Marketing Monday: Making the most of conferences and trade shows

I’ve just come back from a conference where I had more good conversations than I could count, got good ideas and business leads, and came away reinvigorated.

That wasn’t an accident.

I’ve been to enough conferences that I’ve developed some strategies about how to make them work for me:

The next conference I plan to attend will be the North American Farmers' Direct Marketing Association convention in early 2014, when I'll be speaking about using social media to market farms and farm markets.

The next conference I plan to attend will be the North American Farmers’ Direct Marketing Association convention in early 2014, when I’ll be speaking about using social media to market farms and farm markets.

1. Choose conferences carefully — I’m not a highly sought after keynote speaker so I’m not waking up in a new city every day. I have finite resources to spend on events so I put serious thought into where I’ll get the most benefit. For me, a big part of that selection is that I want to be surrounded by smart, energetic, positive people who will fill my head with good ideas, my heart with motivation and my inbox with lasting connections. If I get that at an event, I’ll try to return. If not, I keep looking.

2. Focus on what I’m promoting — I don’t just randomly have conversations about what I do, where I’m from, how many times I’ve been to this conference before.  I mean, I do that, too, but I try to have a clear focus. What about my business do I want to market and how? What’s the most important message I want to convey?

3. Give my target customers a reason to talk to me — I’ve spent enough time staring at my watch at a trade show booth to realize that just hoping the right people will wander by is a tough way to pass a day. Instead, I’ve had much better luck narrowing the window — come see a demo 2-4 p.m. Friday, for example — and offering some motivation — I’ll have free breakfast or I’m giving away discounts or prizes.

4. Get the word out any way possible — Before and during conferences, I will post to Twitter and Facebook about what I’m promoting, when and where. Then I tweet a few (but hopefully not too many) reminders during the conference using the event’s hashtag. If I talk with people who express interest, I’ll ask them to come by my demo rather than turn a casual cocktail conversation into a sales pitch. My goal is to help people self select, so I can connect with people who have a need or a problem I can address.

5. Plan my time wisely — A few years ago, I was coming home from South by Southwest when I bumped into social media rock star Gary Vaynerchuk. I asked how SXSW had been for him and he said great, but he was thinking next year he might skip the conference part completely and just show up in Austin to do lunches, dinners and drinks. The real value, he said, was that everyone he wanted to talk to was in town. He could get the information in the sessions by streaming them later. That stuck with me. If there’s a speaker or a topic I’m excited about, I’ll make it a priority. But if I have to pick between a meaningful one-on-one conversation and attending a presentation, I’ll choose the personal connection every time. These days, it’s easy to get a recap of a panel or speech — there’s the Twitter stream, often a video online, sometimes the slides are on Slideshare — but there’s no substitute for talking with someone smart or interesting.

6. Include time for fun — With just a few days with hundreds or thousands of possible contacts all in one place, there’s a temptation to work 12-hour days (or more) with meetings and presentations and pitches. I know I’m going to spend a few days suffering sleep deprivation, but I try not to burn out completely. I might take one morning where I’ll sleep in a bit. I typically plan a nice dinner or two where I slow down.  Plus since conferences are so much about meeting new people and reconnecting with people I haven’t seen in years, my fun time often looks a lot like networking. (It helps I’m an extrovert.) Last week our conference hotel bar at closing time was maybe two thirds people still wearing name badges and still talking shop. They just happened to have a beer in their hand while they did it.

How do you get the most out of conferences?

Colleen Newvine Tebeau is a reporter and editor who then earned her MBA at University of Michigan with emphases in marketing and corporate strategy.  She is a marketing consultant who helps small and midsized organizations with strategy and tactics, including social media and communications.

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  1. Marketing Monday: Nuts and bolts tips for networking « Newvine Growing

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