It’s that time of the year again… it’s SHOW TIME!

Our Corporate Researchers Conference, the ESOMAR Congress, TMRE and so many more… it’s a busy time of year.

Are there too many events? Some think so… but by and large, I am a big fan of these kinds of events. In fact, here are 6 reasons why you and your team might want to put more of them on your calendar this Fall.

#1 – Learning. This is clearly the top reason most people attend conferences… to develop and expand their skill set and knowledge. Remember, there are two places to learn… in the sessions and on the exhibit floor. Most of the new things in our industry (technology, tools, etc.) come from vendors – so make sure to plan some of your time to visit the exhibit hall.

Also, to enhance your learning experience in the sessions, here’s a simple technique that will help you better put into action some of the things you learn at the conference.

We all take notes while listening to speakers. But next time, try this… on your note pad, draw a line down the middle of the page. As the speaker delivers his or her presentation, scribble down any important notes (just like you’ve always done) on the left-hand side of the page.

On the right side, across from each note, record any immediate To Dos/ideas sparked by that note. If you don’t write it down right then and there, you’ll likely never remember it. Then, at the end of the conference, you’ll have a complete and relevant list of To Dos… and a clear reference as to ‘why’ they’re on the list.

#2 – Networking. You never know who is going to be at a particular event… potential partners, potential vendors and prospective clients. Networking is a critical component of the conference experience. And, regardless of your comfort level “working a room,” effective networking should be a goal for you at every conference you attend.

To be a successful networker, you’ll need three things:

  1. A pile of business cards, of course.
  2. A well-crafted Elevator Pitch that can be delivered in 15 seconds (no kidding!). The four parts of your pitch should be:
    • Who you are & who you work for
    • What you do
    • The clients you target and the problems that you solve for them
    • What makes you unique (sadly, almost no one includes this)
  3. A small notepad. Here’s why… have your conversation, swap business cards and as soon as the other person walks away, scribble down a summary of the conversation on a 3”x5” notepad: what they told you about their job and their firm, the challenges they face, what products/services you talked about, any personal tidbits, next steps (if discussed), etc. If you don’t take notes, you’ll never remember the 20-30-40 conversations you have during the course of a conference.

#3 – Exhibiting. The exhibit floor is the only place in business – aside from a retail store – where your potential clients come to you. Done right (and so few companies actually do it right), exhibiting can be one of your most productive marketing & sales tools. Here are some basic guidelines for exhibiting to keep in mind…

  1. Chairs. Throughout much of an event, too many exhibitor personnel sit in their chairs behind the table in their booth space. It makes them look lazy and uninterested.
    • Guideline: Get rid of the chairs and stand up – in front of or beside the table – ready to meet and greet. And if you need a break, leave the exhibit hall and walk out to the hotel lobby to find a chair.
  2. Tables. Aside from giving you something to sit behind (see Chairs), tables are a barrier between you and your booth visitors. Is that what you really want?
    • Guideline: If you need a place to display your materials and handouts, either push the table to the back of the booth space, or rotate it 90 degrees and move it off to one side.
  3. Food. Often, some meals and social time for attendees take place in the exhibit hall… it’s a nice way to get them to mingle with the exhibitors. That’s fine… but exhibitor personnel should never eat in their booths. Not only does it look bad and “trash up” your booth, it’s also kind of difficult to have a good business conversation with a mouth full of lasagna.
    • Guideline: We all need to eat… so do it outside of the exhibit hall or at least wait until the attendees have returned to their conference sessions.
  4. The booth. First and foremost, your booth/signage/display should be a “visual train wreck!” Its primary responsibility is to get people walking by to stop, look and to generate a little interest in their minds (giving you the opportunity to engage them in conversation). Your booth is not meant to list out every single detail about your company or your latest product. It’s a billboard… if it doesn’t generate interest in the 2 seconds it takes someone to walk past, then it’s time for a new one!
    • Guideline: Your booth should contain visually compelling imagery plus 1 or 2 benefits – not 10-15 features.
  5. Data collection. Yes, you want to build awareness for your firm… or maybe launch a new product. But the #1 reason you exhibit at a conference is to generate sales leads. However, you can’t rely on your memory and a pile of business cards to turn those leads into new clients. The more information you record about your conversation with every booth visitor, the better your follow-up can be.
    • Guideline: Create a ‘booth form,’ to which you staple every visitor business card and record the details of each conversation. Even if the event has badge scanning, you still need to record the conversation details for effective follow-up.
  6. Giveaways. First, there is nothing inherently wrong with giveaways. On the other hand, there generally isn’t any real business value generated by them, either. It’s true, they are another way to build awareness (maybe), but they cost money and are often a pain-in-the-*** to order, receive, pack and ship to (and from) an event.
    • Guideline: If you’re willing to spend a few hundred dollars on “merch,” could those same dollars be more effective if used for something else like pre-event marketing or entertaining a prospective client while at the conference?

