"I don't have time to go to conferences." "I went to a conference and all I got was a hangover and a pile of business cards." Have you ever found yourself saying either of those things (or something similar)? If so, you need to rethink your conference strategy. They can be very efficient ways to expand your knowledge, network, and business -- if you know how to work them properly.

Last week I attended Street Fight Summit West. Despite its name, it has nothing to do with combat; it's about the latest in hyper-local marketing, and effective geo-targeting, powered by technology. It's just one of many tech- and entrepreneurship-related conferences happening in 2018. Learning and networking are just two of the many reasons to get out of your office (and perhaps even your geography and comfort zone) this year. 

Although I've attended hundreds of conferences over the years (as a speaker, attendee, sponsor and exhibitor), certain time-tested principles still hold true -- Attend with a goal or two in mind, use your time wisely, and be open to new ideas and surprises.

1. Choose wisely. Review and speakers and agenda and choose a location where you might have other business to do. Reach out to your network and find out who else is attending. 

2. Set a clear objective before you go. Are you shopping for apps or looking for career opportunities? Be clear on what you want to get out of the day (or two or three).

3. If the event has an app, download it. Peruse the speakers and other attendees and send LinkedIn invites to the people who interest you. Plan which sessions you'll be attending and which sponsors you want to visit. 

4. Capitalize on random opportunities that crop up. For example, I ran into someone I met last year while waiting for a Lyft. We rode to and from the cocktail party and he may now be working with me on a new business proposal. 

5. Attend at least one session way out of your wheelhouse. And in all sessions, be sure to introduce yourself to the person sitting next to you. 

6. Take good notes and share them with your network. Tweeting and posting "words of wisdom" from speakers is a great way to demonstrate to your followers and clients that you're staying on top of trends.

7. Go to the cocktail parties and stay off your phone. Although talking to strangers is often awkward, you can use questions ranging from, "How are the meatballs?" to "What did you think of the last speaker?" to break the ice. If you see someone standing around looking lost, introduce yourself.

8. Follow-up, follow-up, follow-up. Some people still love paper business cards. You can use an app like CamCard to store them directly to your phone. I also bring along a few plastic snack bags whenever I go to a conference. I label them with a Sharpie so I know who falls into which category (e.g., great interview topic, potential client, etc.) Be sure to send notes or make LinkedIn connections as soon as you return (or even on the plane or train). The longer you go without contacting the people you met, the less likely you are to ever do it.

Conferences can still pay off -- you'll come back smarter and better connected (to the world and other people) if you find the right one to attend and make the most of it.

Published on: Feb 8, 2018
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