Image credits: GETTY IMAGES (SANJERI)
Networking at a major annual conference is like packing a suitcase for the trip. You know you have to do it, but you’re not sure what to bring, or you routinely pack without even thinking what you are putting in the suitcase.
Rather than just go a conference or any networking event and do the sameold thing you did last year, let’s pack a new plan along with that new item of clothing! Call it your Conference Networking Game Plan.
Now, please take out a notepad and a pen and set a timer for 20 minutes.
Coffee or beverage optional.
Consider that The Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR) reported in 2015 that the total number of business-to-business and business-to-consumer exhibitions held in the U.S., Canada and Mexico is 13,447, accounting for just over 107 million attendees and 1.9 million exhibitors. That’s a lot of possible introductions, reconnections, and potential business contacts. Follow these 7 steps to develop a power networking plan:
Ask yourself “Why” are you going to this conference or event? It’s not a three day vacation out of the office to a warm location, or some trade event that your boss is sending you to build business. Those are good reasons, but let’s get productive. Networking
can be about scoping out the competition, or mining industry information? To meet new people? To present? Knowing exactly why you are there is key to making the most of your time and investment before, during and after the event.
Review the Attendee List and Sponsors: If possible, request this information in advance. The reasoning is important—to start making connections ahead of time (through LinkedIn maybe) and arrange meetings or meet ups during the conference. You will also
review the list looking for ideas of who you know and should know to meet with. The more you can scrub this list ahead of time, the better you will be prepared at talking to people. In addition, you can plan a valuable time together and waste effort with
logistics when you are there. If that isn’t possible, once you arrive at the conference scan the list. Then do some quick Goggle searches on five people or companies you want to impress. Keep an eye out for those people, visit them at their booth—with a
good reason as to why you want to start a conversation—or continue an old one.
- Be intentional. After reviewing the sponsors and attendee list, fill your “dance card” with contacts you want to meet. Seriously, that’s why you’re physically at the conference. Don’t be a “wall flower!”
- Make a target list of high, medium and low prospects.
- Create smart goals surrounding the high, medium or lower end prospects? i.e. I want to meet 5 high end prospects, identify 3 new COI’s centers of influence, etc. etc.).
- Reaching out to new people is a challenge for many introverts. The target list can be based on your past success with building relationships. Use current contacts to introduce you to your new targets! For example, if your target list has a company where you have a relationship with someone at that company, ask your contact to introduce you to your target.
- Strategic targeting ahead of time, makes the initial meet & greet less awkward. The advance planning through LinkedIn research and contacting colleagues ahead of time will pay off with stronger relationships built in a faster amount of time. Look for common ground—sports, college or a mutual friend. Everyone wants to do business with people they know, like and trust.
Navigating the conference
- Navigation requires a map and a destination. So get a floor plan of the conference area, and strategically approach “being in the right place at the right time!”
- Choose to sit up front at the speeches.
- Look for sponsors and senior leadership hosting the event to sit near. Proximity to the right people is key.
- There’s usually a livelier crowd sitting in the back that may be more chatty, or stepping out to take care of business. Listen and take your cue to interact with them.
- Hallways outside of break out sessions are another great place to make connections—complimenting the speaker or following up with someone who asked a great question!
- Coffee or beverage station is another good place to hang out—listen to what attendees are saying and interject a comment with an introduction to yourself.
- The registration desk is the place to put faces with names you’re trying to connect with in person. Learn where a key contact might be during the conference.
- Outside seating areas can be a quiet or comfortable place to have a conversation.
- Pick a location and become a regular for a day to see if you can meet new people.
Activities planned by the conference can be a more relaxing way to mingle. Focus on asking others what they like to do for fun? Over the years, I’ve found many of my strongest relationships have come from meeting in the workout room. Go with the group on a bus tour ride or participate in cultural or athletic events.
Following up after conferences is one of the biggest challenges for busy leaders. Capitalize on all the introductions and communications by keeping in touch! Make this a top priority — on the plane or 48 hours after the event — write yourself a note on the back of each and every business card you’ve collected on how you will follow up with that person. Come up with a creative way to differentiate yourself from others, with an email attachment, hand-written note, or a gift. You will stand out from the crowd.
Networking is hard work
But it’s heart-warming to build your network before you need to put it to work in the future. The reward is that the relationships you make and nurture now will bring the desired results when you reach out to your friends for that favor or referral, until you meet again next year.