How to Get the Most Out of Conferences and Business Events

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There’s nothing quite like a live event–a conference, expo, or business networking gathering–to learn a connect with like minded people. However, too many people don’t take full advantage of the opportunity.
 
In today’s episode we’re going to talk about how you can get more out of any business event with a little bit of preplanning, whether you’re a newbie or an old hand. 
 
Also, I’m going to be sharing some of what I picked up at Social Media Marketing World 2018 and what changes I’ll be making to my own business. 

 

 

 

Hey everybody this is Rich Brooks, and yes, you are tuned into the Agents of Change Podcast. This is episode 239, and as always, powered by flyte new media. This is going to be a slightly different type of podcast episode. No, I don’t have a guest, although that’s certainly not the first time I haven’t had a guest for this show. I just got back from Social Media Marketing World – I think it’s the 6th annual Social Media Marketing World – that was out in San Diego just under a week ago and it’s just been on my mind.

Conferences in general have been on my mind so I wanted to share some stuff with you today, and I also thought I was going to try and do this as free flowing as possible, not a lot of editing. I never edit the “um’s and ah’s” out of the show regardless, but I just thought that this would be an episode where I’ve taken down some notes and I’m going to kind of talk through them. I’m not sure if this is 15 minutes or half an hour, we’ll find out when we’re all done with it.

There’s two main things that I want to talk about today. The first is I kind of want to share with you my thoughts on how you can get the most out of going to a conference. I’m a huge fan of conferences, there is a difference between attending a live event and doing a webinar or reading a blog post or even listening to a podcast like this. They’re all great ways of learning, but there’s something special about a live event with other people.

And number two, I wanted to share with you some of my biggest takeaways from this year’s event. Social Media Marketing World is definitely – at least in my opinion – the world’s biggest social media marketing conference. A lot of new things get dropped there, a lot of research is done and delivered there, and you just see trends when you’re seeing 180 speakers. There were probably close to 200 or so sessions during the conference over the 3 days, so you can start to gain a picture where it’s almost like having a word cloud. Except instead of having a word cloud it’s a session cloud and you can kind of see what’s emerging in terms of trends for this coming year.

So let’s start talking about how to get the most out of any conference. I happened to be walking with my girlfriend and her dog through a cemetery today – because that’s the kind of thing she likes to do – and it was beautiful. It was quiet and there was other people walking their dogs, we had just gotten about 18 inches of snow so everything was snow covered, really very beautiful. And it’s a very big, old cemetery right in Portland, Maine. And she’s just kind of asking me questions about the benefits of going to conferences versus maybe listening to a podcast, and as we were talking I realized that it was easier to talk about conferences and breaking it down by three different tiers of attending; Newbie, Regular (because I didn’t have a better name for it), and then Old Hand.

So if you’re a “newbie”, if you’ve never been to a conference before or you don’t go to a lot of conferences – and this is a conference that’s maybe a social media conference or maybe it’s another type of industry conference – there’s a few things you can do to get the most out of it. When I think back on my career there was a time that I was pretty new to going to conferences, and conferences have changed a lot, too. So I’m thinking about today’s type of conference and if you’re a newbie, one of the first things I recommend doing is find out if there are any online networking opportunities. And by that I meant that for Social Media Marketing World they had a LinkedIn group, and as soon as you buy a ticket – I think either for the virtual pass or for the physical pass – they immediately invite you to join that private group on LinkedIn, it’s the only way you can get in. And they generate some conversations but there were a lot of threads going around like, “Hey, is anybody else from the state of Michigan going?” or “Is anybody else from Nairobi going?” or “Is anyone else in the pet industry going?” So little niches were forming and it was good to see that kind of conversation because if you’re a newbie and you don’t know anybody – I’ve definitely gone to conferences where I don’t know anybody – and it’s difficult, especially if you’re an introvert. So if you can make some warm leads, so to speak, before you get in, that makes a huge difference.

