We’ve all done it – signed up for a big and expensive marketing or SEO event. We’ve taken a week off of client work, traveled thousands of miles, and come home with a bag full of giveaways and notes. But when the dust settles, we’re left wondering what we really got for our investment of time and effort. Was attending the event really worth the overall investment?
The good news is that it’s easy to make it so. Your plan starts with how you choose the events you attend, what you do before you get there, how you act and spend your time during the events, and what you to do handle follow up. It’s not for the faint of heart. But if you’re committed to moving your business forward this year and plan to attend at least one conference, here’s my strategy for getting the most value from every conference you attend.
Why are you attending events?
There are a hundred ways to move the needle on your business, especially when you’re in the online space. From running Facebook ads to joining a multi-thousand dollar mastermind group, you may not know it, but you have more options available to you than you can ever take advantage of. So our whole discussion today starts with the question: why are you attending events in the first place?
To answer this question effectively, you need to approach it from two points of view. First, it’s important to understand your own personal and professional goals. People attending events can have any number of goals, but here’s a closer look at why I’ve personally attended events and the reasons that I most frequently hear:
- To network and meet potential clients
- To network and meet my peers
- To connect with mentors or teachers
- To identify businesses to collaborate with or contract to
- For exposure to the latest trends and thinking
- To learn about a specific subject
- To get a certification
- To hit the tradeshow floor and see what products are hot on the market
- To study the marketing on the tradeshow floor
- To see what my competitors are up to
- To speak and increase my profile as a thought leader
- To socialize with other people in my space
- To build my personal brand
Depending on the goal, most of these can be accomplished in other ways. A direct email marketing campaign could help you land new clients. You could network with your peers over LinkedIn or via a local MeetUp. You can follow key blogs or discussion groups to get a handle on the latest trends. The two things that set shows apart in this regard are scale and the multiple goal effect.
The second perspective that you need to consider is the context of trade shows. Shows let you achieve any of these goals at a scale that’s much larger than you can do in almost any other venue. Sure, you can meet potential clients in many places. But if you choose the right show, you can get in front of hundreds or even thousands of potential clients within just a few days. You can generate dozens of warm leads with relatively little effort and cost. The multiple goal effect is a similar concept: trade shows allow you to achieve multiple goals at once. You can network, learn new skills, reach potential customers, and see what your competitors are doing all in one place. That’s an investment that’s hard to beat.
Triaging events you’re interested in
Chances are good that both your travel budget and your time budget are limited. Unless you’re on the professional speaking circuit, you’re likely going to limit the number of shows that you attend each year. The trick is to be so clear on your goals for the conference or event that it’s easy to evaluate which ones are the best investments. Here are some questions that you should ask about every show you’re attending:
- How much will it cost me? Factor in registration, hotel, travel, food, and miscellaneous. Give yourself a 10% smudge in your budget to work with since things are usually more expensive in the major cities where events are held such as NYC, SFO, or Las Vegas.
- Who is this show geared toward? Will I be meeting movers and shakers that can advance my career? Other practitioners I can learn from and potentially work with? Identifying potential clients that could be worth thousands in revenues? How does this audience sync up with my primary goals? In other words, are the people that I will meet at this show distinct enough from my existing circle to influence and access to warrant the cost? Or will it provide me an unparalleled opportunity to deepen our connection?
- Who is attending the show? Be sure to evaluate speakers, panelists, trade show participants, sponsoring companies, and registered attendees if that information is available. Get very specific: what people and companies represent priority targets for you in terms of your goals? Can you come up with a list of ten potential customers, collaborators, or mentors that you could approach while you’re there?
- Consider other logistical concerns – how far away is the conference? How long is it? Does the timing conflict with major client projects, family obligations, holidays, or other challenges that would make it difficult to follow up? The best conferences are the ones that aren’t difficult simply by virtue of timing or location considerations.
- What takeaways would you need to get in order for this show to “pay for itself?” One client, one major connection, business worth X thousands of dollars, or exposure to a new technology that could lead to a new line of business for you?
- What knowledge, tactics, and trends would you be exposed to that would level up your business? Are the ideas you’d have access to the ones that you need the most?
- Is the conference at the right level, which is to say: some conferences are for beginners, and others are for seasoned pros. Others are a mishmash with something for everyone (and arguably, limited value for most). Does this fall at the right level for you compared to your needs?
