7 lessons on how conference networking can change your life
So, after weeks of trying, you’ve finally gotten your boss to sign off on that dream social media conference you’ve always wanted to go to.
And it’s out of your city.
With a bunch of smart people who will teach you a lot.
But these are people you don’t know very well. And no one else from your company is coming.
What have you gotten yourself into?
Don’t worry, I’ve all been there (we’ve all been there). And there is help!
In 2010, I attended my very first social networking conference. I had no idea what I was doing, and I didn’t attend any of the sessions that were jam packed with the overwhelming array of talent that was presenting.
But that part was purely by choice.
I simply attended to meet people, and it was one of the best things I have ever done. Sure, when I attend conferences, the nerves always creep in. I’m almost always out of my element—especially when it’s in a new city.
I mean, what if no one likes me or talks to me? This must be the adult version of the first day of school.
But it doesn’t have to be. After taking on this challenge head-on, I’ve learned a thing or two about dealing with “conference anxiety” and making the most of meeting people.
So take a deep breath and check out my go-to conference networking tips.
1. Get Connected on Social Media
Rule one in Networking Club? Don’t forget the easy stuff.
Is there a Facebook Group for attendees? Join it! Often the keynote speakers also join these groups, and they’re very active communities throughout the year that focus on your continued growth and industry hot topics.
Connect via Twitter! Follow the heck out of speakers, attendees, and folks that catch your eye. Be sure to look for other attendees that may be local to you, too!
Start the conversation in advance so that when you get to the conference doors, you already have a few friendships in the works.
A good example: last year, before I attended the Social Fresh conference (plug for their awesome 2015 social marketing shindig here) I was able to connect with a few folks via Facebook and Twitter even before I arrived at the Omni.
One of the people I was tweeting with was Carmen (@CShirkeyCollins). We connected out of pure geekdom, and the fact that we were both living the Florida Life.
On the morning of the first day, I entered the conference hall and looked around. Usually I try to find someone sitting by themselves, but this morning everyone appeared to have a buddy. I deferred to Plan B and sat down by myself somewhere towards the back and waited for a stranger-soon-to-be-buddy to arrive.
A few minutes later, someone sat down beside me and we started chatting immediately. As we made our introductions I said my name and her eyes widened. “Wait. Casie from Orlando?! @TheNameIsCasie?!” Indeed, that’d be me.
She laughed. “I’m @CShirkeyCollins on Twitter!” Suddenly introductions were no longer needed; Carmen and I were already fast friends, and we somehow had managed to sit right next together in this massive room of mostly empty chairs.
2. Make Time to Fully Immerse Yourself
If there is one thing I urge you to take note of – it is this. If you can make the time (and you should), be present at all of the conference events.
Pre-party the night before? Go!
Yoga in the morning? If that’s your thing – be there!
Cocktail hour once the day is over? Count me in!
I have formed some of my strongest relationships in the hours before and after a conference, when it’s easier to socialize and learn from each other instead of the presenters.
I’m not one who does many late nights anymore, but at conferences? I’m out there. I don’t do room service, I go down to the bar and have dinner in the open – where people can see me and conversations can happen.
And you know what? Usually what starts as dinner for one ends with a group of folks chatting. You’re all likely here “alone,” but you’re in this together, and you already know you have something in common!
3. Carpe the Serendipitous Active Listening
If you’re a fan of the Social Toolkit social media podcast (and you should be!) you may remember an episode where Matthew Knell from About.com mentions his three networking tips.
I have to give them a solid call back here and now, because he’s spot on.
- Be an Active Listener – If someone is sharing something with you, truly listen. Provide feedback, ask questions. The people you speak with should feel as if they’re the only ones in the room, even if you’re in a room of a hundred.
- Allow for Serendipity – Remember my encounter with Carmen mentioned above? If I hadn’t allowed for a moment to just naturally happen, who knows if we would’ve even crossed paths? There are a ton of people at most every conference. You’re unlikely to meet them, all and you may even miss some of your “can’t miss” peeps. It happens. But moments of serendipity are some of the most worthwhile.
- Don’t be shy/Seize the Moment – We’re all a little shy. One of the toughest words in the world to say is, “hello.” But just do it! Jump off the cliff, and face the fear. It’s the only way to really begin a conversation. After all, the biggest part of social media is the “social” part, so don’t be too shy!
4. Reach Out Locally
Find your tribe. It’s great to meet people from all over the country and the world, but try to seek out one or two people at every conference that you can follow up with back home.
Then follow through—reach out after the event and make plans to grab coffee in your own community. In this case, what happens at the conference actually shouldn’t just stay there.
I went to Atlanta for a conference earlier this year. On the last night, an hour before I had to fly back to Orlando, I started chatting with Kam at the cocktail hour.
Wouldn’t you know it, Kam is from Orlando, and she had been looking to connect with me in our time there.
We had a phenomenal conversation, realized I had actually worked with her husband 10 years prior at Universal Studios and, oddly, had taken one of my all-time favorite photos together. Small world? You bet’cha.
5. Make Use of the Conference apps or mobile site
Does your conference have an app or mobile site? It just might. Apps are a great way to keep your conference schedule, and keep you on track while you’re on the go.
They often include information like Twitter handles and hashtags to make your networking efforts even easier!
Download it – use it – connect with it!
6. Can’t Attend in Person? Attend Via Social Media!
Follow the conference hashtag feed like it’s your job not only because, likely, it is your job to do so. But, better yet, it’s a great way to “attend” the conference if you’re unable to physically be present, and a great way to meet some amazingly fast and knowledgeable people.
Attendees will do what they do best and keep you up to speed on exactly what’s happening throughout the event.
It’s also a no-brainer to follow the conference throughout their own social media channels. Scope out who’s already following and sharing, and see if you might know anyone who is attending in case you have burning questions that need to be answered!
7. Keep the party going after the event is over.
After last year’s Social Fresh conference, Carmen and I stayed in touch over Twitter every so often, running into one another during Twitter Chats and occasionally sharing tweets over our love of Harry Potter, The Walking Dead, or other random geekery.
Nearly a year after Social Fresh, Carmen would DM me one afternoon. She had an opportunity for me if I was interested.
“I like opportunities…” I DM’d back.
And shortly after that I joined her on the Talent Brand team at Cisco. A role I still can’t believe belongs to me.
The moral of the story? Networking works. It’ll change your life if you let it…and I encourage you to let it. Need someone to practice with? I hope to see you at Social Fresh 2015!