10 Strategies to Optimize Conference Attendance

When my friend and the founder of Online Behavior, Daniel Waisberg, asked me to contribute an article, he gave me a few choices. I picked the topic he said was “something about how to attend conferences.” See, Daniel and I have spent a lot of time together drinking soda and eating pie at conferences all over Earth, so when Corry Prohens from IQWorkforce said publicly that I “fly in and fly out and barely go to any sessions. You do your keynote or panel, then I see you late night,” I thought what a great topic! First I did not disagree (at all), but I told Corry that I optimize my conference behavior to maximize both the professional, personal, social, and tourist value of the conference.

Often times I am in some way participating at the conferences that I am attending – from speaking to being on a panel to moderating to emceeing conferences, I always have something to do related to the event. And I have a full-time job too, so I have to pick and choose what to do, when, and where. Thus I am a rare bird to see at conference. Corry is right, but you know what? Corry and Daniel never have any trouble finding me!

When planning a conference behavioral strategy, here’s what I suggest to optimize the experience. I call this guidance “multivariate attendance strategies” for no reason other than as linkbait to use in the title. Below are the 10 strategies to ensure you have a memorable and fun conference experience.

1. Take paid time off

Don’t expect your boss to always approve the conference for what is mostly like a free vacation day or three with mostly free food. I know that sounds crazy, right. I am telling you to take vacation (like I do). Think about it. Your colleagues all think you are slacking anyway when you go to a conference, so why not just let them know in a very visible way that “you are taking PTO so you don’t have to maintain your commitment to x-company.” That way, you eliminate foolish politics and juvenile jealousy from your coworkers. Yes folks, when you see me from OMMA to eMetrics to X Change to I-COM, I am taking vacation. But… I also keep up on email and make sure that I am available for calls, urgencies – because if I need to bail on an event, no biggie. My job is always more important than a conference.

2. Pick your sessions judiciously

The bigger the conference, the harder picking the best sessions. My advice would be to go:

  1. Don’t go by the names
  2. Don’t go by the titles
  3. Always go by the experience of the person presenting

My experience is that in our industry a lot of talking goes on at conferences by people with various levels of analytical (in)experience who may not necessarily have ever done what they are talking about. As shocking as that is, you will hear and see pontification.

At this point I get the theory behind why we do analytics and what can be done with analytics, so I shy away from the talkers and find the practitioners who actually do real analytics. That said, if you can find a known name, who is a practitioner, and who is theorizing/pontificating based on real experience, always go to that session – trust me.

Often the person you’ve never heard of is the best. For example, Avinash Kaushik at eMetrics in 2005. He exploded heads; then wrote a book – have you heard of Avinash? Yes, we just call him Avinash. In 2005, he was just like you and me – and honestly he still is – In terms of picking names, I have always enjoyed and learned from Jim Novo, Jim Sterne, Justin Cutroni, Eric T Peterson, Bryan Eisenberg, Jim Sterne, and many others (names of the guilty omitted unintentionally).

3. Plan in advance

While you should always leave space for spontaneous decisions as to which sessions you will attend, be sure to take a good look at the conference agenda beforehand. Knowing which sessions are happening when will help you manage your way through the conference. So, if you have to catch up on emails and do work-related stuff, decide beforehand which sessions you will miss and get back to your room to do your work.

4. Show up for the keynotes

If you are not taking PTO then you are not being paid to sleep in. Wake up! Take an Advil. The Lobby Bar hangover will end immediately after the keynotes. Trust me, it always does. Find the coffee and high-fat foods to soak up the Sake you shot over that last call at Lobby Bar with that analyst from Sony. More seriously, do not worry about breakfast – hint, the breakfast food is still out during the keynotes (at least the coffee) – just make the keynotes. But if you can’t make them, so what? Don’t stress.

If the person keynoting the event speaks everywhere, then chances are you are missing the same speech they will give at the next event later in the year, so see it then. That’s a secret – many people who do a lot of speaking give the same preso over and over again. Or ask for the keynote slides. Or watch the keynote stream from your hotel room as the Advil takes effect.

