The Critical Business Value of Attending Conferences

I’m a strong proponent of virtual professional networks like LinkedIn but I’d like to talk a bit about why it’s still important to remember that to be plugged in to your industry and market, you need to also attend workshops, seminars and conferences.
But here’s my tip for you: conferences aren’t about the sessions, the talks, or the demos, and it doesn’t really matter if you attend the vendor exhibition. Conferences are all about the breaks, the dinners, the bar at the conference hotel after the day’s done.
Why? Because the so-called educational aspect of a conference is something you can often receive by simply buying a book or a training DVD. That’s not enough to get me to travel to another city. To me, the most important aspect of attending a conference is the opportunity to meet people that I wouldn’t have otherwise ever met. It’s the random, the chaotic, the unexpected, unplanned discovery.

That’s where sites like LinkedIn are, unto themselves, less valuable: Even if the site allowed me to get a “random user profile of the day” or, perhaps a bit more constrained, “random second level connector of the day”, it’s still nowhere near as valuable as sitting at a table, talking about something relevant to your business space and having someone across the table be inspired or, even better, have me get inspired.This isn’t a criticism of LinkedIn, however, because all virtual professional networking tools suffer from the same problem, and I’m convinced that they can’t solve this problem.
Consider last night: Steve Gillmor (ZDNet Blogger and founder of The Gillmor Gang), Om Malik (Business 2.0 and Om Malik’s Broadband Blog), Damon Billian (of SimplyHired), and I debated this very topic. Steve’s position was that if you could attend the social facets of a conference, you probably don’t even need to pay for the conference at all, and Om was even more blunt, pointing out that a highly networked professional could connect with anyone they want anyway, and that he wasn’t particularly interested in connecting with random people anyway, it was once his circle of trusted experts started talking about someone that he became interested.
Different perspectives, and for some highly connected people like Om, they can find different ways to stay plugged into the industry. But for the rest of us, Om and Steve are anomolies, are not a typical professional, and that makes sense, because both of them are what we call “connectors”, extremely well connected people in their industry space (Om told me that he’s had to change from Apple’s Address Book because he now has more contacts than the program can handle). Think about this though: if we were all virtually networking, would I have had the opportunity to spend three hours eating and socializing with Steve Gillmor, Om Malik, Damon Billian, Dave McClure (also of SimplyHired), Tris Hussey (of Larix Consulting), Nick Hall (of Possibility Productions), and Scott Rafer (of Feedster)? Whether or not I would have sat down, would they have all sat at the same table, with full attention, chatting together and would the conversation have gone in the directions it went if all of us weren’t sitting around, eating dinner together for a few hours?
Then, after dinner, Tris and I rendezvoused with Debbie Weil (of WordBiz) and we talked about parenting, not business blogging, then, when another conference attendee came up and started talking about how her company is what I’d call a late adopter – a company that is focused on manufacturing and markets directly to builders, not end-customers – we all spent a few seconds talking about business, then the next half-hour talking about funny parenting stories.
Is this critical to business? In fact, it is. You can call this the “art of small talk”, but in fact being able to establish a one-to-one personal connection with other professionals in your field is critical to being a success. They’re not customers or vendors, after all, they’re people.

Getting Involved with a Conference or Workshop

I like to talk at conferences, so I can also share a second level of being involved with a professional conference, workshop or seminar: being at the front of the room is, hands down, the best way to network of all. At this conference Robert Scoble (well-known Microsoft blogger at Scobelizer) and I spent an hour sharing our views of how to build traffic to your own blog with the audience. Was it worthwhile for the audience? I hope so! But where it was really terrific was the opportunity to directly interact with a well-recognized expert like Robert.
Further, as a speaker, you have a room full of people who now know about your expertise, your vision, your ideas, and have your name and contact information sitting in their notebooks or handouts. Is that a powerful networking tool? Well, let’s just say that after my four hour Business Blogging 101 workshop here at the Blog Business Summit, I have been approached by at least thirty different companies – some of which are Fortune 500 firms – who really want to work with me now that they’re learned my perspective and pragmatic views of how blogging fits into today’s and tomorrow’s overall corporate communications strategy.
If you’re able to talk to an audience in an engaging and interesting manner and have something of value to convey to your market or industry community, you can unquestionably gain even more value from attending a conference.
But what if you don’t like to speak solo or make a presentation to a large audience? There are still many ways to get involved with a conference: call up and talk to the organizers. You can join a panel – which are often in Q&A format, led by the moderator (or audience) – or, even easier, moderate a panel or discussion session. You’ll still be in front of the audience, you’ll still have your bio featured on the event Web site and brochures, you’ll still gain the visibility of being part of the presentation team, and, finally, you’ll also be able to connect with the leading lights, the thought and opinion leaders in your industry.
Even if you don’t get involved, go to a conference or two anyway. And, for maximal value, go to one out of town and make sure you stay in the conference hotel. It’s not just well worth it, but each and every event I attend is like a nitro boost in my career.
And we’re all looking for career boosts, aren’t we?

