If your last digital marketing conference provided you with nothing more than a bag full of ink pens and promotional trinkets, then missed a significant opportunity to grow professionally and personally. Having attended two key digital marketing conferences in the last two months (ad:tech San Francisco as an exhibitor and Search Engine Strategies as an attendee), I have some key observations I would like to share. If you are attending digital marketing conferences, odds are you probably fall into one of these roles: (1) you are a marketing professional and attending the conference is an exercise your company promotes for you professional development, (2) you are an exhibitor / vendor and you are using the conference as a platform to sell your service or product, (3) you are a novice and this is an early step in your education process, or (4) you’re a hard core job seeker within the industry. Of course there are other reasons, but on the whole most of the people I met fell into one of these categories.
Marketing Professionals. You’re a solid marketer in your field and attending the conference helps you fulfill an employer mandate for career development. The digital conferences I have attended usually provide both topical seminars and an exhibitors’ area where vendors promote their offerings. As a marketer, online or otherwise, take the opportunity to interact with others (yes that means talk to other people outside your company). Doing so will yield incredible opportunities to learn about product ideas, industry trends, and other key information that can position you favorably in your company and alert you to potential threats in your career path. This is the type of information that can give you a competitive edge both internally and externally. You don’t want to be that last person to find out that your skills are on a technical deathwatch list.
Exhibitor. You are attending to directly (or indirectly) offer your product or service. Indirect offers take the form of branding opportunities or lead generation. From recent experience, take some time to walk around the other exhibitor booths while listening carefully. You can discover a lot about your competitors by do nothing more than listening to them deliver their value statements to prospective customers and listening to what the customers discuss then and directly after they walk away from the exhibitor booth. After your mission impossible impersonation you should really make a point of honest self-reflection. From what you have seen and heard, several questions you should be asking yourself right about now are: Is my offering compelling? Does it compare favorably to other competitors at the conference? Are there new disruptive technologies or trends that will impact the viability of my offering? What is my company doing well and what could we really improve on to be more competitive. Take a legal notepad and jot down your discoveries, thoughts, and impressions. If you are working in your employer’s exhibit, continue to take notes on the common relevant questions asked by attendees. If you don’t take the time to note these learnings immediately, you are probably going to have a hard time trying to recall the information, especially at heavily attended conferences where you may literally speak to thousands of people over a two day period.
Industry Novice. You are attending because you want to know more. Maybe your starting or thinking about a career change, thinking about starting a new business or believe you may become an enthusiast of the technology or industry. Develop contacts with the exhibitors and some of the attendees. Take note of the companies that are exhibiting and where they are located on the floor space. You’ll get a rough idea of what a company is willing to spend by where they are located – good location generally equates to higher exhibitor space rate. If the company is willing to spend big, it’s a good bet that they are doing well. Also note the number of companies offering similar products and services. This can be a good guide to the level of competitiveness and the maturity of the industry. If you uncover a new technology and few if any exhibitors, this might indicate an early trend which can yield considerable upside opportunities for new startups. Talk to these companies and get a feel for their level of competence.
Job Seeker. Industry specific conferences are an excellent venue for gaining employer referrals. Please note that I didn’t say jobs but referrals. If you are specifically targeting an industry conference as a path to a new career, don’t go with the intent on handing out resumes. The larger companies often send account managers, sales associates, and/or junior managers to staff their booths, though smaller companies will often send higher-level employees. The best approach is the networking approach. Use the opportunity to talk with the exhibitor staff about the company, express interest in the industry, provide some relevant background experience indirectly in the conversation, and ask about their path to employment with their current employer. If you do find a senior level employee, ask him or her for general advice on how to get into the industry. Most senior level employees will usually provide the advice freely. Your objective should be a referral by your contact to someone within their company who is either a senior level employee or someone in human resources. A couple of things you should not do in your search: (1) don’t bring up that you are unemployed or hate your current job, (2) never act or say you are desperate (even if you are in fact so), (3)do not freely distribute your resume at the exhibitor booths (you’ll look desperate and stupid), (4) don’t be overly assertive – you have to create the opportunity for the exhibitor to want to provide the referral not coerce it.
Industry conferences like AdTech, Search Engine Strategies, and others provide a great venue for learning outside the actual seminars. Most attendees don’t take the time to really use the conference to its maximum learning and earning benefit. With an anemic economy and an ever evolving workplace, do yourself a favor by expending a little extra effort. Be valuable not replaceable.