The Value of Conferences

The Value of Conferences

Last week I left my home in Santa Barbara and went through a ridiculous itinerary of two flights, two cab rides and a train excursion to get to ad:tech in San Francisco. As I was halfway through my Planes, Trains and Automobiles adventure, I started to ponder the value of it all. Are conferences like ad:tech worth it?

In addition to the crazy hours of travel (noted above) we spend money on conference registration, hotel rooms, meals, cocktails, cab fare and any number of other charges that inevitably pop up while traveling. For what? Why do we do it? Is there real value in spending all this time and money to meet your customers or partners face to face?

I think so.

I attend between seven and ten conferences in a typical year. I attend for a variety of business reasons and always have firm deliverables, but I attend for another big reason: it energizes me. Too often we get stuck in a rut and are so focused on our singular view of the world that we forget that there are thousands of other marketers out there trying to accomplish similar things. Trading opinions about a keynote or sharing war stories over a cocktail remind us that we’re part the same business species. For me, that’s a comforting thing. Whether it leads to a business relationship or not, the renewal of purpose is worth the entire expense of the trip.

But, we all serve our masters and the powers that be usually insist that we come back with business leads and new ideas on how to make our organizations better. That’s fair I guess, especially since said master is footing the bill. That said, how do you go about sorting through the hundreds of business cards you inevitably gather? Do you have a tactical plan or do you start cold calling? Maybe you prefer to send the “hey, it was great seeing you at ad:tech…” email. Or, maybe you forget about those cards altogether and they’re still sitting on the back of your desk gathering dust. My suggestion? Spend an hour on your first day back in the office and take a hard look at each card and assess the real business potential there. Did you exchange cards because you met at the bar while waiting for your cocktail or was there a serious exchange of ideas?

Once you’ve determined the handful of cards with real value I suggest capturing them digitally in a way that makes sense for you. There are dozens of apps that will do this for you, or you can create something as simple as an Excel spreadsheet. Take this time to also create your follow-up strategy. You want to reach out while the meeting is still fresh in their mind, but you don’t want to bombard them on their first day back in the office. After that initial reach-out, their response should give you a better sense of what type of business (if any) you can expect in the near term.

Personally, I’ve never had any business come from a conference meeting in the near term. Instead, what usually happens is those initials meetings and business card exchanges often turn into friendships over time, and that has lead to lots of my consulting work. In fact, I can’t think of a single client I’ve had that I didn’t know already on some level. Trust, reputation and familiarity go a long way in my business and I’ve found that very little tops an honest exchange of ideas over a cocktail.

So what’s your take on all this? What do conferences mean to you? Why do you attend and how do you measure your success afterward? I’d love to get your take in the comments.

  • We just got back from EXHIBITOR2011 in Vegas. We had lead tracking scanners in our booth, and those allowed you to manage and quantify those leads AS you scanned their attendance badge. Obviously one doesn’t sit on a barstool with a laser scanner…that’d just be weird at MOST conventions. However, for those interactions, I don’t just hand out my card willy nilly (<–I hate this term-I have no idea why I used it). I only hand it out when I've made a significant enough connection to warrant such. And I don't wait until the following week… what I do is AS SOON AS I CAN jot down a couple of things on the back of their card…just anything as to the contents of our discussion, their business angle, potential etc. while it's still fresh. Because there's nothing worse than receiving that form-feeling, "Good to talk to you _____ Insert Name" email. As for conferences and conventions… absolutely worth it. Where else can you show up and really whip up on your competition? What better way is there to show your prospect an "A/B" comparison…than the convention environment?

    • You make a great point Jason – writing relevant info on the back of the business card is crucial to remembering the conversation later – especially if said business card was exchanged over cocktails. 🙂