#4 – Content fodder. If content marketing is part of your general marketing plan, consider conferences as a rich source of information for developing that content. Take ideas from what people are talking about in the hallways, the hot presentations and what’s new in the exhibits… then write about it, provide an opinion about it or offer up a contrarian view.

#5 – Speaking. Virtually nothing else can give you and your firm a level of credibility like delivering a strong presentation at a conference. But I don’t have the space here to do a treatise on delivering live presentations.

However, what most speakers don’t think about is using their live presentation as a Lead Gen opportunity… and not in a salesy way (so as not to diminish their presentation). The key is to find a way to collect business cards from those in the audience. Consider this… if someone is willing to take some of their valuable conference time to sit in on your presentation, they have a strong interest in what you have to say. That makes them, quite possibly, a very warm & qualified sales lead.

One way that we’ve had success collecting cards is to ‘raffle off’ a business book – one that ties in to the topic of the presentation. At the start of your presentation, mention that you’ll be giving away a book at the conclusion. To have a chance to win, everyone needs to pass their card forward (do this as your presentation is beginning). If it’s a good book, nearly everyone will comply. And the book is a small price to pay to capture all of those new names.

#6 – Competitive intel. Your competitors will be all around you… some as speakers, some as exhibitors, some just chatting during breaks. Listen and learn.

Getting ready…

To be successful at conferences, you can’t just ‘show up.’ Go through the checklist below and make sure you’re ready for the upcoming season…

- Check your business card inventory. Nothing is more embarrassing – or unhelpful – than running out of them mid-event.

- Update your firm’s website and make sure your LinkedIn profile is also up-to-snuff. Why? Because after you meet with a potential client there, if they have any interest, the first thing they’ll do is go to your website; the second will be to check out your LinkedIn profile. And if either site is in shoddy condition, your chance of doing business together could end right there.

- As you send emails to clients and prospects over the next couple of months, add a note at the bottom that reads, “By the way, any chance you’ll be at [inert event name] this Fall?” If they respond with a ‘yes,’ then follow-up to try to schedule a time to meet at the conference. If you wait until you get to the event and hope to connect with someone to find a block of time, things get so hectic, there’s a good chance it won’t happen. So, schedule your meetings now!

- If you send out a monthly enewsletter, mention your participation in the events there… and an easy way to get in touch with you.

- Look through the conference agenda at the list of speakers, as well as the list of exhibiting/sponsoring companies, then start reaching out to those who might be interested in scheduling a quick coffee meeting at the event. Again, it’s far easier to block off a little time now, then to hope to run into someone and try to squeeze in a meeting.

- Also, scan through the exhibitor/sponsor list to see which companies you don’t know. Then, before the event, do a little research to be better prepared should you have the chance to chat with them while you’re there.

And the most important thing you can do after a conference…

[And what most people DON’T do:] Follow-up… follow-up… follow-up. As soon as you get back to the office, make sure all of the data from the business cards you collected is entered into your CRM system.

Then, go back to your 3”x5” notepad from Networking (see #2c above) or your booth form from Exhibiting (see 3e above) and begin prioritizing and planning out your follow-up… some contacts might just get a “nice meeting you” note, some might get a copy of your latest white paper and some might be getting a phone call.

Also, where appropriate, invite the people you met with to connect on LinkedIn.

The bottom line is this… attending conferences is a significant investment in time and money. So, if you’re going to make the investment – and I would argue that you absolutely should – make sure you’re getting the most out of it.