I think also Social Media Marketing World may have had a Facebook Group, I know they had a Slack group, although I never joined because I still just don’t care enough about Slack. And I know for the Agents of Change conference in years past we’ve had a private group. So as soon as you buy a ticket – real or virtual – we give you access to our Facebook Group and then we try and keep the conversation going there. This year we’re actually considering opening it up to anybody, just so we can have good conversation even though it might not be specific to the conference.

Another thing you can do as a newbie is download the app if there is an app for the conference, and that just will also help you network because a lot of people put their profiles up there. I know that a lot of people checked me out, sponsors that were looking for me to come visit their booth, but still it’s a great opportunity for you to find people who you might want to get in front of and have a conversation with, maybe invite them to lunch or something like that.

And lastly, look at the agenda if you can get your hands on it beforehand. I know for Social Media Marketing World it was not available on the website but it was available through the app. The entire agenda was there and it was a pretty slick app and I was able to kind of choose some of the sessions that I was most likely to attend. So if you’re going to conferences and you’re still early on in your career, I think it’s important to kind of go and see as many of those presentations as you possibly can, including those opening and closing keynotes. You really do pick up a lot and you get a lot of opportunities to be around other people.

I’d also recommend strongly going to as many networking events as you can. Generally there are some formal ones, sometimes there are some informal ones that pop up as well. Again, at Social Media Marketing World they always have the first night as a big night on the Midway out in San Diego and that’s always a lot of fun and they have music and all this food and booze and networking opportunities. It’s just good to go out and meet people from all around the world. Whatever conference you’re at I strongly recommend doing that.

Now if you’ve been to a few conferences and you’ve got a little experience, then your event is probably going to be a little bit different. One of the things is you’ve already been a few times so you already know a lot of the “regulars”. I would start creating plans with friends and associates before the event for lunch or dinner away from the event. It’s amazing how much stuff you can get done when you walk away from the actual conference hall itself, go out for dinner or lunch, grab breakfast if you really don’t want to miss much, and ask everybody to bring a friend. Maybe somebody who’s new, maybe somebody who you’re just getting to know, and then have an event like that. That is a great way of doing some really powerful networking and connecting with people.

Not all networking is about being in the biggest room possible with the most people possible. I really think it’s important to find those quiet, smaller groups and really have more intelligent and more deep conversations. I would go to at least one big networking event, and then blow off or arrive late for another. So like I said, especially at these multi day conferences, there’s usually an event every single night. Definitely go to the first one if you’re in town, and then find some people and maybe make dinner plans. Go out for dinner and then show up late. You don’t need to be at every single minute of the networking events, but it is nice to go to them and it’s nice to kind of have that quiet time outside and just making those deeper connections.

Maybe some of your friends are speaking at this conference, maybe you are. Go and support your friends by attending their presentations. Some of your friends are going to be huge deals perhaps and they don’t need your support, but it’s nice to show them a friendly face anyways. And other of your friends are maybe starting out and need to fill a room but they’re not going to be able to, so you and maybe a few of your posse go and support them. It makes a big difference, they’re going to appreciate it.

Go to at least one presentation on a topic you know nothing about. I remember years ago at SXSW that I was there primarily for all the social media and internet stuff, but there was a session on memory and I have the worst memory of all. In fact, it’s surprising I even remember this. But the session on memory was one of the most mind-bendiest sessions I’ve ever been to from any conference. So get out of your comfort zone, go to one hat just seems like I don’t know what I could possibly gain from going to this, and go to it. And if it absolutely sucks after 15-20 minutes, then leave.

Also, go to one session form somebody you’ve never heard of before. There’s a lot of great talent out there and we all tend to go to the same people year after year – and I’m not mentioning any names because they’re awesome and they’re probably friends of mine – but we just tend to go to the safe sessions, the safe presenters. Get out of that comfort zone and go see somebody you’ve never heard of before. Again, if they’re terrible, this is why you sit on the aisle or the back row and you can just sneak out. But there have been so many times when I’ve gone to a topic or a person that I knew nothing about and was just completely blown away. I remember years ago I went to go see a session on YouTube – which at the time I thought was only about stupid videos – not recognizing the benefits for search engine optimization and for marketing my business. Admittedly this was 8-10 years ago so cut me a little slack, but that was my first introduction to YouTube as a marketing channel and it completely upended the way I marketed my business from then on out. This is why you should go and try something new.