9 comments on “The Critical Business Value of Attending Conferences

  1. Great point, Dave, and spot-on. At the annual Usenix LISA conference for sysadmins, we call it ‘the hallway track’, and it’s usually the most life-and-career-changing aspect of the conference.
    At this year’s LISA, where I’m an old-time conference committee member, peer reviewer, and presenter, I’ll have to remember BlogHer and BBS05 and be kinder, gentler, and more accessible to the conference newbies. I’d forgotten what it was like to be a conference newbie without familiar faces rather than a recognized Alpha Geek who could sit back enjoy being approached by people with things to say. Big, big, BIG culture gap, and a cold-water plunge that can keep a gal honest.
    I’ve now added ‘attend at least one conference at which you’ll be a conference newbie’ to my list of annual practices.

  2. I love how you spell out what the rest of us are thinking… but don’t take the time to say. Your comments about the value of attending a conference in person are spot on. I’ve never attended an event and not gone back to D.C. without having made wonderful new connections. Sure, it’s fun because I’m often meeting in the flesh people that I only communicate with online. But more than that, I find that I create valuable new business relationships. Your point about the value of being a presenter is also an important one. I’ve been doing it a lot lately – at many different venues – and it makes you think so much harder about the content of the conference. And of course people come up to talk to you because you’re an “expert.” Oh, and did I mention?? Dave, meeting and getting to know you at the Blog Business Summit has been one of the highlights, of course!

  3. There’s no doubt in my mind that the value in conferences is in the networking. Not only meeting new people, but meeting people in person that you “talk” to online regularly.
    I find that when I meet people in person we inevitably come away with new ideas and a better understanding of our working relationship, even if we’ve been dealing with one another for a long time online.
    When you talk to someone in person, it’s a lot harder to just fire off a quick one or two line message like you can with email. You’re sort of forced into a discussion and maybe even (shudder) small talk. I always learn something new about people this way, and often new ideas are sparked that would never have happened otherwise.

  4. You are right on the mark about speaking being the best way to attend a conference. For me, speaking and writing engagements started to arise after I started my blog at in July of 2004. It all started innocently enough and took off like a rocket. Since that time, I have spoken at 3 conferences (with a fourth coming up in October), written for 3 magazines, and was invited to join the editorial advisory board of one of those publications.
    What people need to realize is that by publishing a blog, they are opening themselves up to potential opportunity. But with that opportunity comes risk and like it or not, they will be judged by not only what they post, but how they post. If people like what they read, you may end up presenting at any number of conferences or meetings. Oh and you will be recognized and approached by people you have never met or have only communicated with online. That human element can only happen at a conference or meeting.

  5. Hi Dave,
    The true highlight of the conference for me was meeting you (along with the other dinner guests). I actually prefer smaller environments (dinner) where people can talk about anything and bond on a professional & personal level.
    Let’s hope that we all see one another at future conferences…

  6. Dave:
    Hi: I am the late adopter you discussed in the article on attending conferences. I to agree with your comments and enjoyed the conference and networking.
    As I am taking the next two days to read, read, read and review all the materials from the summit and much more, I will let you know I downloaded Pluck RSS and am now in the 21st century. Thanks again for the awesome class Business blogging 101 seminar and the supplemental reading. Your site askdavetaylor was where I applied my newly learned skills about RSS and am upto date on what is happening.
    Debra Franks

  7. I somewhat disagree with “the so-called educational aspect of a conference is something you can often receive by simply buying a book or a training DVD.”
    In my opinion the sessions should provide an in-depth look at a specific, small and targeted niche that you will not often find in a training DVD or book. This is the value of a good session. When it provides information that you won’t find in a book or training DVD. I avoid those “other” sessions.

  8. Hi!
    The big problem for many people when it comes to conference and meetings is they have this fear of being in the center of all attention.
    Anyway conferences might be a perfect place to build up confidence. You meet people that you don’t have to meet again. So if you get embarrassed or something like that, it is not the end of the world. That’s the way I cope with my fears and also builds confidence.
    Regards, Mike

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