“Unconferences” or participant-driven conferences, where people come together without a top-down organization or formal/official sponsors or, in some cases, fees, are becoming more popular these days. Yet, they have not put any kind of real dent in the juggernaut that is the multi-billion-dollar business conference industry. Whether you favor one or the other, I daresay that you will find yourself either hustling or being hustled at both types.
Recently, I’ve been attending more than my usual lot of annual industry conferences and trade shows – a necessary part of my self-education as I continue in a new line of work. In my past corporate career, I attended at least 1-2 such events annually. And, during the last few years, I had at least 1 annual speaking engagement at them as well.
Beyond an opportunity to learn (and I appreciate that there may be skeptics among us who question the value of learning or networking at such events – but that’s a different post and discussion), I have typically enjoyed these gatherings as ways to re-connect with ex-coworkers, to learn from industry experts and to create new connections. And, while I’ve rarely enjoyed the hustling aspect (whether as the hustler or the one being hustled), I do understand the necessity. After all, these events could not pay for themselves if there wasn’t some buying/selling and lead generation going on. These days, apparently, costs cannot be covered solely through membership dues and/or conference fees. This cost coverage problem was most acutely felt in the aftermath of the financial crisis when a lot of firms – regardless of size – curtailed travel and association expenses, dropping membership and attendance revenue for most trade and industry organizations.
And yet, I think that most of us are put off by the “professional conference hustler”. You know the kind – rarely attends any sessions, has meeting after meeting with other attendees, loud phone calls in hallways and corridors, permanent laptop camp set up in the business center or general seating area and so on. Go on, admit it. Haven’t you often tried to walk quickly the other way when you see one of these people heading your way? Or, when they try to corner you at lunch or during a break? To be fair to these individuals – if they work for large companies, they likely have a personal lead generation metric tied to the event. And, if they are independent business owners or self-employed, generating strong leads that lead to customer revenue is likely the only way they can justify their investment in these expensive events (which, as any simple Google search will reveal, should be one of the key sales and marketing tools for for any business – large or small).
Now, there are plenty of guides out there for how to survive/network/hustle at conferences. Just in the last 2-3 months, I’ve come across multiple Linkedin articles (for example, here and here) that summarize a lot of the collective wisdom out there. So, the general consensus is that, of course, there is an art to the hustle at public events where people are gathered with primary motives to learn, educate and/or network. I will not create another guide here (again, Google is your friend) but simply share two of my personal favorites – that I’ve found success and a level of comfort with:
1) The best “hustle” is from the podium – That is to say, getting onto the speaker roster or a panel discussion and offering something unique and worthwhile to the audience. I guarantee that you will have people coming up to you for your business card rather than you having to chase them. It is worth reminding that picking a decent topic that isn’t already being addressed by anyone else, having real life examples, humor, etc. (all the things you’ll find in any how-to conference presentation guide) are essential.
2) Organize a peer-to-peer voluntary discussion side-bar – You may need to get the conference organizers’ permission. If all seems ok, rather than any formal announcement, just use social media (most conferences now have Twitter hashtags or Facebook pages to keep attendees updated in real-time) to alert everyone of a casual gathering to simply discuss a specific conference-related topic of interest. The first time I tried this, only my friends showed up. The second time, they brought some others. And, so it went. This takes patience but, again, it pays off when the folks who show up are relieved at not being “sold to” and being given an opportunity to add their voice/thoughts. Be careful not to take up too much talk-time or you will be seen as hustling even if you’re possibly not. It also helps immensely if the topic of interest isn’t already being covered during the conference (and, if you know your field well enough, there will always be some pain point or problem area that will remain unaddressed at these events – likely because no one wants to take it on). Now, let me be honest here that I did not invent this idea. I stole it from someone else who, years ago, pulled this off successfully at least twice during the same conference – he even had refreshments and free giveaways for those who showed up. Amazing how conference-weary people are willing to give up 30 minutes of their time for a comfortable seat, a drink and a chance to grouse about a problem.
If you happen to be on the introvert-ish side, like one of the above Linkedin articles discusses, you may not relish the thought of putting yourself out there with these approaches. However, if you’re running your own gig, I don’t know that you have too much choice in the matter – the universe requires you to put yourself out there if you want your offerings (products, talents, whatever they may be) noticed and desired.
What do you think? What sort of “non-hustle” type networking and lead generation approaches have worked for you – and what sort have not? Let me know in the comments, please, and we can discuss further.