Lastly, maybe you’re an old hand at this, maybe you’ve gone multiple times – like I’ve gone 6 times to Social Media Marketing World – or you’ve just been in the industry for so long you know what’s going to happen. What I would suggest is consider creating or hosting your own event. Maybe you want to partner with a sponsor and bring in influencers. I saw some people do this where they connected with companies like Buzzsumo that had some new research and brought a bunch of content marketers into a room, paid for their lunch, and then basically shared with them all of this information that’s going to be released soon. It definitely built up our awareness of Buzzsumo and kind of positioned them as a thought leader in the industry. And they got in front of 20-30 people that really make a difference when it comes to content marketing. It was a really good idea.

Another idea is if that’s not really your thing, then consider renting a suite rather than getting a room at the hotel and do something like a scotch tasting party. Do something that has completely nothing to do with anything, almost everybody wants to show up for a scotch tasting party. It won’t kill your budget but it’s just something different to do. I’ve seen a number of people do things like and it brings in a different audience, it brings in a different vibe, it makes you the center of attention, and it’s just a great way to enjoy the conference and bring some people in.

So those are just some ideas I have on how you can make the most out of your conference, I hope you definitely check those out. And while I’m actually on the topic, we are not yet selling tickets for the Agents of Change Digital Marketing Conference that we have every September in Portland, Maine and online, we stream it. That’s going to be this year on 9/20, and then we’re going to have a day of workshops on 9/21, but kind of bookmark those days. Go over to your calendar app right now and just type in there “Agents of Change/AOC” and just block out those dates so you can come up to Portland, Maine and hang out with us. And if you can’t make it to Portland at least you can grab that digital pass.

One more thing on conferences before we segue into what I learned at social Media Marketing World, or at least what my takeaways were. If the event is offering a virtual pass, grab it. For Social Media Marketing World there were opportunities that presented themselves which caused me to miss certain sessions that I would have liked to go to. Or sometimes I didn’t realize how important a session was until I heard from some of my friends. One of the nice things is that I grabbed a virtual pass and so I’m able to see all the different sessions. And for Social Media Marketing World – except for maybe the keynotes, slides and voiceovers – that’s still valuable information, it’s a great way to get this content. So I would strongly recommend doing that.

For the Agents of Change we end up doping more of a TED-style event where we videotape everything so people can check that out. But also if you buy a physical pass we include it as part of the experience. But again, we have a much smaller event and it’s much easier for us to get away with things like that than Social Media Marketing World. And again, I cannot say enough about Social Media Marketing World, just an amazing event.

So let’s shift gears and I want to share with you some of my biggest takeaways from Social Media Marketing World. I’m sure other people had different takeaways but I just want to share my notes, and I do carry around a laptop like I often do, and I didn’t even carry around a notebook. I decided to go superlight because when I have pages and pages of notebooks or notes, I never really look at them. So by using my phone, which I don’t find to be super easy to use, because I’ve got to pull out my old man glasses to be able to see anything to take notes, and then they’re talking so fat and my thumbs are so slow. So I really only take down the most important things. So at the end of the day I probably had 2 pages of printed notes. And from those I kind of put them all together into these 8 or so points.

First, damn this is a well-run event! I can really commend Mike Stelzner, Phil Mershon and the rest of the Social Media Examiner crew. I mean we put on an event that’s 1/10 the size, I know how much hard work it is, I like to think we have a really well run event, but Social Media Marketing World is like a machine. A fun machine, a positive, Disney-like machine in terms of how well it’s run and how fun it is and really nothing is left to chance, it’s such a well put together event. If you’ve never been to the event, even if you don’t like these kinds of events, I strongly recommend next year you go check it out just to see how well an event can be run.