- Can you showcase yourself or your business in an interesting way? Does the event need speakers, trade show participants, or people to do hot seats or short spotlights that would give you a chance to play a bigger role? Is there an opportunity to pitch investors or get short advisory sessions with world-class mentors?
In the balance, you should review these questions and anything else that comes up for you as mission critical. The focus should be at the end of the day, you’ve selected a conference that helps you achieve your biggest goal or make reasonable progress toward your top two or three business priorities. When you evaluate the conference objectively, from who is going to what info you’ll learn, you find yourself getting excited and believing that you’ll see a reasonable ROI. From here on out, I’m going to assume that you’ve selected a great event and help you make the most of it.
How to handle registration and event prep
When you register for the event, check to see if there are any discounts available. It’s amazing how many people end up paying full price only to find out that there were early bird specials or group memberships that would save them hundreds or thousands of dollars. Check the registration page, and Google the conference name and “discount code” before committing. It’s a quick thing, and the savings alone may change the formula for your ROI calculations.
When you register, make sure to give your full name, company name, and title. If you’re asked for more information such as a logo, email, or website, provide it. Chances are good that they may be shared with other attendees which is a great opportunity for networking. Don’t be afraid to reach out to the general help address and ask about opportunities for networking or to feature your company in the program, etc. Ask, because you never know what the organizers have in store.
Once you’ve gotten registered, there are a few things you want to get a handle on as soon as possible:
Who is attending: Try to get a list of the speakers, panelists, companies exhibiting, and other attendees. This will let you see who is in the room, and start to develop a hit list of anyone you want to set up meetings with or try to network with while you’re on site.
Pre-event networking opportunities: Many conferences are incorporating social media hashtags or private groups on LinkedIn to allow attendees to connect. Taking advantage of these is a smart move that can give you a leg up on the clamor of people. Introduce yourself, reach out to specific attendees that are of interest, and get to know the vibe of the conference.
Panel schedule and other events schedule: Review the panel schedule to identify priority sessions you want to attend. I like to employ a three-tier system that identifies priority one (can’t miss), priority two (would like to go if nothing else is happening at that time) and everything else (take a pass). This lets you begin to sketch out a rough schedule in advance around which you can build in other things: meetings, informal chats, even escaping to see a bit of the city.
The tradeshow floor: If the conference features a tradeshow, it’s helpful to understand who is exhibiting and whether this is a place that’s worth spending time. If so, map out a route that lets you see all the important things.
With these items in hand, there are a few specific steps you can take to have more fruitful meetings:
- Create a list of priority targets.
- Reach out to set up a time to chat during the event, with a focus on how you can be helpful to them.
- Get an introduction if you have contacts in common. LinkedIn is the easiest way to find that out.
- Determine how in your schedule to create the opportunity to connect with anyone you’re dying to meet, but can’t get a quick connection to.
What to do during and after the event
If you’ve made a good plan before the event, your actual time at the marketing or SEO conference should be a pleasure. You’ll be enjoying networking meetings, learning new info, and showcasing your firm. Keep to your plan, and be open to spontaneity. The most important thing you can do during the event is organize your list of contacts and opportunities for follow up.
- Keep a notebook or device you can take notes on to make specific notes that will help you remember people. Personally, I track name, company, and some context on meeting that will help me remember who someone is. E.G. “Brad Smith from Google, we met over lunch at The Steakhouse and discussed mobile marketing strategies.”
- Enter potential contacts into a list for follow up on LinkedIn. Connecting on LinkedIn during an event itself isn’t smart, as you lose the opportunity to thoughtfully follow up after an event and start the reconnecting process. Save that as your entrée to continuing the conversation moving forward.
- Keep a specific file of materials that you want to follow up on. Events are a great opportunity to find out about products and services, and to hunt down examples of marketing that you like. By keeping a file, you’ll be able to sort through it after the event to find inspiration for your own team.
Attending events can be one of the most successful ways to build a career in marketing or SEO. It’s important to be organized in the way that you choose events, how you prepare, and to be systematic in your follow up after events. Taking the time to handle these aspects well ensures that you’ll get a great ROI on your trip. What events are you planning to attend this year and what are your big goals coming out of each conference?