I’ve been quiet this week because I’ve been out of town at a conference in Fort Worth, Texas. The conference was for the Texas Society of Association Executives (TSAE), who are a large pool of potential association customers for our agency.  I was there to execute a component of our referral marketing plan. Today, I’ll share with you a debrief of what worked, what didn’t, and what I’d recommend to you if you’re executing a similar referral focused strategy.

My plan going into the conference was to focus on introducing myself to well connected people while gathering information on the market. I targeted three groups of people:

  • Certain board members and volunteer leaders
  • Suppliers in the exhibit hall with similar services
  • TSAE staff

I was there for two days and had some success with all three, but didn’t reach everyone I planned with volunteer leaders or TSAE staff.

 What Worked Well  

I picked up lots of incremental intelligence at the conference. I learned things that weren’t game changers, but still advanced what I knew and grew a little smarter.

Additionally, in talking with the suppliers, I learned what worked for them in landing clients, what didn’t, and what they were trying. I’m not a direct competitor but I share their challenges and, because of that, they were open about their experiences. I learned where to gather better email lists, what marketing tactics had failed, and traps in responding to certain kinds of leads. As a bonus, my company might be able to partner with one of theirs to deliver the custom web programming needed on their projects (we’ll see).

I only connected with one of the staff- the events manager. However, they shared a handful of tricks to improve the odds my speech submissions would be selected for similar events (more on that below). They also divulged some inside baseball on network building opportunities that similar companies aren’t taking advantage of.

 What Didn’t Work Well 

I wasn’t able to connect with the volunteer leaders very effectively. It turns out that popular people are popular and have less availability to talk with a stranger (huh).

Additionally, the evening parties  I attended were hit-and-miss. They were entertaining bacchanals (endless food and drink), but the connections were half-hazard and harder to establish. The noise, navigating the crowd, and the lack of a conversational focus resulted in a lot of shouted small talk about dogs and kids. It wasn’t completely ineffective, just more random.

 What You Can Steal

 This was version one of my referral marketing approach to an event. For the next version, I’d keep most of this approach, but de-emphasize or more sharply focus the volunteer leader connections to just one or two people.

Additionally, here are some recommendations and changes:

1) Bring your ignorance. Being curious improves both your ability to engage with others and the likelihood you’ll get value out of the conversations. I went into the conference with specific research goals and this helped focus my attention on opportunities.

2) Have fun. I spent around $1,500 on the trip. I plan on doing this several times throughout the year. It’s going to take time and consistent investment to build a referral network. It’s ROI is unpredictable. That’s why it’s so important to use it for research as well as networking. Beyond learning though, if you can find something fun to do in the event area, it helps eliminate the downside of possibly wasting your time. For me, I skipped the final sessions to go to an interactive art exhibit (MeowWolf “The Real Unreal” in Grapevine). If nothing comes out of the conference, exploring that exhibit was a blast.

3) Come with status. I’ve been going back and forth about the value of speaking at conferences. I don’t believe it’s a consistent lead generating activity for most people regardless of how great of a speaker they are (though some businesses do get leads). After this experience, I’m going to continue submitting speeches to conferences for a couple of reasons. First off, getting paid reduces the cost of attendance. If you’re going to attend anyways, you might as well have someone else cover the airfare. Secondly, speaking confers status which makes it easier to form connections. People are more likely to approach you or pull you into a conversation.

The other method I’m interested in establishing status through is sponsorship. This doesn’t convey the same kind of status as speaking, but I suspect that the right kind of sponsorship that is both conspicuous and viewed as a contribution could be useful in building good will (not just getting your logo on the agenda and slides). I’m still exploring this, but I’m looking for smaller opportunities. Smaller conferences and events or interesting experiential contributions at larger conferences.

4) Connect with the staff late in the conference. Day one they’re stressed and jamming. Day two the heat is coming off and they’re emotionally available.

5) Follow-ups. There needs to be some sort of post-conference plan. If the conference is seed planting, post-conference is about watering those seeds. This time, I did a lot of LinkedIn connection requests with the aim of getting into each other’s feeds. I’m also doing targeted supplier follow up and will send out a paper card to one of the older speakers saying, “Nice to meet you.” In the future, I plan on creating a thank-you-like card, but with our branding, to send post event to people I meet.

That’s it! I’ll roll this strategy back a few more times this year. It will be interesting to see how it evolves and whether it will have the impact I believe it will as time passes.

Got a tip / trick / approach I didn’t cover? Or a question about why I targeted who I did? Give me a shout out.