Attending a conference could be a heavy investment for a bootstrapped startup. Just think about the price of a conference ticket, plus travel, and accommodation cost. I’ve personally attended over 15 conferences in the last year and I’m starting to gain more and more value out of each and every single one.
Just like everything else in life, it takes time and practice. Time is the best experience gainer.
In this article, I’m going to show you actual examples of exactly how I do my preparation before any conference that I attend and how I cold email everyone I want to meet prior to attending the actual conference. I’ll also share some tips on how I maximize the value I get out of the conference and take advantage of every single opportunity that I come across.
Do your research and prepare ahead of time for every conference
By doing your research, I don’t mean just navigating around their homepage and looking at the speaker’s profiles. You want to get involved with the community as much as possible weeks if not months ahead of time.
Let’s take a recent conference I attended as an example. A few months back, I attended SaaStr. Saastr is a conference held annually, hosted by Jason Lemkin, for people in the Software as a software space. Some of the biggest startups and most successful tech companies along with over 5000+ tech founders will be attending, so I knew for sure that I needed to be there as well.
For every single conference of this size, there’s almost always always a dedicated mobile app for people to network ahead of time. I’ve noticed that most conferences use a company called DoubleDutch to help them put together this app.
Here was the landing page for the SaaStr app by DoubleDutch. Anyone could download this app. You did not need to buy a ticket to the event in order to get access to this app. This is why it helps to Google around, read some blog post, and most importantly get involved with the community ahead of time.
Here’s another screenshot of what you can do with the app:
As you can see, the app allows you to view speakers, the agenda, photo feed, map, surveys and many more. The most important feature that you want to take advantage of in this app is their attendee feature. This allows you to view every single attendee that will be attending SaaStr.
The activity feed is extremely important too because the activity feed is similar to the Facebook newsfeed where people can post photos, ask for coffee meetings, and start conversations with each other.
Run through the list of attendees and check through the activity feed. Start to jot down a list of people that you want to meet and network with during the conference. If you’ve read my other blog post, I like to keep it simple with Google spreadsheets. I’ll create a column for their first name, last name, company, email, and any other necessary information I need to include.
Keep it simple and put things on a spreadsheet on Google Drive.
Every big conference will usually have a dedicated community expert that is in charge of answering community questions, creating Facebook groups, Slack groups etc. Doing a simple search on Facebook will usually bring up some results.
SaaStr has a Facebook group that you can join where people ask for coffee meets prior to the event. Join this group and see who you want to network with, respond to them or even message them directly. This is the time to add more contacts to your current spreadsheet that you just created. Again, start this as early as possible.
Slack is one of the best modern platform for team communication, but people have been using it for different reasons. Buffer has an active Slack group for people to engage with other Buffer users.
I’m apart of Sales Stack’s slack group where there are a lot of startup founders in the sales and lead generation space. They have a dedicated channel for events and during SaaStr, the Slack group had a channel dedicated for people who were going to attend the SaaStr event. I went through the channel and found people I wanted to connect with and added them to my spreadsheet.
Reddit and other communities is a great place to start searching for people who will be attending SaaStr as well, so I took advantage of that as well. Another great site you can use is Lanyrd. Lanyrd will have every conference from big to small. It shows all the speakers and some attendees. It’s another place to start sourcing potential targets.
Reaching out via cold email
I live and breath cold emails, so with a big list of people that I created. What I like to do at this point is connect with them and send them a cold email. The main goal of this cold email is to make a quick introduction of myself, make it personalize, and try to connect with them either prior, during, or after the conference. This could be lunch or a quick coffee, but I want to grab some time with them.
For example, a while back I attended a conference in Seattle called Seattle Interactive Conference. I did my research and looked through the speaker’s list. I wanted to connect with Joanna, who was one of the speakers that was going to be giving a talk at the event. I heard about her through a few podcast and loved the way she approached growth, so I decided to send her a cold email a few weeks ahead of time.
She responded a day later saying:
That is exactly what I did. I attended her talk, took down some notes, and approached her after her talk was finished. I told her who I was and that I sent her an email ahead of time. She said that she remembers me and we were able to connect afterwards! Score!!! Connected with someone new and got to briefly learn more about each other. Meeting with someone in person face to face is much more valuable than any Skype or message, but you have to start this off with a cold email introduction to warm things up ?