The second big takeaway was chatbots. Chatbots were barely mentioned last year, I know Mike Stelzner mentioned it in his keynote of last year that he thought it was going to be a big deal, but there was only one persona that he had scheduled because it was really only just kind of breaking last year. I decided this year that I was going to learn something new about chatbots and I went to 2-3 different sessions of chatbots and I’m definitely going to go back and make sure I check out all of the sessions on chatbots using the virtual pass.

But there were a few takeaways that I had. First of all, they’re absolutely here and hot. A lot of people were interested, a lot of people were in those sessions, there’s a lot of opportunity with chatbots. And chatbots – if you don’t know anything about them – I’m doing a deep dive so I’ll probably have a better definition of chatbots in the future, but basically they’re just automated responses. So you’ll ask a question, the chatbot responds and gives you some options, and you can kind of work your way through it. It’s just a way of providing people information or getting them to sign up or getting them to buy something without actually getting a human involved.

I know that sounds like the absolute opposite of social media so I don’t know why exactly it was part of Social Media Marketing World, except that one of the biggest platforms for this is Facebook. And as Facebook’s organic reach becomes almost impossible for businesses, you have to look at other options, and chatbots are definitely going to be huge in 2018.

That being said, I’m not sure how long they’re going to last. I mean I’m sure chatbots in some fashion will be around forever, but I don’t know how long it will be before the bloom is off the rose. I just see that everybody is super excited about them, and I am too, but I think after a while once people start getting inundated by chatbots they’re just going to be sick and tired of them.

A lot of times the people on stage presenting about chatbots were comparing them to email marketing and talking about all the benefits over email marketing. Like, email marketing has an open rate of on average about 20%. In other words, one out of 5 of your emails is actually going to be opened by one of your recipients. And chatbots have an insane open rate, like nearly perfect open rate. And it’s much easier to get somebody to accept chats from a chatbot when they’re on Facebook and they’re easy to build. But the big downside that I can see is that you just don’t own the list. Like you don’t’ have access to those people except through the chatbot.

If I’m getting people to sign up for my email newsletter like Constant Contact, even when they unsubscribe I can still see their email addresses, I can take that list and I can advertise to Facebook. If someone from Constant Contact is listening and wants to tell me I can’t do that, then please let me know, otherwise I assume I can I just can’t email them through Constant Contact.

And of course I can take my email list and I can move them. If I’m on Constant Contact and I outgrow them and I need to put them on a CRM, then I can do that. If I’m using Mailchimp and I get frustrated and I want to move that list to Constant Contact, I can do that. You can’t do that with a chatbot as far as I can tell. Basically if somebody unsubscribes form the chatbot that’s it for you, there’s no way to re-engage them and that’s just the end. The fact that I don’t own the list when I got people to opt into something bothers me a little.

Some good advice that I got at the session is when using a chatbot, ironically, keep it human. Have the chatbot talk like it is chatting with another human being. Some of the examples I saw were use a lot of emojis and use a lot of GIFs, people love GIFs. If you don’t really have a lot of experience in chatting with somebody, go check out on Facebook, “TXT Stories”, brilliant stuff, very funny, but it kind of shows you the tenor that you should be using when you’re creating chatbots.

Have clickable buttons over short answers to keep things moving, you want to make it as simple as possible for people to engage with your chatbot. They’re great for webinar signups, and one cool thing that I want to play around with is you can have a Facebook chatbot at the bottom of your webpage. That’s right, if people get to your webpage they can see your Facebook chatbot and engage with it there. We’ve all seen chat boxes at the bottom but you can actually take your chatbot from Facebook and have it right on your website.

I think there’s some pros and cons to that. Facebook has a certain amount of trust built up, people know of Facebook, they know what Facebook is all about. Maybe they’ll be more likely to use it when they see that Facebook-like chatbot at the bottom of your homepage on your website. The cons are the same think like when we used to embed the Facebook pages – or the fan pages as they used to be called – up on our website to show how many people liked our page on Facebook. And at first that was really cool, and then after about a month we realized how god damn ugly that was on our website because the Facebook design is nothing necessarily like our own web design and it just looked awkward.

