Don't think you can spare the time from the office for an industry conference? Let me offer this counterexample.
I recently carved out two full days to attend Content Marketing World in Cleveland, a top digital marketing conference that takes place right after Labor Day. While that's typically one of the busiest weeks for my company, Masthead Media, I definitely felt the conference was worth my time--and I ended up accomplishing more during those 48 hours than I ever do during my best-ever, nose-to-the-grindstone periods in the office.
That's because in addition to learning about the latest industry trends and case studies from high profile thought leaders--I managed to fit in more targeted networking than I typically do in a month. That's 30 days worth of lunches, new business meetings, prospective vendor and partner sessions, and face time with industry leaders over the course of just two days.
Put another way--attending an industry conference can be the most productive time you ever spend at work, even if you're thousands of miles from the office.
What I quickly realized, however, is that just showing up and sitting through a few seminars isn't going to result in a networking boon--or new business for your company. Use these 9 strategies to focus and maximize every hour at your next conference.
1. Make Contact Before You Arrive
If I had waited until I arrived at Content Marketing World, trying to network effectively in a crowd of 36,000 attendees might have been overwhelming. Content Marketing World provided an app that listed everyone in attendance, along with their companies and titles. That allowed me to narrow down the people I was trying to reach, and send them a LinkedIn request in the weeks before the conference. I got a strong response, and ended up having 13 mini meetings with current and prospective business contacts at CMW.
2. Stake the Perfect Meeting Spot
I didn't know the conference space well before I arrived, so my first few meetings were held standing (slightly awkwardly!) at the entrance of the convention center or near the snack buffet line. I quickly learned to leave my last session a little early so I could secure a table in a quiet area. That allowed for longer, more focused meetings--and a better rate of "return" on my follow up after the show.
3. Pick and Choose Your Parties
...or skip them altogether. In order to save my energy for the conference itself, I made the decision not to attend any events that took place after 7 PM in order to get a good night's rest. While you never know who you might meet after hours, my most effective learning and networking happens during daylight hours. Honestly assess your own prime hours and go into the conference with a game plan.
4. Sync Up with Speakers
The most influential people at the conference are very likely the people leading breakout sessions. While they're sure to be busy before their presentation, ask (prior to the conference) for a few minutes of their time following their session. That will give you the chance to establish a relationship and gain additional valuable insight into the conference topics.
5. Swap Sessions
Just because you signed up for a particular panel or breakout session doesn't mean you have to attend it (or stay any longer than feels valuable to you). Find out if the conference permits last minute changes based on your interest or feedback from other attendees.
6. Fly Solo
Sure, it can be a little intimidating to attend a conference on your own, but I found I was far more motivated to connect with new people and focus on learning than if I'd been with a co-worker. Being alone also gave me total flexibility to change my schedule on the fly and make appointments around my schedule--no compromises needed.
7. Socialize Your Experience
Don't forget to use the official conference #hashtag! Posting insights as you go is a great way to remember the best takeaways from the event, and searching the event hashtag in real time can help you discover content and happenings from other attendees. Plus, you'll probably build your following throughout the week, and build on continued efforts to establish your personal brand.
8. Don't Take Notes
Or, at the very least, don't copy the presentations word for word. Content Marketing World made every single presentation--from every single session-- available to its attendees online directly following the conference. That enabled me to focus on the speaker and key insights, rather than scribbling away endless notes. Inquire before you arrive if your conference will do the same, or if you can get decks directly from presenters.
9. Don't Eat Lunch - or Any Meal - Alone
It's a popular networking strategy to never eat lunch alone, and one that's especially important during industry conferences. Take advantage of having a critical mass of like-minded professionals in one place, and make every meal a gathering with a new contact or group. As tempting as room service may seem, it's better to skip the party of one and meet up while everyone is in a social mindset.