How to Network at a Conference
One of the most valuable takeaways from any conference is the new relationships and contacts made through networking. Understanding how to network at a conference, and going in with the right strategy can be a gamechanger for your business or career.
To get the most out of the conferences and meetings you attend, it’s important to plan your strategy well ahead of the actual event.
These 21 tips that will help you make the most of your conference networking opportunities before, during and after the event.
1. Have Clear Goals and Objectives
Conferences tend to move at the “speed of social” these days. That is to say, people are moving from one conversation, session, or event to another, quickly. It’s easy to get lost in the flow of things. Identify clear objectives of sessions to attend, who you hope to meet, and what you want to take away, prior to the event.
2. Stay In The Same Hotel as the Conference is Being Held
Networking events, dinners, and activities will likely be held there or nearby. In addition to this, most of the speakers, panelists, etc will be staying there also. A “chance” meeting in the lobby, gym, hotel Starbucks, or elsewhere can help “break the ice” and lead to additional opportunities for a conversation later in the conference.
One last item to think about… If you’re anything like me, you occasionally run late for at least one of the opening sessions or keynotes. Staying in the same hotel as the conference can be a lifesaver on those occasions.
3. Go Prepared
If there are specific attendees, vendors or speakers you hope to meet and talk to, do your research and prepare well ahead of time. Read their latest book, blog posts, etc, and search for the latest news on their company.
Connect with them on Twitter and follow/engage in conversations up to, and while at the conference. Have your initial questions or a comment prepared ahead of time.
4. Send an Email or Tweet Prior to the Event
Use the same approach mentioned above. Let them know that you value and have an interest in their work and that you would like to take a minute or two at the conference to introduce yourself.
Demonstrate that you’re aware of the value of their time and be clear that you only want to take a minute or two.
One of the biggest mistakes people can make in their very first contact is to try and schedule a lunch or dinner meeting. Break the ice first and lead with value. If you do this, you’re much more likely to get some follow-up time and a longer meeting if needed.
5. Avoid the Helicopter Approach
Many times at conferences I see people begin to approach someone they would like to meet only to stop 5-10 feet away and go into “hover mode”. Nothing makes a person more nervous than the possibility that a stalker is nearby. Seeing you in “hover” mode, the person you hope to meet will most likely already be formulating their exit strategy. Complete your approach and simply introduce yourself.
6. Be Ready with Conversation Starters
If at some point the conversation gets “stuck” always have a few conversation starters to get it going again. Here are a few examples.
- “Where are you from?”
- “What interested you in (Fill In The Blank) conference?”
- “How long have you been with (Fill In The Blank) company?”
- “Where were you before joining (Fill In The Blank) company?”
- “What has been your favorite sessions/speakers so far?”
- “Will you be attending other conferences this year?”
- “What are you hoping to get out of this conference?”
- “I’m trying to improve (Fill In The Blank) — what are you doing, any tips?
- “What sessions/speakers are you looking forward to?”
7. Be Approachable
Don’t spend all your time outside of conference sessions using your phone, laptop or tablet. By circulating and looking open and engaged, you’ll make it more likely that someone else, looking for someone to talk to, will approach you. Knowing “when” to network is just as import and as “how to network”.
8. Don’t be a “Fan-girl” or “Fan-guy”
While its great to meet the speakers, authors and other VIP’s at a conference, don’t spend your entire time trying to connect with them. In doing so, you’ll miss countless other opportunities.
Instead, spend your time listening, learning and connecting with others that have similar interests and objectives as you. Your time at the conference will be a much more worthwhile investment.
9. Create a Schedule
Know who is speaking where and when in relation to your interests and conference objectives. You can’t be everywhere at once, and the best sessions fill up quickly. You don’t want to miss the opportunity to be in the session with that “one” person you’re hoping to meet or hear.
10. Use Social Media
Tweet or post about the conference while you’re there. Tag people you’ve met, or hope to meet, and make complimentary, positive comments about their session, session topic, panels and the conference itself. Always use the conference #hashtag.
