Conferences Are Good for Networking but Great for Marketing

Even a tedious conference is a good opportunity to get you and your product in front of potential customers.

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By Derek Newton

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

It's easy to be down about conferences. Travel is exhausting and expensive and, after you've been to a few conferences, they can be awfully repetitive. Unless you're in the bar or catering business, it can be difficult to see the return on investment.

Because all that is true conferences are frequently overlooked for their marketing potential. Done right, they can be marketing gold, especially for startups. Here are a few tips on how to view, and use, conferences and conventions to build brand awareness and customer base through marketing.

Don't just go, show.

Many conferences, and especially those centered around hard market segments like technology or construction, have trade show components where companies can buy tables or booths to show off their products. Get one, if you can.

It's not that potential customers are going to line up at your booth and wait to hand you contracts and checks. That's not going to happen. But two things are nonetheless true. First, those who walk past or talk fast at trade show venues are either customers or competitors. Both are good. They are, typically, highly engaged and well informed.

Second, and most importantly, simply being there is an important message. It says "here we are" and that you're investing in this process and have something to say. From a marketing perspective, directed at such a highly engaged audience, that's pretty important.

Related: There Are Challenges When Your Tech Conference Gets Popular

Don't just be present, present.

If you target a conference six months or more in advance, don't be shy about asking the organizers to give a speech or join a panel or debate. Review the program of the upcoming or past conferences. And be ready to explain what you'd say and why it's interesting. But do ask.

There's a world of difference between handing out a dozen cards at the bar and holding a microphone in front of 200 market colleagues. One of those has real value. You can guess which.

Don't be discouraged if the organizers pass. There's also value in asking. By making the inquiry, those organizing the event will know you and believe you have something to say. When they meet you in person, they'll remember. Also, if you bought a booth at the trade center, don't hesitate to mention it in your request. It's not good conference business to say "no" to the people who are writing checks.

Related: 5 Secrets to Creating a Successful Mastermind Event

Sponsor.

Nearly every conference ever conceived has sponsors – official media partners, official energy drinks and operating systems. If you have a marketing budget, ask and ask early about sponsoring.

Often, sponsorships include prime logo and brand placement on conference materials that reach many more people than actually attend. They can also include speaking and media opportunities. Or VIP receptions. Or, frankly, you name it. No, really. If your company can afford to be a conference sponsor, ask for what you need -- you may get it. Want to meet the keynote speaker? Ask. Want the hosting organization to endorse your business? Ask.

A surprising number of people see conference as networking opportunities but overlook the real branding and marking possibilities.

"Marketing -- getting in front of your clients and potential customers -- at conferences is an under-valued part of the conference investment and experience," said Devin Schain, founder and CEO of National Education Initiative which hosts one of the biggest annual education conferences, National Education Week. "While sponsorships can help to elevate your brand over an extended period, speaking on panels and media opportunities on-site at conferences can build your thought leadership profile which also lends ultimate credibility to your brand and is just as valuable."

The next time you or your marketing team runs across an interesting or exciting conference in your business space, don't just land – plan. Conferences are pretty solid places to invest. You won't find a better captive audience anywhere.

Related: 5 Tricks to Help You Stand Out at a Trade Show

Derek Newton

NYC based communications and public relations professional

Derek Newton is a communications expert and writer based in New York City. He has been working in nonprofit, political and policy communications for more than 20 years and helped launch several startups. 

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