In fact, when I got back to the office and I was sharing this with my Creative Director and my Project Manager about this being something awesome to maybe add to the website, he took one look at it and was like, “I would not want that on a website I created.” So obviously this is something that you need to think about. He actually was trying to work on a workaround where it wouldn’t look like the Facebook chatbot – which kind of takes away some of the benefits of the trust that Facebook has – and just make it look like something that’s more integrated with our website. But when you click on it you would get that Facebook experience.

The third big takeaway, pre-roll ads on YouTube are an under-utilized tool. I was at a session with this guy Billy Jean doing a presentation on YouTube pre-roll ads and how successful they’ve been for him. At the beginning of the session he said, “Raise your hand if you’re running Facebook ads.” And every hand in the room went up. Then he said, “OK, raise your hand if you’re doing YouTube pre-roll ads.” And like three hands go up. That right there tells you that this is under-utilized. He says he’s getting amazing results with it, we had a speaker on a few weeks ago talking a lot about it, so check out that interview, you definitely would get some benefits from that.

But we’re going to be doing more on pre-roll coming up because I just think that it’s something that I know I want to try, and I know I’m going to do it for the Agents of Change Conference. We’ve got the sizzle reel from 2017, we’re going to start rolling that out as a pre-roll, and just the opportunity there for targeting specific videos as a pre-roll, there’s just so many opportunities out there. I really think that that’s something that as a marketer for 2018 you should be taking a look at.

Number four; social sharing is going down across the board with the two exceptions of LinkedIn and Pinterest. So what does this mean to you? Just expect that those share buttons everywhere on your blog and maybe your podcast, they’re just not going to be utilized as much as they used to be, so you’re probably going to need to come up with some other techniques. And it may be about leveraging LinkedIn if you’re a B2B or Pinterest if you’re not. It may be just about finding some different ways and thinking more about SEO. Just other ways of getting people to your page. I would also think about the promoted pins on Pinterest, Facebook ads, even Twitter ads. You’re just going to have to start getting used to the idea of paying for visibility.

Number five; Andy Crestodina does the presentations that I want to be delivering. Yes, this is so frustrating because Andy is a friend of mine, I love him to death, but every time I see him present I’m like, “Damn, why am I not giving that presentation?” It’s some of the same ideas that I’ve had, I’ve even seen him use examples that I’ve used, but the bottom line is he is just delivering such valuable content. If you’re a content marketer and you haven’t checked out Andy Crestodina or Orbit Media, you’re really missing out. I’ll link to those in the show notes, definitely go check out Andy Crestodina.

Number six; this is more about if you’re doing presentations. I noticed this – it might have been Amy Porterfield that did this – but this line is gold, you’re in the middle of a presentation and you say, “However, this is the part that I want you to remember.” When you do that, everybody takes notes. So if there’s just a few things that you want to make sure that the people take away, something along those lines, or, “If you’re only going to remember one thing, this is it.” Those kind of lines are just gold in presentations. I know for me I’m going to spend more time working those into my presentations because they’re just awesome.

Building on that, number seven; Amy Porterfield is one of the best presenters I’ve ever seen. I just wish she enjoyed being on stage as much as everybody in the known universe enjoys watching her. She is so good at winning over the audience and being vulnerable. Just the self-effacing comments and jokes that she makes wins everybody over to her immediately and she’s just a natural at that and I just wish she didn’t hate it so much because we love seeing her on stage.

So a bonus one I’ll throw in here, I’ll call this one number eight; the bucket brigade. I’d heard this before but Ana Hoffman did a presentation on Slideshare that I just thought was really great. One specific thing stuck out for me and it was this idea of the “bucket brigade”. She was talking about it more specifically in Slideshare but it really can be used in presentations, a blog post, or anything. But it’s about the idea of giving somebody a teaser so that they almost have to go to the next slide. And I wish I could remember one good example that she gave but it was something like you doing a presentation on lobster and the slide may be, “There’s only one food that has more antioxidants that lobster. Do you know what that is?” If you’re looking at a slide deck and you see that, there is absolutely no way you can’t click to the next slide. So this idea of the bucket brigade is just taking somebody from one slide to the next, or one paragraph to the next, or whatever it may be, but that is an incredibly powerful tool in storytelling.

