The thrill of being at a lively, inspirational event where I can make meaningful connections and share exciting news about my company and our projects is practically unmatched in my book. Being in an atmosphere surrounded by passionate and intelligent minds creates a rush for me.
Leading up to an event, I look up other attendees, presenters, sponsors, producers, and any other participants to prime myself for who I should connect with and what value I can best bring to the table in conversations. Then after the event, I carefully go through the stack of business cards I’ve gathered, recalling discussions that were hopefully seeds for new relationships, and follow up via LinkedIn, Twitter, email, etc.
With an ever-growing calendar of events and conferences, I’d love to see more event producers focus on how to better engage attendees and catalyze effective networking. Because ultimately, better engagement among attendees leads to more and higher quality reviews and testimonials, higher attendance in future events, and, perhaps most importantly, added value for sponsors that can be strategically woven into sponsorship offerings. Here’s my list of 5 tips that will lead to better networking, better media coverage, and increased value for attendees and sponsors alike:
1. Ask them why they’re coming
This is a simple step in the registration process that many large event producers are finally catching on with, but a lot of small- to mid-sized events are missing. At a bare minimum you should simply ask attendees why they’re coming and publish the attendee list so everyone can see who’s coming and why. Going a step further, you should ideally offer various options that attendees can choose from to make for an easier registration process and to better filter responses for later use (i.e. “To meet potential partners”, “To learn more about social media”, “To recruit new hires”, etc.). Not only does this allow attendees to see a list of who has registered and learn their interests, but this information can also be very usefuly during and after the event.
2. Connect them with other like-minded attendees in advance
Include optional fields in the registration form for attendees to enter their Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn pages, as well as their website. Let them know why you’re asking for this information and how it will be used. Then publish this info in the public attendee list, and notify attendees of other people that they’d likely want to connect with when they register.
For example, let’s say you’re producing a gaming conference and most attendees will be game developers, game enthusiasts, and game distributors. Asking for their reason for sign-up, you may have options like “Promote my game to distributors”, “Learn about new games for distribution”, and “Test-drive new games”. Every Tuesday afternoon leading up to the event you can send out a segmented newsletter informing attendees of event news and newly registered attendees – those who chose “Promote my game to distributors” would see a list of attendees who chose “Learn about new games for distribution”, and vise-versa.
This will facilitate attendees making initial contact before the event, so that more meaningful connections can be made at the event with less time spent doing the whole “Hi, I’m Chris, I manage a web agency, what do you do?” ordeal where you try to seek out the most relevant people to speak with.
3. Have an intuitive credentialing system
Preparing for when you close registration and get ready for the credentialing process, you’ll want to come up with an intuitive system for creating and distributing identification badges. The first step should be creating templates for the different types of attendees. Color-coding is the easiest and most effective way of differentiating attendee types in my opinion (i.e. green label for “Game Distributors”, blue label for “Game Developers”, and red label for “Game Enthusiasts”), but feel free to get creative. On the credentials, the name and company should obviously be most predominant at the top, but I recommend also having a space for the response the attendee chose as their reason for attendance, the location of where the attendee is from, and any other relevant information that can be printed on your credentials that can help stimulate good conversations without creating clutter.
If the budget allows and it makes sense for the event, it’s also a great idea to have a data tracking system in place where all credentials have a printed bar code, which stores all of the key information about the attendee. This can be super useful for providing sponsors and exhibitors bar code scanners, whereby attendees can have their badge quickly scanned to sign-up for a give-away or mailing list, to request more information later, to take part in a survey, or whatever other promotions can be leveraged to gather valuable opt-in attendee data.
An ideal work flow system for on-site check-in and credentialing is as follows:
a. Have check-in stations with monitors displaying a simple sign-in form
b. Attendees walk up, enter their confirmation number, and click “Print”
c. After checking in, attendees are directed to pick up their credentials, which are automatically printed directly after check-in.
d. Event staff or volunteers are standing by to help attendees and distribute the printed credentials, which they simply insert into the color-coded laminate holders.
Having an efficient and effective credentialing system not only makes the check-in process smooth, but it also helps attendees to identify one another quickly and see who they should connect with.
4. Design areas for casual interactions
Often times there are periods of “down time” during an event or multi-day conference. These are prime opportunities for the event producer to craft engaging areas for attendees to effortlessly mingle. Here a just a few ideas, depending on your budget and type of event:
a. Strategically position cocktail tables nearby a presentation room or the main expo hall where there’s naturally going to be a good bit of foot traffic. This provides a setting where attendees can take a quick break, check email, and mingle with other people gathered nearby. Simply having these kinds of physical pieces is all it takes to get people talking usually (and free drinks never hurts either .
b. Interactive presentations on the wall or floor, where the presentation changes depending on actions performed by attendees. This one’s easier to show then explain, so check out a bunch of cool examples to get some ideas here.
c. Interactive SMS displays, showing text messages in real-time that attendees send to a specified short code. Check out a cool example of this here.
5. Gather feedback and continue to catalyze strategic connections after the event
One really key component that lots of event producers fall short on is gathering valuable feedback from attendees and continuing to engage them after the event. The key here is providing the right incentive. Rarely do attendees want to spend 5+ minutes of their valuable time filling out a survey you email them after the event with no real reward. Incentives can range from give-aways from sponsors to discounted tickets to the next event to free food and drinks. Although you can definitely email the survey to attendees after the event, what will almost guarantee a significantly higher response rate is if you actually build the survey in with the programming at the tail end of the event.
For example, after the last workshop and before the closing keynote address, schedule a 15-minute “break” where attendees are encouraged to complete a survey and give direct feedback (offer some free drink tickets for the after party and a free raffle to entice better turn-out). Have a room designated for this nearby the last workshop room, equipped with laptop stations that have the survey already displayed. Once the room has filled, explain that the purpose of the break is to continue to improve the event for the next time around, and emphasize the benefits for giving complete, thoughtful, and honest responses. Make the survey short and sweet, and don’t include too many open-ended questions. After participants are done, encourage them to grab a refreshment at the back of the room before heading to the closing keynote.
After the event, keep in touch with attendees and aid in making continued connections. Use your newsletter system (I recommend MailChimp) to disseminate relevant content captured during the event. For example, compile the video and photo content, along with media coverage, for specific workshop tracks or attendee groups and send this information to the corresponding segmented attendee list. Have a contest where attendees can submit stories about meaningful connections they made at the event for a chance to win free tickets next time. There are a number of creative ideas for post-event marketing efforts, and it all depends on the nature of the event and attendees. The point is that you don’t want attendees to come off their high after your event, move onto the next big thing and forget about all of the great experiences they had – keep the momentum going from the end of your event to the start of your next one.