11. Check the Nametag
It’s always okay to check out someone’s name tag if you want to know who “that someone” is – that’s why they provide them at nearly every conference. Be sure your name tag is visible so others can identify you. Schmoozing VIP’s, speakers, etc at a conference is perfectly acceptable and probably one of the leading causes of strained eyes and sore necks by Day 2. Still, if you’re not sure who it is, just ask.
12. Be Open to People That Want to Meet You
Don’t go with the idea in mind that you’re there just to pitch yourself or your agenda. Listen to others and you’ll be surprised at the amazing relationships and opportunities that open up.
13. Get on the Lists for Conference Dinners, Meet-ups, and Parties
These are great social opportunities. Contact the conference organizer ahead of time for information and details. If it’s a large event like SXSW, etc, follow the conference #hashtag and check Eventbrite often to ensure you’re up to speed on all of the conference-related activities, meet-ups, etc taking place.
14. Keep in Mind Most People at the Conference Are in the Same Situation as You
That is, they go, thinking that they will know few if any of the other attendees. During the various sessions, introduce yourself to the people on each side of you and use the conversation starters mentioned earlier.
Follow the conference #hashtag on Twitter and engage with fellow attendees. You’ll build a “conference network” in no time and leave with several new connections and friends.
15. Always Have An Exit Strategy
Inevitably you will end up in a conversation you wish you had never started. Be prepared to politely and gracefully excuse yourself. This is more of a “how not” to meet someone at a conference. There are several ways to do this, but always be polite. Thank the person for their time and politely excuse yourself.
16. Get The Conference App
There are several terrific social discovery apps that let you know when people within your networks are nearby. Many provide a simple interface for saying hello and are generally easy to set up and use.
I’ve used them at conferences and they’re great for networking beyond the confines of the sessions you’re attending or the show floor. Unfortunately, a lot of these apps come and go or are integrated into the conference app itself (which is fine), however; it can be a bit of a pain having to download a new app for every conference that you attend.
Don’t want another app on your device? Simply use Twitter and a Twitter client like Tweetdeck to follow the conference #hashtag.
17. Don’t Forget the Tangible Items You’ll Need
Conferences can be long, all day, well into the evening events. Lack of breath mints, gum, eyedrops, a comb or brush, cologne or perfume can ultimately be a deal-killer when you’re meeting someone. Plan and pack accordingly.
18. Bring Business Cards
“I don’t use business cards, I like to connect on social”…., says the person who always forgets them. Don’t believe it – business cards are still a valuable asset to have at the ready. It’s one of the quickest, most effective ways to introduce yourself and share your contact information. If you prefer to connect on social, add your Twitter handle and other social details on your card. You may have only a brief moment to make contact with someone and handing them a business card is always better than a missed opportunity.
19. Head to the Gym (and on-site Starbucks)
If working out is a regular part of your daily routine, go to the hotel gym. Its a great place to meet other conference-goers in an “outside the conference” environment. Don’t want to go to the gym? If there’s a Starbucks at the hotel or conference center, that’s another great place to meet and connect.
20. After the Conference Follow up
You should have a number of business cards from people you’ve met. Send an e-mail or Linkedin invite summarizing an interesting point from the conversation and suggest whatever follow-up is appropriate (phone call, coffee/lunch, or simply “let’s keep in touch”).
Where it makes sense, connect the person with others you know personally, where there are shared interests and a likelihood of a valued connection.
21. Connect Socially
In addition to the follow-up mentioned above, be sure to connect socially on LinkedIn, Twitter, etc to stay in contact. Send a brief message with your friend request, reminding the person who you are and thanking them for the time they spent speaking with you.
There are hundreds of conferences each year that cover every conceivable niche, interest or industry. NAB, SXSW, Social Media Marketing World, Inbound, Dreamforce, Hitec, and HIMSS are a few, but there are many, many more. To make the most of them, use these tips on how to network, and I promise you won’t be disappointed in the results.