By Mo Waja
AFP Congress has come and gone but Fundraising Day 2019 seems just around the corner and there are many other conferences on the horizon. Conferences, broadly, are an exciting opportunity to learn and grow through the shared wisdom and thought leadership of speakers, to discover new opportunities through networking, to make new friends with other professionals in the space, and to grow your personal brand as a professional and thought leader within your field.
But conferences can also be challenging, and a lot of that comes down to scale. Yes, you are in this focused microcosm of your industry filled with people of, presumably, like mind and like interest, yet you are also one of perhaps over 1,000 delegates, all of whom are looking for new opportunities and new connections. With that being the case, it can seem a daunting task to cut through the noise and have your voice heard amid the many others all pushing for airtime. Tools like social media have made this interesting because, now, most conferences will have a #hashtag of some kind along with a twitter handle, and so for the days of the conference you’ll see a flood of tweets as people capture images, quotes, and key messages that simultaneously express their interest and broadcast their presence at the conference. The thing is, if your goal is to stand out from the crowd, tweeting along in the same way as everyone else still leaves you lost in the crowd. What you need is a way to differentiate yourself so that, whether delegate or speaker, people can tune out a bit of the noise and tune in to you, specifically.
To do this well, I would suggest a 5-step process:
- Choose a theme for your conference
- Start talking about it early (2-3 weeks before it happens)
- Produce conference content
- Make friends and be places
- Keep talking about it (1-2 weeks after it happens)
- Choose a Theme for Your Conference
Throughout a conference you will have many conversations. These conversations can take place in person, during workshops, or through the posts you put out via social media. Choosing a theme for your conference means choosing the subject matter that you want to focus on during those conversations, workshops, and posts. This process is very intentional, and the easiest way to understand why is to consider Twitter.
Over the course of the conference, there will be a lot of tweets flying around. The challenge is that if everyone is tweeting scattershot and talking about everything, simultaneously, it’s very easy for your voice to get drowned out. One way to cut through the noise is to have a few focused subjects that you choose to talk about. For example, if you, like me, are fascinated by nonprofit storytelling, attend sessions that speak to that and then tweet about them. Doing this consistently positions you as someone who cares about storytelling (or, otherwise, marketing, donor relations, planned giving, etc., depending on your chosen theme) to the conference at large. This makes it easier to connect with people both within and beyond conference attendees who are either of like mind or looking to learn more about your chosen subject. Taking this outside social media, your chosen theme should echo through all your conversations so that every interaction you have at the conference intentionally positions you as a person who cares about a certain relevant subject and knows things about that subject.
The beauty of choosing a theme for your conference is that, even if you aren’t a speaker, you can still position yourself as an authority on a subject by adding in your own thoughts and opinions and producing related content.
- Start Talking About It Early
Let’s take it as read here that we’re including social media in our conference marketing mix. Twitter, specifically, is really the lowest threshold way to get your name out there and so let’s accept that it is a distribution channel of choice for many looking to build their personal brand at conferences.
The missed opportunity many face is that their first post about the conference is one saying “I’m here at ____.” For some, maybe this is their second post after their first post saying that they had registered for the conference, but both come to the same thing. In this moment, hundreds or even thousands of delegates are tweeting the same message, so unless you’re coming in with a very large and engaged following, your announcement of presence is, again, likely to get drowned out.
What you want to do is start talking about attending the conference early, maybe 2-3 weeks ahead of arrival. How you want to do this is by producing content. Producing content is super important because it’s how we get our name out there as more than just any other attendee. Content produced well creates a sense of authority on a chosen subject. It positions you as a person with knowledge who is a thought leader in their own right and therefore someone other people want to connect with which, in turn, creates a sense of anticipation around you as an attendee. Of course, the content has to be good content with real information, but that is where you draw on knowledge, experience, and even research to produce relevant content that intentionally helps other delegates gain knowledge in some way that relates to what they will soon be learning at the conference.
This content can take on a variety of forms, including using dynamic content like podcasts or selfie videos, but one of the most accessible forms of content that you can create are written articles that contain real, useful information relevant to the conference. LinkedIn articles provide a great, low threshold way to do this very quickly and easily. Personally, I would suggest starting early enough to release one or two articles in advance of the conference.
