Marketing conference season is upon us, and that means it’s time to do some networking. Every conference you go to someone’s going to say, “You know, the real value of these things is in the conversations you have at the bar afterward.” Personally, I’ve learned a ton of stuff from the actual speaker presentations at conferences (and I hope at least some people have learned things from mine), but there’s definitely a serious added benefit to the after-hours networking.
What’s In It for Me?
Some people thrive on meeting new people, and the lure of a big, jolly social gathering (especially with an open bar) is enough to get those people out on the floor. For the rest of us, the thought of going to a party where we may not know another living soul – especially on top of a full day of conference-going, and especially when we’re traveling – just sounds exhausting! But building your professional connections gives you a wider network of people to pull from when you’re looking for a job or need to hire someone. It gives you a built-in audience for a lot of your coolest content projects; people you already know so you can feel comfortable asking, “Can I get a link or a share of this cool thing?” Not to mention the more you network, the more likely you are to know someone the next time you go to one of these events.
I’ve been going to multiple conferences a year for the last seven years or so. My network has gotten to the point that at PubCon last year, a co-worker said to me, “Wow, you know everyone!” (Disclaimer: I do not, in fact, know everyone). Here are some tips I’ve assembled through the years.
- Bring a power strip. Crowds form around outlets, and not only will bringing a power strip increase the odds you’ll have a spot to plug in the ol’ lappy, it will also make you a hero to the battery-starved attendees queuing up at the only outlet in the hallway. While you’re all plugged in and charging, strike up a convo.
- Do what you need to do to keep from getting too tired. Talking to new people takes a lot more energy than talking to people you already know. Whether it’s a 20-minute nap before dinner (I recommend following up with a quick brush of the teeth for an added pick-me-up) or spending 10 minutes every now and then hiding in the bathroom playing games on your phone to recharge (I’ve done it), do what you can to keep your energy and spirits up.
- Put a big stack of your business cards in your conference badge holder as soon as you get it. That way you’ll have them at all conference events (and you can put the cards you collect in there, too).
- Bring a phone charger with you to everything you can. You’ll have your phone all nice and charged up, and may make a new friend who needs a charge.
- Grab a conference buddy to make the rounds with. It’s less intimidating talking to new people with a buddy. Plus, if you see someone you’ve met before but can’t remember his or her name, you can cover by having that person introduce him or herself. Say,“Have you met my friend, so and so?” and the mystery person should take it from there. GOLD.
- Make yourself meet new people. It’s great to reunite with your friends from previous conferences, and it can be deceptively easy to spend all your conference time with people you’ve already met (I’ve done it). Re-establishing and building these existing connections is important for shoring up your network, but make sure you take time to get to know some new people, as well.
- If all else fails, get in a line. The people in the food or bar line are just as bored as you – talk to them, rather than getting out your phone. It’s a great way to have a bite-sized conversation that can continue as you eat your food/drink your drinks/put on your swag.
- Follow up. Add people to Google+ circles and Twitter lists based on the conference at which you met them. As much as possible, try to do these social adds as you go, so you’re not trying to do it all at once post-conference. Solidify your relationships by engaging your new connections on social media after you get home.
- Use social media with the conference hashtag to discuss the conference and get visibility. Follow that same hashtag to find people who are saying interesting things; make a point of seeking them out at the after-show events. Talking to the speakers is a great way to learn things, but there are a lot of other really smart people at these shows – look them up!
- “Anybody up for dinner?” tweets always work. People need dinner (this means, as tempting as it is, your “recharge time” should not involve dining alone). Alternatively, keep an eye out for other people’s dinner-related tweets and see if you can snag an invite to a group meal.
- Reach out beforehand to any of your followers who are going to the same event, especially if you’ve never met in real life. Arrange to meet up at a specific time, place or event. Your online buddy just became a real-life friend!
Words of Caution
- Be tactful. Make sure you’re not crashing someone’s team dinner or invite-only event.
- Men: women want to network, too! Don’t assume a friendly woman who strikes up a conversation at the bar is flirting with you. You can help level up our industry by making conferences a safe place for women to network.
- Don’t mob the keynote speaker. The 15 minutes you spend waiting to ask Matt Cutts a question (which he will probably answer with frustrating vagueness) could be spent making an on-the-ground connection who could help you out in the future with a link, a share or a favor. Matt Cutts is not going to do those things for you. Plus, let the poor guy eat a sandwich in peace for once.
- Don’t begin conversations with a request for free advice. If there’s a specific problem you’ve come to the conference to try to solve, get into the groove of a conversation with someone first, then introduce the topic when it feels natural. People want to relax and have interesting conversations, not dispense advice.
Networking can feel fake or intimidating, but everyone at conferences, even “big name” speakers, are all just people. Take some time to engage them not just about their work, but about their lives. You might walk away with something even stronger than a new professional connection: a new friend. And if you see me at a conference, come say hi. I'm nice.
Ruth Burr is a data-driven Inbound Marketing Lead at Moz.