Bye-Bye Business Cards: 4 Expert Tips for Making the Most out of Conferences

Network all you want, but success these days is determined by ROI.
Bye-Bye Business Cards: 4 Expert Tips for Making the Most out of Conferences
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Suit pressed, teeth whitened, business cards printed, promotional mugs and pens packed. All set for the conference? Hmm, only if you are planning on traveling back in time to the 80s.

For decades, industry conferences were regarded as a bit of a jaunt. A chance to hand out business cards, mingle with peers and indulge in complimentary wine and nibbles. But in the fast-paced tech industry, every second and dollar counts. And for startups with skeleton teams and limited resources, the only way to justify paying hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars for an event which keeps them out of the office for days, is straight-up ROI.

Related: Does Appearing at CES Actually Pay Off?

The most obvious forms of ROI are sales leads, media coverage or interest from investors. However, if startups use their time efficiently, less direct -- but equally as valuable -- ROI can come from developing relationships, learning from the experience of others and gaining social proof, just to name a few.

I spoke to a number of experts at the SAAS NORTH conference in Ottawa, Canada, about how to make the most out of conferences.

1. Make your moment memorable.

Conferences are loud, busy and filled to the brim with competition, so when you have someone's attention at a networking event or your trade booth, you need to use your time efficiently, or they will get distracted and move on.

By nature, startups are agile and constantly evolving, pivoting, adding new functions, changing pricing and making new partnerships. As a result, there is no point leaning on the same lightning pitch every time. People want to hear what your company can do for them now, how it is solving a problem and why they should be interested, all in a clear and concise manner.

“Know your audience and what these people are aiming to achieve when speaking to you," said Jamie Petten, director of marketing for L-SPARK. "There are many different groups, so the basic value pitch of what you do needs to come through, but you need to be able to adjust to the person you are speaking to to make it really valuable.”

A good conference should attract founders, VCs, alternative funders, corporates looking for partners and acquisitions, service providers and the media. Each of these parties will be interested in different parts of your company, story and business model, so having a rigid, rehearsed pitch is no good. Be sure to plan for different audiences, and run your ideas past a few close contacts before the event begins. And if you need to, test your idea even further. “Quite often what happens is people create ‘echo chambers’ by only running ideas past a close circle of friends and colleagues, when they actually need to go further and ask for honest feedback from a third party,” said Meena Sandhu, conference director for SAAS NORTH.

First impressions count for everything, so be sure to paint your company/product in a light which sticks in people’s minds and makes them keen to find out more. Don’t be scared to hand out interesting swag too as a momento to wake up to in the morning. Sandhu argues that if you offer promo goods that are sought after or unusual, you will get more real conversations out of this as people are less likely to just snatch and run.

“Envision everyone leaving that conference and speaking about you,” said Mike McDerment, CEO and founder of FreshBooks. “What act did you perform which grabbed people’s attention and created a buzz around you?”

2. Aim to build relationships, not splurge on business cards.

Effectively planning and preparing for each event allows you to set goals and maximize results tenfold. Try to find out who is attending, and make yourself a target list of who you would like to connect with and be clear as to why.

“Research the people you want to communicate with, and then create metrics for yourself to achieve, such as meet 3 VCs or connect with three potential corporate partners,” said Ben Yoskovitz , CEO of Highline Beta. “Engage on Twitter and LinkedIn as this gives context about your company. If you bump into that person, you need to know exactly why you are speaking to them.”

Keep an eye on the social media feeds of investors, other startups and corporate partners for clues of who will be making the trip. Petten suggests events streamline the process with apps, providing an attendee list with photos to work out who can gain impact from who, rather than relying on chance encounters. But if your conference is behind the times, be sure to save a photo of the people who you want to speak to so that you can find a face in a crowd.

Related: The Importance of Face-to-Face Networking in a Digital World

Bear in mind that there will be hundreds of other people with the same plan, so there won’t be much time for small talk. That said, play it cool and always be polite and friendly, as industry veterans will become jaded of used car salesmen who try to push a sale with fluff and flair.

“People get so focused on their pitch and marketing their idea, that they forget there is so much business, knowledge and connections that can be gained from having a real conversation,” said Sandhu. “People like sincerity, they want to have an organic experience, not be swarmed by salespeople. You need to make a good impression and develop relationships, as contacts always come back into play.”

Be sure to follow up with people who you make a connection with in a timely manner. You don’t have to run home and send a message immediately, like a lovestruck teenager after a first date, but a meeting is effectively useless unless you actually create an opportunity out of it. Be sure to mention what you were talking about and bring something to the table. Don't just fire off a template email.

Leo Lax, executive managing director of L-SPARK says, “when re-connecting, use what you learned about the other person while networking to offer them something which is valuable to them. It could be a link to a useful article, shared content, a personal contact or a piece of advice.”

3. Listen and learn, rather than just turbo-pitching.

Networking is only one part of the conference experience. Every event has different contributors, so assess who can really offer actionable takeaways for your business and then try and make time to attend. As with music festivals, it might be tempting to try and see all of the superstars, but you may find that if you stray from the beaten path, you will find the real gems. It is important to take in as much as possible from other experts such as VCs, alternative investors, engineers, design experts, marketers and the media too.

“The idea should be to learn, network and grow, not just one of the above,” said Petten. “It’s easy to get distracted at conferences, but unless you leave with actionable strategies, which you can launch immediately, you have missed out.”

A good conference should have a range of speakers from different backgrounds, so don’t just focus on billionaire founders as you can easily find their stories immortalized online. Take a step back and look at speaker lists and then decide what content is really relevant for your product and business model.

“Conferences bring like-minded people together in a space which is really conducive to learning," said Ardi Iranmanesh, co-founder and chief-of-staff of Affinio. "Don’t just check out keynote speakers, but give other startups and experts a chance too. The amount you can learn over a two-day conference is amazing, but you need to bring these learnings back and make real changes.”

4. Apply to contribute.

In tech hubs like Silicon Valley, contributing to the startup ecosystem and "giving more than you take" is ingrained into entrepreneurs. Contributing through thought leadership, content, blogs, webinars, mentorship programs and, of course, conferences is a great way to stick your head out from the crowd and gain social proof as a serious player in your own industry. However, to contribute, you need to have the confidence to apply.

Related: 10 Marketing Conferences Entrepreneurs Must Attend in 2017

The tech world is dominated by middle-aged white males, so unsurprisingly, conference lineups have traditionally followed on the same thread. Sandhu argues that pushing equality in the tech world requires a cultural change from within so entrepreneurs feel enabled and empowered to contribute based on their experience and expertise, regardless of their age, gender, ethnicity or background.

“The tech community needs to be more proactive in pushing people forward and saying ‘Hey this person is amazing. Let’s get him or her out there in front of an audience,'" Sandhu continued. "People need to rally about creating more opportunities to create more balance.”

Before making impulse buys for conferences based on their A-list lineups, it is important to look past the first page and assess the real value that the content and expertise can really offer to your company and business model. Ask, how you can make the most out of this investment and maximize the returns for your company, and then plan accordingly. Rather than focusing on selling, immerse yourself in an environment filled with bright young minds and experienced veterans, and try to take away and give in equal measures.