11 Ways to Network Like an Industry Insider at Conferences

As a young upcoming engineer, I was thrilled when my manager gave me the opportunity to attend my first industry conference. As everyone knew that such opportunities were only given to a few select top performers, I was excited about the opportunity. That is, until I got to the event….

Conferences are busy, strategic and sophisticated events and, as a “newbie,” I quickly realized I was unprepared. I wasn’t actively networking, nor did anyone initiate conversations with me. I felt lost, unconnected and dismissed. However, after several repeat performances I’ve learned over the years how to be successful in these seemingly overwhelming situations and have even driven the planning for a few conferences.

So, now that I’m an “insider,” I wanted to share a few key items to know about before your next – or even your first – conference:

Plan Ahead

Organizations participate in conferences to showcase their brand and products, for demand and lead generation. Therefore, to make the most of any conference, it is best to understand your company’s goals for the event and identify your goals as well. Get informed and involved in the planning ahead of time.

Most conferences now have an agenda builder, use this to plan your schedule and register for the breakout sessions and evening events. Ensure that your time at the conference is allocated across:

• Keynotes
• Breakout sessions
• Booth Duty
• Networking
• Expo floor
• Evening Events

Booth Duty

Sign-up and get prepared to do booth duty. As a technical woman you can confidently talk about your company’s products and offerings and get valuable feedback from your customers and partners on their needs and issues. Work with your marketing and events team ahead of time to rehearse the demos and booth messaging so that you’re all on the same page with those important messages. I also keep on my recruiting hat to see if there is any talent we can attract and recruit from the event!

Booth Attire

Sigh 🙂

Unfortunately, you will have to conform and wear the standard clothing prescribed by company policy. If you are involved ahead of time you can influence the booth attire, perhaps adding in scarves and cardigans for women. Whatever you do, be sure to wear comfortable shoes. I cannot stress this enough, as you will be walking and standing a lot during the conference.

Meals, Meetings, and Purposeful Networking

Conferences are a great time to re-connect with folks. Set up your breakfast, lunch and coffee meetings ahead of time. There are folks that I meet face to face only at conferences. Bring and exchange business cards, subsequently following up with your new connections once you get home. I like to follow formal etiquette when I hand out my business card; it makes for a lasting impression and, as a result, folks tend to connect and/or follow up with me faster than they would have otherwise.

Social Media

Most organizations now have a social media plan with goals and measurements specifically designed for conferences. Social Media is a key driver in generating traffic to your booth, demo’s, breakout sessions, etc. Use the conference #hashtag for your social media posts on Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook, Google+ and your internal company communication platforms.

What I found particularly useful is tweeting live during conferences; these then become my notes and serve as references for main takeaways for post-event debriefings once I’m back in the office after the conference.

Furthermore, conferences usually have monitors at several locations throughout the site that are streaming the tweets. When your posts pop up on-screen (with your picture), it enables the individuals’ subconscious visibility when they meet you. I’ve had folks mention that they’ve seen me on the screens due to my social media posts and it can ignite conversation stemming from it.

Whisper Sessions

Conferences hold whisper sessions; these sessions usually discuss immediate and future product roadmaps and solicit input and feedback. These are ‘By Invite Only’. You need to be proactive and ask about the whisper session in order for your company and you to be invited to them.

Un-conference

Don’t be afraid to take detours and go “un-conference”. For instance, there are often unwritten, informal exchanges and discussions of topics not addressed on the formal conference agenda. These are sometimes setup ahead of time or right at the conference. If you let folks know about areas that you are passionate about, you will often get included in these meet-ups.

Observing Speakers

Your subconscious goal while attending any professional conference should be to become an engaging speaker, and taking note of the good, bad and “ugly” presentations you hear will help you reach that lofty goal. There are broadly three types of speakers at conferences:

• Keynote – These are usually highly trained speakers, on the main stage with lighting, video and production. It is useful to observe the setting, delivery style and impact on the audience. For example, John Chambers delivers a portion of his presentation as he walks among the audience. It is very impactful and you feel like he is talking to you.

• Breakout Sessions – Technical folks who know their content but may not be good speakers usually perform these live sessions. Often they read the slides verbatim in a monotone voice with the lights dimmed down and the AC running on high.

• Booth – These are folks who have some experience speaking and have rehearsed before the event. Observe the folks who come across as passionate, excited, while doing the demo – even if it’s the 38th time they are doing it

Expo Floor

I usually block off an hour each day to go around the expo floor to visit partner and competitor booths, to scout out new companies, to talk to folks in the booths and get demo’s of their products. I also like to observe how organizations attract traffic to their booth.

Evening Events

The evening time has exploded at conferences with events, parties and dinners. The larger conferences will usually have a concert or a large culmination event the evening before the last day. Many conferences now also have an event specifically for women, which are nicely done with executive sponsorship.

A few weeks prior to a conference I attended recently, I called the coordinators and asked about their women’s event. At the time there wasn’t one, but since I had suggested it to the coordinators, I was pleasantly surprised to arrive at the conference to see that a women’s event was now scheduled in the agenda.

Post Conference

So, you’re back in the office after attending the conference. What’s next? It’s generally expected of you to give detailed and honest feedback on what worked and what can be improved or done differently for the event next year. For example, booth babes were banned from the RSA Conference after they received complaints from attendees.

Send out your trip report widely within your company. I like to include data on how we did against our goal especially for booth traffic, session attendance and social media impact. Finally, a blog post of your takeaways from the event posted externally goes a long way.

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Nehal Mehta

Nehal Mehta is Director of Strategic Alliances at Symantec. In her 25+ years of experience in high-tech companies like NetApp and Unisys, Nehal has held positions in engineering, alliances and sales. She has a track record of successes in building and mentoring high functioning global teams of 100+ engineers. Nehal is passionate about kids in STEM and women in technology, and frequently presents on personal branding, networking and achieving work-life integration. Follow @nehal321 on Twitter.

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