At the same event, I wanted to connect with Rand from Moz. He was going to be speaking there and everyone wants to meet Rand. I was actually thinking about doing a podcast at that time and I wanted to interview him for sure, but I knew he receives a ton of those request daily, so I had to stand out of the crowd in order to get some time on his calendar.
Again, cold email outreach time!
I blurred out some part because it was really personal. It was about personal issues in life, so I decided to leave that out, but as you can see. I gave my introduction and ended it with a strong call to action by asking him for a quick coffee. I made the email as personalized as possible.
I structured my cold email pretty well and received a response in less than a day.
This was the typical response that I was expecting from someone as busy as Rand, but that was all that I needed because I knew I could approach him once I have a chance and tell him that I already connected with him ahead of time.
So what did I do? I attended his talk, asked questions to stand out, and then approached him. With that, I was able to connect with him and send him more emails afterwards for the podcast interview as well as to connect with him again in-person in Seattle. It worked!!! I was able to network with some of the best people in their space because of this.
Again my goal was to stay in contact with him after multiple connections and get him on a podcast interview. Here was his response through email:
I used the exact same method to network with 12+ other people prior to the event. Most of them were targeted leads and ideal customers for my company GrowthOK.
Since those people were less swamped, I was able to grab lunch, dinner, coffee with them easily, but it was all thanks for my early research, taking the advantage of the app, and sending a cold email at least a week ahead of time.
From that conference itself, I was able to close 6 medium sized deals which makes my ROI for all my travel and ticket cost worthit!
Skipping out on the talks
When I first started attending conferences, I use to attend at least 40% of the talks, but then I realize that I was just randomly walking into rooms and listening to hours worth of talks without gaining too much value out of it. So, nowadays I tend to skip out of most talks. I look at the agenda ahead of time and only attend the talks that I actually want to sit in. This is usually nomore than 2 or 3 talks.
For an action packed conference like SaaStr, I like to spend my time walking around and visiting every single booth where I feel that I can get a customer out of. I try to spend less than 5–10 minutes at every single booth to maximize my time. Here’s what I do when I visit the booth. A great way to start finding booth is to look under the sponsor list. Every company that sponsors an event will usually have a booth at the event.
- Visit the booth (avoid the ones that are overpacked)
- Ask them what their company does, let them give their pitch, and then give them a quick introduction on what you do and how you can help them.
- Exchange business cards (too many of them will stack up).
- Ask them for their Linkedin on the spot.
- Connect with them immediately on Linkedin with a personalized message. This makes you stand out of all the Linkedin request they get.
- Send a quick tweet to them. (Nice meeting you at the conference, I’ll send you an email).
- Send a short and personalized email to schedule a time.
- IF they are interested in what you do, book a demo call immediately on the spot.
- Send an email as soon as possible. Find a seat at the event, use the wifi and start catching up on the emails.
Events and dinners at conference
This is one of the most important part of maximizing your value at any conference that you attend. For every conference, there are almost ALWAYS a few events for people who get in a few days early prior to the actual conference. Usually these are drink parties or dinners.
The good thing about events prior to the conference is that the amount of people attending is rather small. Not everyone has arrived yet, and this is the best time to cold network with people who arrived early. Go to every single one of these event and be one of the first ones there. Being the first one there will allow you meet anyone that comes in the door right after you. This is the best way to build one on one connections. In addition to that, there’s almost always a 30 min — 1 hour networking session before the panels or dinner actually start.
For example after the first day of SaaStr, there were over 10 after party events with topics ranging from “How to sell to developers” to “Customer success”. If your company is one of those space, you want to be at those event because your ideal customers are there.
Being the first one there allowed me to greet everyone that was walking in the door and I was able to exchange contact information using the same method I did at the booth. This allowed me to close over 6 deals at just one event. It’s all about the cold email and follow up emails afterwards. It’s your job to make sure you connect with them afterwards in order to get the most value out of it.
I hope this helps all the sales peeps looking to attend conferences. Remember, conferences are short, so the ones that succeed the most are the ones that do their homework ahead of time!
Feel free to share your thoughts below or hit me up on Twitter @itswilson8