How to Attend a Conference

By Trevor McKendrick 👋 - Have you read my free newsletter?

Conferences can be scary to attend. If you’re like me in a new industry, you might sometimes show up alone and without knowing a soul.

By way of example, in 2012 I attended Expolit, a conference focused on the Spanish Christian publishing industry. My goal was to get licensing rights to books to sell as in-app purchases inside our mobile apps.

It’s a tight-knit industry. While I do speak Spanish, I was completely new and didn’t know anyone when I arrived to Miami. I remember walking into the hotel lobby and hearing everyone chatting loudly in Spanish, like it was some big family reunion.

Know Exactly What You Want
Why are you at this conference? is a really important question! If you don’t have a solid answer, I’d think twice before shelling out all the money required to attend (hotel, flights, and conference tickets get expensive fast).

You need to have specific strategic goals for the conference.

For me at Expolit, I wanted to meet the digital rights managers of every publisher in attendance. They’re the people who could actually sign a contract to let me sell their books inside my apps.

Make Them Sell to You
On the first day I walked in and went straight to the publisher booths.

I energetically introduced myself and my app company, Salem Software. I told them our story, what we do (Spanish Bible apps), etc.

Some people were nice and opened up, but lots of others kind of just listened and then didn’t ask any questions of their own. It felt like a really bad date.

A little later once I was more tired I found myself slowly walking by booths and just perusing the displays, instead of walking directly up to the booth manager. Sometimes I’d pick up an example book and thumb through it.

This changed everything.

Suddenly the publisher’s employee was coming up to me and pitching me their products. “We just released a new book…” or “have you seen this…?” They were trying to convince me I should carry their books!

Of course I wanted to hear what they had to say, so I’d listen and ask questions. When they were done I’d ask if I could tell them about what we do and they’d happily agree.

And voilá, I had an audience.

This was the perfect introduction. Instead of me overenthusiatically approaching them and scaring them away I could start a small relationship by listening to them first.

Track Your Conversations
Anyone who has been to a conference knows you talk to hundreds of people and collect way too many business cards. By the end you look back at all those cards and can’t remember the person’s face, let alone all the details of your conversation.

So after every conversation I’d write down on the back of their card what we talked about and what the next steps were.

And at the end of every night at my hotel room I’d transfer all of this to Google Docs (or your CRM of choice). This is really important (see “Follow Up” below).

Experiment With Your Message
My initial story when I approached publishers was something like:

“We’re Salem Software and we make Bible study software for mobile devices. We focus 100% on native Spanish speakers because we believe they’re a neglected demographic. This is natural since most companies do English first, then Spanish as an afterthought. We also sell other Christian books and content in our mobile app store.”

I got bored just rereading that.

Two sentences in and I’d lost them. I thought they would care that we focused on Spanish speakers but I was wrong.

So I started experimenting with the pitch and ultimately got it down to one line:

“We do digital distribution.”

With that one line they understood how I could help them.

Stand Out
As a rule, people won’t remember you. But if you’re not too overbearing, you can try something unique that will help people remember you.

I’ve seen people wear bright yellow tennis shoes or funny tshirts. It will depend a lot on your industry and your reputation within that industry.

If you’re new and try to stand out too much you’ll look naive and people might dismiss you.

The best example I saw at this particular conference was from a little booth in the corner. Every person the booth worker talked to, myself included, they’d take a picture together.

When she followed up with me via email she attached the picture, which of course immediately reminded me of her and our conversation.

Taking a picture with everyone might be weird in some settings. So again, you should try something that’s appropriate for your conference and industry.

Be Humble
I pride myself on speaking Spanish well. While I haven’t stayed as fluent as I’d like, I’m still quite good and like to practice as much as I can.

So when I arrived at the conference I really wanted to speak Spanish the entire time. Some conversations went really well, but others I struggled to effectively communicate. And on top of that, many of the digital licensing reps I spoke to were native bilingual anyway.

About halfway through I bit the bullet. Any person who I absolutely needed to get to know I’d speak to first in English. They understood me and Salem Software better, and I felt more confident.

This was hard because I love speaking Spanish. I love the reaction I get from native speakers when I use some slang. But ultimately I had to eat some humble pie and stick to English.

(That said, practically all of the Central and South American publishers I spoke to did not speak any English, so the Spanish thankfully still came in very handy.)

Break Bread
The two people I had dinner with at the conference are the two I still remember the most. There’s something about eating together outside of a typical “work” environment that helps loosen people up. You don’t even have to drink (we didn’t).

If you’re more experienced and already know a few people, another great strategy is to get a bunch of people (around 8–10) for dinner at a restaurant outside of the hotel. Pay for the check and be the host.

After the Conferenece
Once the conference is over there are other things to keep in mind:

Follow Up
As the small company doing the asking it of course falls upon us to do all the follow up.

I started emailing my new contacts 4 days after the conference (it ended on a Friday, so the following Tuesday). I don’t know if this was the perfect move vs emailing them right after the conference, but it ended up working well. Unbeknownst to me at the time, many people use the conference to take an extended vacation in Miami, so they weren’t checking their email immediately after the conference anyway.

Also, make sure to use the conversation details you wrote down on their business cards.

I like to mention who introduced us, where we met, which products we talked about, etc.

Since you can almost guarantee they will not be doing the same tracking, it’s really important you do all the work to jog their memory.

Don’t Panic if They’re Slow
After emailing folks I didn’t hear back from many of them and kind of started freaking out. What if the entire conference was a waste!

But, lo and behold, people at big organizations can be slow to respond.

For everyone that I hadn’t heard back from I sent another email a week later basically saying “Hey I wanted to check in since I hadn’t heard from you. I hope you’re recovering from Expolit.”

The next day I suddenly had a ton of emails waiting for me from all these big publishers. People’s answers all varied, between “I was still on vacation” to “I’ve still trying to get caught up from the conference.” Many even apologized!

The point is, don’t freak out if they don’t respond initially. And definitely don’t pester them with a bunch of emails asking what happened.

Just follow up consistently until you hear a yes or a no.

Track Your Emails
I used to track all of my conversations manually Google Docs. While that works at first, you’ll quickly want to get setup in a CRM.

Two of my favorites are Streak and RelateIQ. They’ll help automate a lot of the conversation tracking so you don’t have to reread entire email chains to remind yourself the status of a deal.

Stay in Touch
This should go without saying, but regardless of how the deals end up going make sure to stay in touch after the conference! When the next conference comes around you’ll know more people and be more confident. You’ll be better able to host a dinner and start to really build a brand in the industry.

Talk to me more on Twitter.

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