5. Don’t always and only sit with your conference friends

Lunch, open bar, snack time, breaks, hallways “water cooler” meetings are all excellent opportunities to network. And frankly that’s why you are at a conference. The dirty secret is that the sessions are not too important – it’s the people you meet and the business you do outside the sessions that will frame your judgment of whether attending the conference was successful to you.

Remember you already know the people you sit with in the sessions and at the Lobby bar, so be extroverted and find a table with people whom you have never met. Then sit down saying “Hi, My name is X and I work for Y. What do you do?” Then listen. You will have plenty of time to do shots with your friends late night. Conferences provide plenty of time to schmooze, so schmooze-away, grinning and cheesing it with people.

6. Go out at night – and stay out as late as possible

Many people who know me from the conference “scene” know that like a true “conference carney”, I go to the keynotes (but sit near no one I know), miss many sessions to network or do real work at my job, introduce myself to everyone, and then go out every night for as late as I possibly can while still remaining responsible and professional. In other words, if you do not “nightcrawl” then go out to the free/costly dinners and buy people both non-alcoholic or alcoholic beverages. Use the expense account or save up your Internet incomes to buy people top shelf. Please note that I once bought Jim Sterne a “rusty nail” – so that’s what I will always get him, unless he asks for first growth vino, then I will say “this year’s Beaujolais is more balanced than you might expect!”

7. Mix friendship with business – carefully

Realize that it is entirely possible to mix friendship with business, but with certain people doing so risks the potential for losing both. So be careful who you get more than professional cozy with… I’ve personally met some of the most incredible, intelligent, successful, and hard working people in my life in the digital analytics industry (BTW, web analytics is dead). Be open to those relationships, just not too open.

Also avoid hooking up with anyone. It may seem cool at the time – and it happens all the time – it’s just a bad idea because, in most cases, it just makes for awkwardness once the inevitable “morning after” occurs whether the next day or year. Keep it platonic, kids, and don’t mix your love life with the professional. That’s a bad hat to wear.

8. See the city, avoid the towns

Don’t go to conferences in cities or towns that aren’t cosmopolitan with fun and diverse day and nightlife. New Orleans, San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Boston, Las Vegas or internationally – go, go, go, go ASAP. Then see strategy #1: take PTO. Check out VondelPark. See the MET. Go to Alcatraz or the Lower Haight. Have Dungeness Crab. Eat lobster and clam chowder. See the Dali Museum. See the Prado. Go to the top of Sears Tower. Visit the Space Needle. Explore Underground Montreal. Take the train/subway/tube/metro. Visit the Tate. Tour the Kremlin. Visit the Wailing Wall. See the Louvre. Find a Fado bar. Put $100 on black. Go to Chinatown.

9. Go the weekend before or stay the weekend after

(…and, if you can do that, take your significant other.) Chances are your flight and hotel are comp’ed, so do your professional thing; then, find the most expensive and romantic restaurant in the new city you are visiting and have a fun night with that special person. Then come a few days earlier or stay a few days later to soak it all in before you go back to your job. Remember the wise advice of Ferris Beuller “Live moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop to look around once in awhile, you might just miss it.” See you around Earth, my colleagues and friends.

10. Stay sober

If you really want to get drunk, do it alone in your room using the minibar. Conferences have a lot of partying – sometimes with finger foods but mostly with Jello shots. Know your limits – and stay cool and professional. I’ve heard of people get hammered, passed out, arrested, disappearing, making fools of themselves – and then, getting canned Monday morning. It’s just not worth it. Be good to yourself. Stay sober.

Closing thoughts

Industry conferences from eMetrics to OMMA to X Change to Engage to The Summit are very good. Personally I emcee and program the OMMA Metrics and Research conferences held annually in New York City and San Francisco. I also regularly hit up the best conferences like Jim Sterne’s eMetrics, Gary Angel’s Semphonic X Change, and Andreas Cohen’s I-COM.

Next time you see me at a conference, flag me down, introduce yourself, and say hello. I always enjoy meeting new colleagues. I’d certainly love to learn your strategies for conferences and your advice. I have more to share offline too… and at DAT (Digital Analytics Thursdays) worldwide in 2012.

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