how to get the most out of a conference

How to Make Your Next Conference One of the Most Useful Experiences of Your Life

Lauren Bonk

When you think of the phrase “freelancing tools,” what comes to mind? Time-tracking apps, a good computer, and gallons of caffeinated beverages are all good choices, sure. What if I told you, though, that one of your greatest freelancing assets won’t fit on your desk or even in an office?

What if I told you it’s full of hundreds of people, thousands of ideas, and sometimes even an included lunch? I’m talking about conferences, folks, and if you can approach them in the right way, you’ll begin to wonder how you ever lived without them. We want you to be successful, which is why we’re here to help you figure out how to get the most out of a conference.

Before

Often, when talking about conferences, the conversation tends to focus on networking, which can get a little… fluffy. I’ll be the first to admit that networking with a few fluffy principles (think, “intention” and “authenticity”) can be very successful. In fact, I love fluff… but that’s not all there is to attending a conference. Networking is the tip of the iceberg, and you owe it to yourself to learn how to get the most out of a conference on all fronts. Thoughtful planning and concrete strategy will help you retain useful information about the people you meet and the topics you encounter during presentations. This is what will take your conference experience to a higher (and much more lucrative) level.

Your preparation begins even before you choose a conference to attend. Don’t think that simply because you’re a freelance web designer, you need to only attend design, entrepreneurial, or technology conferences. Look at conferences in your area to see if there are other industries that would benefit from your services. Everyone from affiliate marketers to pet groomers have a need for web design, and there’s a good chance you’ll avoid an ocean-sized body of competition if you branch out into other industries.

Map out your goals.

You can’t just frolic into a conference with a smile and unending supply of high fives expecting to leave at the end of the day with 25 new clients. You want to walk through those doors with a plan.

Sit down and map out some solid goals for this conference. What do you want out of it? Remember to be realistic, set achievable expectations, and be specific. For example:

Things I want to achieve by attending this conference:-leave having discovered at least one new tool that will help my business
-obtain freelance tax advice from experienced peers
-gain at least 10 new contacts who could either help in my career or become potential clients

An achievable goal will help keep you focused, and is an essential tool when learning how to get the most out of a conference.

Have both questions and answers prepared.

Let’s face it: you’re about to be in a room stacked high with people trying to network and get ahead in their industry.

You don’t want to ask the same old questions and give the same old answers, and you definitely don’t want to get caught off-guard.

Questions like, “How long have you been in the industry?” and “What are your plans for this product/company/software?” are common, and can be tricky to answer if you’re just starting out. The best way to prepare for these questions is to build up a solid background for yourself and become intimately familiar with it. What do you call yourself professionally? What are your specialties? What are your plans for the future? How can your company help people and, more importantly, why is yours a better option than others? Refresh your knowledge of current and past projects, so that you can discuss them confidently with curious attendees.

There are some questions you might not have an answer for. In these cases, it’s either time to take a hard look at your business and figure them out, or you can muster up the courage to ask for advice.

A conference is an event built to educate and connect people, and generally presents a very generous atmosphere of community. Take advantage of this and ask questions. “What can I do to make my business profitable? How can I market this product successfully and efficiently?

Don’t shy away from the “first-timer” label if you’re new to a conference. Everyone was a first-timer at some point, and there’s no doubt that they started out with questions. You’re bound to have questions about your work, so write them down and just ask them.

During

Once you’re at the conference itself, it can be easy to get either overwhelmed or over-excited.

Regardless of how far you’ve had to travel, you are taking time out of your workday in order to attend this event. You want to come away from this feeling like it was worth the missed work hours, entrance fees, and travel expenses. Refer back regularly to your goals: Are you learning? Are you connecting?

One way to ensure that you’re retaining information and new contacts is to utilize some handy conference apps.

Twitter:

I will never forget attending my first technology conference without a smartphone. I had a notebook, some sweet business cards, and my good ole flip phone. As soon as the emcee started talking about the “conference hashtag,” I knew I was going to be missing out on a lot of valuable online interaction.

Twitter provides a great opportunity for conference attendees to interact during the conference about the conference simply by following the designated conference hashtag. You can show your appreciation for presenters, discuss topics, and find social gatherings, all from your smartphone, tablet, or laptop.

FourSquare and Facebook

Conferences are a spectacular place to meet new people, but it can get a little hectic when trying to connect with them at different points throughout the day. Foursquare will allow you to see where people are checked in, as well as discover where after-conference hangouts are happening.

Now, Facebook is more of a “check up on your friend’s cats” kind of platform than a networking platform, but it does offer some usefulness when it comes to conferences. If you use a Facebook Page to help promote your business, the app will let you easily share pictures and videos while at the conference, and the Messenger app allows you to communicate with new connections without having to give out your phone number.

Business Card Scanner Apps

One of the more brilliant conference apps is the business card scanner app. There are a lot of different options out there, with features ranging from language translation to social media integration. Apps like CamCard, ScanBizCards, and WorldCard will help you de-clutter your wallet or purse, and help you keep your contacts organized.

Evernote

Evernote is an incredible note-taking app that allows you to (among many other things) take organized notes using a highly user-friendly interface. Evernote also allows you to scan business cards, connect your contacts and social profiles, and help you keep track of the contacts you’d like to stay connected with after the conference.

Speaking of after…

I want to take a moment to talk about return on investment here. I personally don’t like to talk about ROI… it always seems to turn the focus to money, and if you’re new to freelancing and just now learning how to get the most out of a conference, financial ROI is hard to quantify.

There is chance that you’ll come out of a conference with a new client, and if that happens, I’ve got a basket full of hearty high-fives for you. It’s more likely, however, that the ROI you see as a freelancing newbie is more educational and social. Eventually in your career, that’s not going to cut it… but for now? For now, you need all the education and industry contacts you can get.

Finally, always follow up with promising contacts, and follow up with purpose. Rather than sending an email that simply says “Hello! Nice to meet you,” include some kind of actionable step. Whether it’s asking a question or suggesting a meet-up over coffee, it’s important to include an element that prevents the relationship from fizzling.

You don’t want to fizzle, right? You want to shine, and if you can attend a conference with planning and purpose, the people around you are going to need sunglasses.

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