- Produce Conference Content
This step largely comes down to the circumstances of the conference. What you’re looking for here are opportunities to create and release content of some kind during the conference itself. Conferences provide a unique opportunity for access to the focused attention of others in your industry. Because delegates are so tuned in to the subject matter of the conference, their appetite for content that relates to the conference is great. For you, this means that if you’re able to produce something interesting and relevant to the conference, it’s likely to be consumed by more people than if you had released it at any other time of the year.
In terms of the type of content, mid-conference articles are always an option, although these will need to be very short given the quantity of information delegates are consuming and the many demands on their attention. An option that tends to work well are on-site videos, selfie-style or with someone holding the camera while you talk a bit about your learnings. The method that I, personally, tend to prefer is to leverage passive intake of information through audio — capturing a brief interview with an interesting person at the conference, and then releasing it over my podcast channel. An example of this is the interview run with Jen Love of Agents of Good at AFP Congress 2018.
Of course, one limitation of note here is time. This works best when the conference you’re attending is multi-day, meaning between Day 1 and Day 2 of the conference you can produce and release a piece of content quickly. Time also then becomes a factor in terms of how long it takes you to produce a piece. Ideally what you want here is a fairly low commitment piece of content that touches on the conference, provides additional insights, and showcases you as a knowledgeable author, speaker, or host in some way.
- Make Friends and Be Places
Networking is, of course, an important part of every conference or related event, but I do want to distinguish ‘networking’ from ‘making friends’. While often the best networking is making friends, there does exist a functional difference in the way people approach formalized networking versus curating a friendship. In this case, we can think of the difference as seeking business opportunities versus making genuine connections. Take a step back from the ‘gotta catch ‘em all’ approach to business card gathering and instead look for opportunities to forge relationships that extend beyond the transactional to become long term investments in another person who, assuming you frequent this conference or similar industry events, you may well see and connect with again in future. This means that the interactions you have with delegates and speakers should focus less on establishing early whether that person and yourself have a viable business connection and more on having genuine, authentic conversations.
Part of how you do this comes down to being in the right places. If there are delegate socials, receptions, or events facilitated by the conference or members of the conference, take the time to attend and mingle with the other delegates in a less formal environment — and leverage social media to announce your presence at the event. This shows the world that you are engaged, excited, and interested in creating new connections with others in your sector.
- Keep Talking About It
Whenever people leave a conference, especially a good conference, there is always a ‘content vacuum’ that follows — and this is exactly what it sounds like. For a few days we’ve been engaged by great speakers, surrounded by excited people from our industry, and been faced with a vista of new opportunities for knowledge and growth… and now we’re back in our routine. During the 1-2 weeks that follow there is usually a gap where especially engaged attendees are looking for more, to recapture and recreate some of the atmosphere of the conference.
For you, this is an opportunity to reinforce connections you’ve made and authority you’ve built through the brand that you’ve created for yourself at the conference by giving people a little more than they expected. This can be through a summarizing article capturing your experience at the conference, it can be through focusing on a specific piece of learning and responding to the information a speaker brought up, it can be through drafted or recorded post-conference interviews with fellow delegates, speakers, or organizing members of the conference. My suggestion would be to focus on something that you found particularly interesting at the conference that fits within the conference theme that you have set for yourself. Write about that and release it after the conference using all of the relevant keywords and #hashtags that defined conversations around the conference itself.
The “secret” to building your personal brand (at conferences, or anywhere really)
At the end of the day there is no one-size-fits-all approach to building a personal brand, be it at a conference or anywhere in any industry, at any event. A good place to start, however, is being present, building friendships, being visibly engaged both in-person and online, and producing content that is interesting, relevant, and most of all useful to your fellow attendees.
About the Author
Marketing Storytelling Expert, Speaker, Author, Host of the Let’s Talk Show podcast
Mo Waja is a professional speaker, marketer, entrepreneur, the author of presentIMPACT: The Speaker’s Guide, the Host of the Toronto Story Archive podcast, the Host of the Let’s Talk Show podcast, and specializes in marketing storytelling for nonprofit organizations. Mo has worked with clients in the software, finance, and e-commerce sectors, among others, developing their digital storytelling strategies. To date, Mo has spent tens of thousands of hours coaching business professionals, entrepreneurs, non-profits, campaign advocates, post-secondary students, politicians, motivational speakers, and medical practitioners in the art of professional speaking and communication. Currently, Mo is producing the She Speaks Project, a documentary covering barriers women face in professional communication in the workplace.