As we lead up to the Legal Marketing Association‘s Annual Conference, the importance of communicating the value of attending any conference to those back in the office has been in the forefront of my mind. The LMA conference is always packed to the gills with scheduled events, because marketers have to be able to prove to the decision makers that there is value to be gotten from attending.
Even though the ILN has more opportunities for organic networking at our conferences, there is still a burden on our attendees to show their partners that this is not a boondoggle.
No matter which conferences or events we’re attending this year, there are some ways that we can get out ahead of the inevitable question "Is your attendance at that event really worth it?"
I’m going to break this up into three posts, looking at different ways to address this question. The keys are to Prepare, Engage and Follow Up, and today, we’ll focus on preparation.
We all love the idea that we can just show up somewhere without preparation, and it will be successful – we’ll meet all the right people, new business will flow our way, and we’ll run out of business cards on the first day because people are lining up to meet us.
But that’s just not realistic.
To get the most out of a conference, and to show the others in your firm why it’s valuable for you, the first step involves significant preparation.
Review the Agenda
As soon as you receive the full agenda for the conference, go through it carefully. Take note of which sessions make the most sense for you to attend for the benefit of your firm. You’ll note that I didn’t say for your benefit – sometimes these are one and the same, but in many cases, you may find yourself torn between two concurrent sessions, one of which would be more fun for your pet passion or interest, and the other which would be something you could bring back and share with your colleagues and partners.
Always attend the latter – more on the "why" of that in our third post. Create a schedule based on the sessions that you plan to attend, and share that with any decision makers that are applicable to make sure that there aren’t any sessions you’ve overlooked that they’d like to see you attend. If you’re the decision maker, go ahead and share it with your partners as well, so they understand that you’ll be attending valuable and substantive sessions while you’re out of the office. (Yes, that may drive them crazy, so if you’re a blogger, perhaps a post highlighting what you’re planning to attend and review is best).
In some cases, there may be a single agenda, with no concurrent sessions. Review the agenda anyway to highlight the key sessions that you will want to contribute to or ask questions in. Giving yourself the heads up on these means that you’ll be better prepared to pay attention and take notes when the session starts, instead of having to play catch up. You are also guaranteed to get more out of any session that you’re prepared for than one you walk in cold to.
Review the Attendee List
In addition to the educational value of an in-person conference, a significant reason for attending is networking – otherwise, we’d all attend only webinars. Go through the attendee list and depending on the length of the event, select 5-10 people to commit to meet. Don’t rely on pure luck in meeting them either. Reach out on LinkedIn to connect with them, and offer to meet for coffee or breakfast during the meeting – they may already be tied up for lunch or dinner. Maybe offer to sit together for a session you think you’d both be interested in.
If your firm is sponsoring an event or party during the conference, make sure those people are all on the guest list and connect with each of them for a few minutes as well. Don’t leave the meetings until the last minute at the conference either – things always come up, so try to schedule them for the first day or two, so that you still have time to reschedule if necessary.
Again, review with decision-makers or colleagues at your firm to see if there is anyone they’d like you to connect with. Perhaps one of your partners recently did some business with someone that’s also attending the conference, and would like you to meet that person to thank them. You’re adding value to your colleagues, as well as expanding your own network, by doing so.
Before you set up these meetings, check the conference hotel/convention center and surrounding areas so you know what coffee shops and restaurants are available. It’s easier to propose a time and location for a meeting right off the bat (and have one to offer on site as well) than to have to find one later. For example, there’s a Starbucks right on property at the LMA conference hotel, which will be a great meeting point for me to connect with my fellow ILN marketers for breakfast.
Use Social Media
Get connected via all of the social media channels you can before the conference, so you can be tied into what’s happening – the conference website will be an excellent place to start for this. Check to see if they have a LinkedIn group where people are chatting and exchanging ideas, or making plans to meet, or talking about the best exhibits.
Find out what the hashtag is for the conference, so that you can follow along early and engage with people. You’ll learn what all the conference buzz is, connect with others that are going to the conference before meeting them in person (let’s call this "pre-networking"), and have the opportunity to set up more of your social schedule so you avoid ever being in your room for more than just enough time to sleep.
Use whatever other social tools you’re comfortable with – find out if there are Facebook groups, Instagram hashtags or conference accounts to follow, Google+ communities, Pinterest boards, etc. The idea is to connect before the conference so that you’re already tied in and thinking about what’s to come before you’ve even got your feet on the ground. This is especially helpful for first time conference attendees, because you can learn tips and tricks for attending the conference, the can’t miss sessions and speakers, engage with people before meeting them in person, and hit the ground running.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions here either, whether you’re new or a veteran – use social media to find out from others what they think will be the most valuable, what the trends are for this year, if there are exhibitors that you should make sure to stop by, etc. Then you can slot all of this into your schedule in advance instead of trying to decide how to fit it all in once you’re at the conference.
Use the Conference App
Some conferences will have an app, which can be incredibly valuable. For example, the LMA app gives us the list of speakers, attendees, the schedule, and more. I can set up my own personal schedule with the sessions I plan to attend, send messages to other attendees within the app, see the Twitter feed, and even get a map of the area and local points of interest. It’s a one stop shop for the conference, right from my mobile device.
Our conference app also gives me a look at which exhibitors will be at the conference, so I can take a look through that list as well and decide whether there are any upcoming needs for the ILN or among our member firms that might be well-served by me having a conversation with one or more of them. I also advise setting up advance meetings with exhibitors when possible as well, as they also get very busy with meetings, parties, and other functions during conferences, and if you want to have a productive conversation about something specific, it’s a good idea to give them advanced notice.
The more I utilize the app fully and set things up in advance, the more it will work for me AT the conference, and the less catching up I’ll have to do on-site.
Set Up a Review Meeting
Before you leave for the conference, set up a review meeting or calendar a reminder to send out a review email to your partners for your return. The quickest way to help your colleagues understand the value of your attendance at an event is to tell them – and to tell them in a way that communicates the value for them.
You’ve already talked to them to make sure you’ll hit anything that would be useful to them at the conference, so you’re in the right mindset of finding additional value for them. So meet with the decision makers, get a couple of minutes in the next partners’ meeting, or send out an email upon your return to let them know how the conference went, what the key highlights were, and what they need to know that’s of value – but set that up BEFORE you leave, so that you don’t forget it when you return to the office and get bogged down in catch up.
Now you’re prepped and ready – you’ve got your bag packed, your list of meetings and sessions in hand, business cards at the ready and an out of office up. What’s next? Engaging. My next post will dive into how engaging with and at a conference will help to add value to your experience, and then communicate that value back at the office.