I attend and speak at professional events at least twice a month and typically return home energized with the latest industry trends and knowledge. Lately I also come back with many new and renewed relationships, simply by networking using social media. Social media tools empower me to accelerate networking, make higher-quality connections, and feel less awkward in the process. Not bad for an introvert!

Here are five tips to get the most from your conference time and dollars:

1. Join the pre-party

As social media is more widely embraced, online conversation starts well before a conference convenes. If the event you're attending has a Twitter hashtag (#), LinkedIn group, or other interactive discussion, join it. Follow the conversation beforehand to see who else will be there, set up pre-conference meetings, find out which topics are hot, and judge the overall traction the conference is gaining (or not) among influencers.

When I used Twitter before a conference for the first time I "met" half a dozen people in advance. For instance, I chatted with David Ingram, author of 15 Bedtime Stories that Keep Entrepreneurs Up At Night, who gave me a signed copy of his book when we later connected in person.

2. Vote with your feet

Most of us study a conference agenda and select sessions ahead of time that pique our interest. But what happens when a panel kicks off and you quickly realize the topic or viewpoint is pretty dull? Use social media to eavesdrop on digital conversations happening elsewhere. You might discover an energetic exchange that's more relevant to your business and switch.

3 – Make better friends, faster

Through social media you can research the interests and backgrounds of contacts you feel will be most valuable to meet. When you schedule a time to grab a meal or talk between sessions, your time spent together will be more meaningful and productive because you will already understand your common interests and experiences.

At one recent conference there was an unofficial "Meetup" for those of us who had been "talking" over social media. It was one of the most satisfying, fun, and productive networking events I had ever attended. In the past, I would walk away with a few business cards and then only keep up with one or two people. Today, I connect with dozens of people and easily stay in touch (on social media) long after the event, which in turn nurtures more meaningful deals, partnerships, and friendships.

4. Have fun

Think of social media as taking notes, with the advantage of having dozens or even hundreds of others also taking notes and sharing them with you. You pick up tidbits from sessions you could not otherwise attend, which can in turn spark discussions and connections. I have seen attendees use social media to interact directly with speakers. You can chime in with your point of view, agree or disagree, and have a robust discussion.

5. Have follow-up "coffee"

You can maintain new connections virtually, without filling up your already busy calendar. Even without "real-world" contact, social media allows you to keep up with what's going on with the people in your network, and stay on top of trends they're following. The information they shared will be more valuable because you know where it's coming from.