Neil has a really great article on attending conferences, go check it out. This post is just my thoughts on some of his points.
As a conference organizer (our 36 events, and Ignite and some other stuff I want to do) it’s funny how many people don’t follow these guidelines, that to me (even as a conference attendee) are so obvious.
Many of the points are tenets of what we’ve build 360Conferences around even.
I’m not going to include Neils opinions on these items, give his blog some traffic and read them.
Have business cards – I’m torn here. I HATE business cards. Not the idea, but the execution. I’m trying out DUB (I’m jwilker on DUB BTW), which so far seems like a good option. Poken are an interesting approach too, but they’re a bit large for a keychain fob. Business cards suck, they get washed, you end up with a stack, and unless you’re diligent and make notes on them right away, you often forget the person attached. AND you then have to manually enter them into your address book/CRM. I suggest checking out DUB, or buying a poken, supposedly there’s business poken now, but whatever! I like my Ninja.
Come up with an elevator pitch – Agree. I suck at them, and short of “I plan conferences” I’m always at a loss, but Neil is right, and no one (myself included) wants to stand around for 20 minutes while you explain what you do.
Knowledge is power – It is. We pride ourselves on our events being worthwhile both in the sessions and in the halls. But don’t skip the sessions, we bring our A game in selecting speakers. They’re top notch, awesome people, with crazy knowledge who want to share. It’s worth sitting in and seeing what they’ve got.
Kind of a hedge, but the hallways rock too! You won’t find them empty, ever. Someone is always holding court (usually Sim) helping people with problem code, talking about code, etc. Some one is always working over VPN, etc.
Don’t be a networking whore – If you judge success by the number hands shaken or biz cards collected, you’re doing it wrong. No one will remember you, you won’t remember them, and worst, someone will see what you’re doing, and then no on will want to talk to you. In talking to people it’s all about Quality over quantity. Here’s where I really really agree with Neil. He lists key groups you should try to talk to; speakers of course, your competition, and the organizers of the event.
Talk to the organizers. Not just because we’re lonely, which we sometimes are, but because believe it or not, the good ones know everyone there. I’ve lost count of the times Tom and I have freaked an attendee out, but remembering their name from the last conference they attended, etc. They realize we know them, and smile and say thanks, after the initial shock. We ask how they’ve been, what they’ve been up to etc. We may not remember every name, but we remember every face.
One thing Tom and I do is send an email to attendees, telling them, to come to us if they have a specific goal for the conference, people they really want to meet, groups they’re interested in. Tom and I will either do an email intro, or simply walk that person over to another and introduce them to each other. It means a lot for us to be able to do that.
Don’t eat lunch with your friends – This exact point is why some people don’t speak at our events. We’ve had potential speakers tell us, “Don’t offer food, pay the speakers. We’ll go eat with our friends somewhere” We don’t want that. Maybe it’s the outcast in us, but cliques suck. Sure events allow people to reconnect who might not see each other except at conferences, but don’t be exclusionary, meet new people. If you just want to be in your private social circle, form a club and have meetings. Conferences are as much about meeting new people as anything else. Plus usually (not always) our food isn’t that bad :)
Walk the floor – We don’t have big expo halls, and hope we never do. 1 we want the sponsors where the attendees are, not in their own room, and 2. We don’t need booth babes, and hawkers, and gimmicks, and don’t think our sponsors do either. A six foot table, monitor and computer seems to work. As an attendee I’ll say I’ve never gone to a booth just because it was pretty or flashy.
But I agree with Neil, not all sponsors are gonna bombard you with salesy crap, the good ones will just chat with you, and if there’s business in there, it’ll work out, but you’ll both be better off for having met, that’s for sure. You never know when you’ll need something someone might have been selling.
Take someone out to dinner – Tom and I don’t do this enough, but we really enjoy it when we do. Lunch or dinner, it’s nice to just enjoy a meal with someone. Technically we take all attendees out for dinner each night, but dinner is in, and it’s a bit impersonal :)
One of the best times, was the last 360|iDev in March 0’09. After we closed up Wednesday, said goodbye to everyone, etc, those not rushing off to airports or homes got together for dinner. There was about 20 of us, and it was great! We chatted about polar bears, Canada, the UK, ‘talking like an american’, etc it was just a good time, there was no sales or schilling going on it was just fun. I hope we can do more of that.
Attend the after parties – We make this one easy :) They’re right in the main conference area, or a short walk away. As fun as WWDC was, a dozen competing parties a night, where the purpose is nothing more than “have the best party” isn’t fun. We like everyone to be together, talking, drinking, having rootbeer floats, and in general enjoying each other’s company.
Don’t forget to follow up – This is more for the attendees :) We follow up of course to all attendees and sponsors (usually) and keep active in between shows, but I agree, it’s important to reach back out when you get home, solidify the contact. I hate when, 6 months later, I’m like “Ah damn I never followed up with her on X after the conference” and then I have to feel like a tool hoping she remembers me and the topic.
Neil’s blog is a good read for sure and this topic obviously resonates with me and us as a conference company. I’m glad we’re not the only ones that see that values of conferences as more than just show up to see old friends.