How to Hack Conferences for the Best Networking
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There are lots of interesting conferences you can attend, especially if you work in tech or a tech-related field. It’s a chance for everyone to get off their computers and get out into the offline world. People almost always go to conferences work on their networking. But if you arrive and haven’t done your homework you may leave feeling like you haven’t accomplished much.
When you go to an industry-specific conference, there will likely be a lot of interesting and important people. If you do your research beforehand and put in a little effort at the conference, you could find yourself face to face with your heroes and enjoying sponsor perks like free dinners and invite-only events.
Here are my tips for getting the most out of a conference and how to network like a pro while you’re there:
Choose The Right Conference for Networking
What conference you go to is really up to you, and what field you’re in. I’m an SEO consultant, so I like to hit up MozCon in Seattle and Growth Marketing Conference (referral link for Dec 2018) in San Francisco every year. MozCon is focused on SEO, so it’s a good choice for anyone who works in the field. But the main reason I prefer it to other conferences is there is only one track. Many conferences have two or three tracks, which is a problem if you're a solo consultant; you can't be in two or three places at once. Even if the conference is recorded, they usually only record one main track. You have to pick and choose where you go when, and it’s harder to get your money's worth.
Growth Marketing Conference focuses less on SEO, and more on quick growth hacking and marketing. Both have benefits, especially when it comes to networking. Moz is more geared towards startups and medium-sized business, and GMC targets enterprise strategy. I do work with a mix of companies, both startups and enterprise. If you want to know more about being effective in both settings, check out my recent blog post on Enterprise vs Startup.
Make a Hit List
Once you’ve picked your conference, the next step is deciding who you want to meet while you’re there. Many conferences will publish a list of attendees on Twitter or the website itself beforehand. Scan the list for people you’d like to connect with and start researching them on LinkedIn and Twitter. This will really help you maximize your time once you’re at the conference. Yes, finding people you want to meet in huge crowds can be difficult. But you never know who you will bump into or when you will cross paths with someone, so it pays to be ready.
One of my all-time-favorite conference hacks is to skip the speakers (I watch the talks later from the recording, which is why I like the single track MozCon so you won't miss anything!) and go talk to the vendors at the booths instead. This is a good strategy because you may run into people on your Hit List while you are out walking around the conference center. A lot of prominent people use this time to network and meet many more people this way.
Get invited to secret mini conferences and events
While you’re out wandering the vendor area during a conference event, stop and talk to the vendors. As sponsors of the conference, they frequently have the inside track on special dinners or invite-only events with high-profile speakers. One vendor last year invited me to a separate mini conference at night with a few key industry people. It was normally a ticketed event, but since I was talking to the vendor, he offered to give me a free pass for it.
My process for networking at conferences is pretty simple. When talking to a vendor, I introduce myself and say, “I do SEO for this company, what do you do at the company?” Then we talk shop. If I’m talking to someone else who works in SEO, I ask them about a recent strategy they’ve worked on, and what was the positive result or impact. Then I contribute to the conversation and talk about some things I’ve done.
You do have to be somewhat careful about how much information you share. As long as you’re not talking to a direct competitor, it's fine to talk about what you’ve been working on. If you are talking to a competitor, you can still talk shop, but don't go into specifics. Overall, when networking, just be normal. Genuinely try to get to know them. Or, ask them for help. Sometimes it’s easier for people to interact when they have more to give than you do.
Get creative with how you connect
Skipping the speaking events doesn’t mean you can’t connect with the speakers. If there is a speaker you’d like to meet, the best time to approach them is not immediately before or after their talk. Instead, keep an eye out for them in the audience of another event, or in the vendor’s area. Usually the speakers have their own lounge area to work out of, but if you see someone by themselves on a laptop at a conference chances are good they're a speaker.
One time I went to breakout session at a conference and decided to sit by a guy who was alone. He was on his laptop and clearly working on a PowerPoint presentation. I started chatting with him, and he invited me to come see him speak at an invite-only event.
You can also find unique networking opportunities as a volunteer. I volunteered at TechCrunch this year, and some of the other volunteers were VCs. They were there in a somewhat undercover capacity, connecting with people behind the scenes. You can learn a lot by talking to them and other volunteers.
If you decide to volunteer, you will probably be moving things around, helping other people, giving directions, crowd control and security. It’s pretty simple stuff, but you will likely spend 60 to 70% of your time working, and then have only about 30% of the time to mingle with other people. This is where a Hit List is valuable. It helps you focus on who you want to meet, that way you can be super organized and find everyone in a short time.
Are you going to Growth Marketing Conference this year? Have you been to any other good conferences? How do you like to connect with people? Please share your thoughts in the comments!