5 Essential Tips on How to Get the Most Out of Conferences Conferences can be either extremely boring or extremely useful. Here are a few tips on making the most of your time at these events.

By Jake Gibson

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For entrepreneurs and startup executives who bury themselves behind the firewall of their digital business, working a room can carry deep dread. In the thick of building your product, it can be easy to forget the importance of getting out and talking to potential customers.

But conferences are a great way to get your message out, connect with future clients and get the lay of the land from people on the ground in your industry.

Recently NerdWallet's vice president of personal finance Shiyan Koh was able to connect with more than half of 350 attendees at a three-day event. Quite impressive. I asked Koh to share her tips on how to kill it when you need to work a big room.

Related: 3 Things You Might be Doing Wrong if Your Tech Conference Flopped

Here are some great lessons from her.

1. Most of the work is done before you go. Central question to ask yourself: What do you want to get out of the conference? You need to rationalize the time and expense of going to an event, and more importantly have goals to guide you. We knew we wanted not only to meet as many people as possible but also to strengthen our ties to the national body organizing the event and strengthen ties with participants with whom we already had a relationship.

Get a list of participants and set up key meetings ahead of time to ensure that, at the very least, you'll walk away building key relationships. Another off-the-wall tip: Bring your own laser printer. That means you can print out last-minute materials without having to run back and stand in line at the business center of the hotel.

2. Figure out who really needs to attend. Picking the right people to go is a big thing. It's surprising how many companies cough up cash to go to a conference and then populate their exhibitor's stand with a junior person who spends their time twiddling thumbs or thumbing through their smartphone. The best attendees have a strategic interest to be there -- not just a bored pole-sitter flying the firm's flag at the company booth. They are proactive in meeting people – not wallflowers.

Related: Get the Most From Conferences, Even on a Startup Budget

3. Create a reason for people to come talk to you. Understand that most people come to a conference to meet people and attend the sessions. Walking through the exhibitor's hall comes as an afterthought. And participants walk away with a suitcase full of cheap tchotchkes: How many engraved company pens, stress balls and USB flash drives do you really need?

Offer some things that will really matter to conference participants and underline your company's mission. For instance, a chief offering of NerdWallet is our "Ask an Advisor" platform that gives certified financial planners a way to showcase their knowledge and promote themselves online. In keeping with that mission, we had a stand with a professional photographer who shot free portrait headshots attendees could use for their own personal promotion.

The offering created buzz around our exhibit and gave us ample opportunity to chat to people as they waited to be photographed. More than half of the conference participants sat for a headshot -- much more memorable than a free USB thumb drive.

4. Have a system for recording and remembering people you met. It is imperative that you don't let all those connections go to waste after the conference is complete.

We had a Google spreadsheet that we used to record who we met, personal details about them and what we talked about. The last bit can be crucial as a way to reconnect after the event, to jar their own memories: "Hey Paul, really enjoyed our talk about how you are thinking about using social media to connect with your prospects..."

5. Follow up after the event. Make sure you follow up with everyone you met after the event -- even if it's just a "nice to have met." LinkedIn is an easy and natural way to follow up after meeting someone at a conference. The key here is to carry the momentum from a great convention into actual conversion as a customer or partner. Remember, that's the whole point of attending conferences in the first place.

Related: Save Big on Trade Shows, Then Work Your Magic

Jake Gibson

Co-founder and Advisor of NerdWallet

Jake Gibson is the co-founder and advisor of NerdWallet, a startup focused on offering price-comparison tools for financial products. Prior to joining the company, Gibson did a long stint at JPMorgan Chase, where he traded derivatives and managed new automated trading technologies.

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