversations and build friendships.  I have done some of my best business late into the night at a conference.  Just be careful how much you drink.

6) Don’t be afraid to skip a session if you are having a great conversation

I know some people who attend conferences are there primarily for the sessions and they try to stick to the schedule.  The problem is that even at the best conferences the sessions tend to be hit or miss.  If you are having a conversation with a relevant person, don’t worry about missing a session.  You can usually find the powerpoint online afterwards anyways.

7) Take the time to speak to each of the speakers after a session

Again, this is something that I learned early on.  Make the effort to introduce yourself to the speakers after each session.  I once did this and it actually resulted in a BIG JOB OFFER for me (I turned it down to start my own business).  Make it a point to find a relevant reason to connect with the speakers after a session.  The speakers are usually influential and know the other speakers and the conference organizers.  Make an effort to meet them.

8) If you are speaking or have a booth, promote it!!!

Last year I spoke at FMB in Brazil, which is a music festival similar to SXSW.  There are lots of bands playing at multiple venues each night.  After my keynote presentation a number of the bands stopped by the stage and gave me a copy of their CD and a listing of where they would be playing when.  This was really smart.  There were so many acts to see and I had no idea where to go.  By handing out specific information about their involvement I was able to attend their show.  I’ve also seen people do this to promote their panels and booths.

9) Know when to leave a conversation

OK, for those of you who know me, I totally suck at this.  I can’t end conversations.  BUT it is really important in networking to know when to leave a conversation.  Once you have met someone and talked for long enough to see if there may be value in a shared connection, you need to walk away.  Find a gracious way to end the conversation, or invite others in to it.  Don’t let yourself get trapped in a corner with one person (who often isn’t a really valuable connection).

10) Balance hanging out with people you know and meeting new people

This is also hard for me, but if you are at a conference for education or networking, you always want to meet new people and get new opinions.  It is sometimes easy to spend your time with the people you know and miss out on meeting new people.  At the same time you don’t want to ignore the people you know.  Last year at SXSW I ran in to a few people I knew from Cincinnati.  They both did business together in Cincinnati, and for the whole 3 hour party the two of them were in a corner talking.  Have that conversation at home.  Meet new people where you can.

11) First stop: A store

This is one of my most important conference tips.  There is nothing worse than trying to speak, network, learn or sell (if you have a booth) when you aren’t taking care of yourself.  My first stop at every show that is more than a day is a drug store.  I stock up on bottled water, refreshing drinks (I like Aloe Juice and Coconut water) and some snacks.  It is easy to get dehydrated at conferences and you will have long days.  Get what you need to stay at the top of your game.

12) Never eat alone

Meals are really great because you can go with a group of 5 – 10 and really get to know each person.  At the end of the meal you have a natural opportunity to stick with the group or go your own way.  I find that shared meals are among the BEST way to deepen relationships.  Make an effort to get a good group for meals.

13) Take Lots of Pictures

Take lots of pictures (not in a creepy way) and post them to your social networks after the conference.  The photos help you attach a name to a person and also give you something to share afterwards.

14) Don’t be afraid to buy people drinks/coffee/etc

A good friend of mine is very well liked and connected in the conference circuit.  At most of the events we attend he’ll open up a tab and liberally buy drinks for people.  I can’t tell you how many people remember him next year as “the guy who bought me a drink”.  This also opens the door for him if he needs a favor from someone down the road – they remember the drink that he bought them.  He’ll say that the $$ he spends in buying a few drinks has paid of 100 times in business.

15) Break through the noise

Seriously, there is lots going on at most of these conferences.  If you are a business you have to find something clever to break through the noise.  There is a company that has a booth at many industry shows that creates custom skateboards for each show, designed by a semi-famous artist.  EVERYONE wants one.  The catch?  They only give it to their customers.  I got one at a show a few years ago and as I walked around with it about 15 people asked me where I got it.  The skateboards drew people to their booth and showed that they really appreciate their customers.  Stand out and do something remarkable.

Anyone else have tips?

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