Cruising at 35,000 feet on my way back from the Year of the X conference in Munich, where I gave a talk about transformational technology, I was thinking about the value of conferences. Conferences are nice- they collect groups of people together into a localized area under a common theme. This unique environment can lead to incredible relationships, miraculous product launches, and the ability to learn directly from industry experts. As I go to a lot of conferences throughout the year, I have a personal opinion on their value and how you should approach getting the most out of them. My approach is called GAME:
Go with a game plan
Make time for serendipity
Easy follow ups
Go with a game plan. Conferences should be strategic, since you're both spending time and money. Start by answering the question of why you want to go to that conference. Is it vertically specific where you are hoping to learn information? Is it a way to meet with potential investors or potential partners? Is it to get publicity? Whatever the reason, it's important to understand why you decide to invest the resources.
"Because you heard a conference is fun" is not a good reason to commit the time and energy. While certainly a nice benefit, to have a good time should be a secondary, or maybe third or fourth reason to go to a conference. In my personal experience, there are a number of conferences that overlap quite heavily in terms of content and participants, so I group conferences together and then attend one in each of those categories.
Arrive early. I'm almost always early and view it as a super power. Why? Because the people who organize events are there early, and they are often the people you want to meet or can personally introduce you to the people you want to me. Also, people who organize events always appreciate the first few attendees, because it shows that the event isn’t going to be a total bust!
Use this to your advantage. Get there early. Introduce yourself. On more than one occasion, I've gotten to an event early and been enlisted to help finish setting up. I enjoy getting involved, and there are few better ways to bond with someone than by helping them. (Another benefit is that the bar is usually open at the beginning of an event!)
Make time for serendipity. Throughout the multitude of conferences I've been to, many times the most valuable experiences came from unscheduled activities. I call this concept "freedom within a framework." For example, if a conference is three days long, I'll try to front load Day 1 with scheduled activities, where I'm sure to meet people and achieve the critical goals for that particular conference. Day 2, I'll reduce the number of scheduled activities and load them all in the morning.
I do this because during Day 1, you'll hear about, and be invited to, other things happening on the following days. You should create the flexible framework so that you can say yes to some of these things. I try to keep Day 3 the most free, and maybe even hold one-on-one meetings with some of the people that I met the previous days. This type of structure can be applied to even a one day conference, but in that case you'll want to make sure you follow the "Arrive Early" step.
Easy follow ups. It's important to make it easy to follow up, and keep those points of contact short and to the point. When you meet someone at a conference, ask for their card and quickly jot down a little note on it so you remember what you talked about, or a detail that makes that person stand out in your mind. When you follow up, refer to your note, and they will also be able to remember you better.
Keep your emails short and simple. If you have something that you'd like from your contact, or if your intention is to set up a future meeting, get to the point quickly. Long emails from new people often get ignored.
This approach will help you get the most out of conferences, which is important because attending too many conferences is a waste of time. If you don't have a clear goal for what you hope to accomplish at a conference, don't go. If you go and don't accomplish your goal, make sure to take a serious look as to why, so that you don't waste your time in the future.