Contrary to what some social media pundits would say, conferences where people show up and interact in person have not gone away. Not only are they around to stay, but most legal marketing pundits (including yours truly) agree that attending conferences can offer valuable business development opportunities.
But how do you know whether a conference will be really valuable, especially since an out-of-town conference will likely cost a few thousand dollars and the loss of billable time? Your best bet is to weigh several factors.
Let’s first talk about those factors relating to business development.
Who attends the conference? If any of your existing clients are going, you should be there, too. Here are three reasons why:
- The conference should provide social and learning activities that will no doubt enhance the existing relationship.
- Those same clients may be able to introduce you to new prospects.
- And, assuming you want more clients like the ones you have, chances are good that those types of people will be in attendance. It’s a great Step One to starting new relationships.
If you’re not sure who is attending, do some due diligence. Do you know anyone who has attended a past conference? If not, make a few phone calls or send a few emails to those putting together the conference. They should be able to give you a good idea of who has attended in the past. Don’t forget about the brochure. Many include a “Who Should Attend?” section, which makes it easy for you to decide if you should attend.
Also, consider the speaker lineup. Are there any speakers you’d like to meet? Easy. Just attend the breakout session. When it’s over, go up and introduce yourself and start a conversation about a presentation topic.
What networking activities does the conference offer? Special networking activities offer great opportunities to get one-to-one time with potentially valuable contacts. Consider these:
- Are there any optional sightseeing excursions? They usually provide a more comfortable setting for meeting new people than a cocktail hour attended by hundreds.
- What about meals? You can always meet new people at a sit-down meal if you make it a point to eat at a table with strangers.
- Are there any invitation-only private gatherings being sponsored by an exhibitor? Here again, crowds are usually smaller in these settings and it is easier for you to mingle than in the larger gatherings.
Use your imagination to figure out a way to get an invite to any of these. Honestly, it usually isn’t that hard to do.
Does the conference have small breakout sessions? It is easier to meet new people if there are only 30 attendees in a smaller conference room, rather than a huge auditorium containing hundreds. The kind of conference you want to attend is one that is heavy on the breakouts and light on the plenaries.
Follow up. Repeat after me: Follow up. Don’t waste your time heeding my suggestions unless you intend to follow up with the people you interacted with at the conference. Trust me, they will forget you exist sooner than you think. The first step to following up is to send an email a few days after the conference. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. The simple “nice to meet you” variety is fine.
Next, think about ways to advance this new relationship. For example, if you met someone from your area, try to arrange a coffee or lunch date. If they are not close by, can you think of other times when you may see them again in the near future? Other conferences? Perhaps they are located in a place where you have other business to do as well? Put some effort in here — it will pay off.
Beyond Business Development
The above factors focus on the benefits you and your business will receive by attending. Let’s now turn to factors unrelated to business development.
Will you learn anything? In addition to offering opportunities to meet new people, conferences also offer opportunities to meet new ideas. Take a look at the agenda and breakout sessions to determine if the topics are the same old, same old, or if there is a chance you may actually learn something new.
Location, location, location. You have my permission to be selfish. There’s nothing inherently immoral or unethical about factoring in things having little to do with your career. Hey, I live in Minnesota. All things being equal, San Diego during January sure sounds a helluva lot better to me than Washington, D.C. in the summer.
Also, what about friends and family members? Are there conferences located in places that would allow you to catch up with them? Is it possible to bring your spouse and take a few days off before or after the conference for a mini-vacation?
Enjoy. The best conferences fulfill business development, educational and personal goals, all while enhancing one’s overall career. Be selective and remember to have some fun. Safe travels!
Roy S. Ginsburg is an attorney coach who works one-to-one in the areas of business development, practice management and career development. He has practiced law for more than 25 years in large to small firms and in a corporate setting. He is currently an active solo with a part-time practice in legal marketing ethics and employment law. Learn more at www.royginsburg.com.