Ok, and my last number, I guess it’s number nine. My best takeaway from Social Media Marketing World actually didn’t take place at Social Media Marketing World, it took place the day after. It was a Mastermind put on by my good friend Jeff McMahon – he’s also my virtual personal trainer – he’s been on the show before talking about health tips and hacks and stuff like that. He decided to put on a Mastermind for a number of his clients who were going to be at Social Media Marketing World already. He brought in three speakers, and because a lot of the people that are his clients like John Lee Dumas, Amy Porterfield, Pat Flynn, and myself, we already know a lot about marketing so he purposely did not bring in a speaker on marketing.

The first person brought in was a financial advisor for entrepreneurs who talked about some critical things about entrepreneurs. Another person was a sports psychologist that got us thinking about fear of failure, fear of success, and just things that are kind of keeping you back, and that was really helpful as well. And then the third speaker was actually somebody talking about supplements and eating right and it was just a great day.

We all learned a lot, there was a lot of networking opportunities, and it got me thinking – just the whole thing about networking in a smaller group – not everything has to be the biggest ever, not everything has to be about building the biggest audience ever, it’s more about building the right audience. It was just the right number of people at this event – now called “JeffCon” – and that group is just really interested and excited to talk to each other. There were a lot of people that knew each other, and a lot of people that didn’t know each other, but everybody was driven and everybody was motivated and everybody had this connection in Jeff so that it became a great afternoon and actually one of my favorite memories of the entire event.

And as a side note, it got me thinking about could I do something like this for Agents of Change. I thought that maybe we’d bring in a few people who’d be speaking on topics that wouldn’t be right for Agents of Change but may be for other things, limit this to 10-15 people, have it the day after the event, have the whole thing catered and maybe make it a small networking group. The value of having other driven, like-minded people – like, have it focused on entrepreneurship, perhaps – I think is so beneficial to all the people in the room and the connections you make at a smaller event like that are just astronomical in terms of growing your business and definitely something that I want to think about.

Hey, if you have any ideas on this, if you’ve got any thoughts on this, if you think you’d be interested in attending something like this after Agents of Change, let me know because I’m definitely interested in doing something like this.

Alright, that’s it for this week. We are probably going to have a transcript up, but maybe not the day this launches. But I’ll at least cut up my notes so you can find those over at the theagentsofchange.com/239, and soon enough we’ll get a full transcript up there.

This has been a fun episode for me just kind of to brain dump on you all – sorry about that, hope I didn’t make a mess – to talk about some of the A) lessons about how to get the most out of a conference, and B) specific lessons I learned from Social Media Marketing World. I hope that you take this to heart, I hope you can get excited about going to some live event. There really isn’t anything like a live event, and yes, probably every single session at Social Media Marketing World – every presenter who got up on stage – had already delivered that content. They delivered it as a presentation somewhere else, they delivered it in a blog post, they’ve been on podcasts talking about it, they’ve put on webinars about it. It’s not that the raw data doesn’t exist, it’s more like the energy of the room and the connections you make with other people. That’s why live events are never going to go away and that’s why you need to budget time and money in 2018 and beyond in your own growth and the growth of your company into live events. And I certainly hope you get excited enough that you want to come to The Agents of Change Conference in Maine in September and I certainly hope you consider going to Social Media Marketing World 2019. And if it’s not social media or digital marketing conferences, definitely attending other conferences that are right for growing your business, it’s such a critical piece.  

Ok again, that’s it for this week. Go check out the show notes and possible full transcript over at the theagentsofchange.com/239. That’s all the content we have for this week, I’ll talk to you again soon.

 

Show Notes:

Conferences that Rich mentioned in this episodes:

 

Rich Brooks is the President of flyte new media, a web design & digital marketing agency in Portland, Maine. He knows a thing or two about helping businesses grow by reaching their ideal customers, and to prove that, he puts on a yearly conference to inspire small businesses to achieve big success. You can also head on over to Twitter to check him out, and he just added “author” to his resume with his brand new book!