September of 2015 I had the incredible opportunity to attend INBOUND, a conference hosted by Hubspot, a marketing company that popularized the process of inbound marketing. My friend/mentor Fiona Gilmore is on co-op in Palo Alto with VMWare and, knowing I’m interested in marketing, suggested I attend the annual conference in Boston with her. I am still so thankful she did, as the experience was absolutely incredible.
INBOUND was a crazy mix of things I love. There were sessions to help me improve my knowledge of marketing, hilarious comedians like Amy Schumer to watch, and the ability to experience my first conference.
I was actually very nervous attending INBOUND, because while I knew some people going, like Fiona, Northeastern University Marketing Association’s president Margie, and NUMA member/Hubspot intern Dyan, for the majority of the time I would be on my own. And while I am comfortable meeting new people, I was nervous being potentially the youngest person at a conference filled with people who have had outstanding career and life achievements. To assist someone else who is going to their first professional conference, or just wants to know what other people suggest knowing before attending a conference, I’ve compiled a list of suggestions to help make your next conference extraordinary.
1. Talk to One Person at Each Session
I’m a big fan of talking to people you don’t know. The sheer amount of interesting people in the world is astonishing, and their readiness to share is amazing as well. At a conference like INBOUND, the stories people have willing to tell are fantastic, not only interesting, but also educational. If you are to attend a conference, there are usually hour long sessions for different speakers. For your first conference, commit to starting a conversation with one new person at each session. While it is much less scary to stick with people you know, a conference is the perfect place to start working on initiating conversations and forming connections.
2. Once A Day: Hand Out Your Business Card
I feel awkward giving out my business card. I’m not sure exactly when to give it to someone, how to mention it at the end of the conversation, or if someone even wants it. Not feeling comfortable, and having bought business cards only a month prior to INBOUND, I decided on the goal of handing out my business card to one person a day. Those with more experience, or who have a stronger need to market themselves, whether it be in the hunt for a job, or new business, can aim higher, but I found that when the goal was achievable I was able to practice handing out my card, and was able to slowly figure out what worked and what didn’t.
3. Go to Every Session You Can
It may seem obvious, but if you are paying to attend a conference, you should go to as many sessions as possible. Sessions tend to have amazing speakers, from award winning authors to industry experts, and the opportunity to see these people speak is fantastic. That being said, do not feel guilt missing a session. I had the opportunity Thursday to meet up with a fellow Northeastern student Dyan Khor, who I haven’t been able to see in months. Not only was Dyan attending the conference, but she had just started her internship with Hubspot, so she was able to take me around and teach me not only about the conference and her internship with Hubspot, but also her experience with marketing in general. If I had attended one of the sessions I would have learned about marketing, but I would have missed out on an opportunity to catch up with a friend who was willing to give me more advice on Northeastern, co-op, and marketing than I could have ever hoped for.
4. Don’t Judge On Popularity
It seems as though for every time slot there is a popular speaker to see. Whether it is a comedian or best selling author, everyone seems to know who the go to person is. While it might be tempting to instantly gravitate towards what is popular, you might be missing out on other incredible speakers you never would have considered. One of the best sessions I went to was hosted by Shawn Pfunder, the editor in chief at GoDaddy.com. While his session wasn’t the most packed of the day, I found Pfunder not only completely hysterical, but also informative. His speech was on how to tell a story, and not only did I leave learning something new, but it truly made me want to go out into the world and act. Pfunder’s talk might not have been the session people were most excited to see, but for me, it was the session that excited me the most.
5. Be a Lone Wolf
As mentioned earlier, I was able to attend INBOUND knowing some pretty awesome people, so naturally my desire was to stick with them. To truly get the most out of the conference however, I knew I would have to go out on my own. Not only was I then able to attend all of the sessions that interested me the most, but I was also forced to socialize with new people. Part of the appeal of attending a conference is the opportunity to meet people with fantastic life stories. To truly get to know these people however, you have to talk to them. What I have found is that when I am in a group with people I am familiar with, I tend not to branch out as much as I would otherwise. By being alone I am slightly uncomfortable, and due to that uncomfortableness I am forced to talk to strangers, meet fascinating people, and get more out of the conference.
6. Do Your Research
Something I wish I knew going into INBOUND was that the more I knew about a speaker, the more excited I would be as their speech drew nearer. For example, on Thursday Sophia Amoruso spoke. Amoruso is the founder and former CEO of Nasty Gal, an online clothing retailer. She has also recently written a book titled #GIRLBOSS, a book I read and enjoyed so much I wrote a business book review on it. When it was nearing the time Amoruso was going to speak, I was dying from excitement, and queued up early so I would be able to sit near the front during her speech. I loved having the opportunity to hear her talk, in part because I knew so much about her prior to the event. I loved having the feeling of excitement over hearing someone speak, and I wish I had researched more of the speakers so I could have continued to feel that same excitement all day, and had there been an opportunity to ask questions, I would be able to ask a more informed question.
7. Check Your Email
One of the benefits of a well run conference is that it is usually well organized. Part of this organization involves emails months before the event. While at first it can seem frustrating to receive yet another email, especially when your inbox is already full, I found that reading the information sent truly helped me prepare for INBOUND. The updates on who was speaking, from keynote announcements to blog posts written by speakers, continued to fuel my excitement for the event, while the links to social groups helped me see what returning attendees had as suggestions.
Also awesome is the fact that emails sometimes contain special promotions. One of the great things INBOUND offered was the chance to meet select speakers at the conference. I was lucky enough to be one of the first respondents to one of those emails, and had the opportunity to meet Marc Maron, comedian and host of the famous podcast ‘WTF with Marc Maron.’ It was pretty awesome having the opportunity to meet with Maron, especially after I listened to his talk on his experience with podcasting and his career as a whole. Keeping up with emails certainly provides unique opportunities, whether it be by meeting an inspiring speaker or just taming nerves before the event.
8. Be Active on Social Media
Most conferences will have a trending hashtag, such as #INBOUND15 for the conference I attended. Something I found helpful was using the conference’s hashtag while I was at the event, not only for my own tweeting and posting, but to see what was going on. If I searched the hashtag I was not only able to hear others opinions of the sessions they were attending, but also keep up on updates Hubspot was sending out about the event. Using the hashtag myself also helped expand my network, as other attendees were more likely to connect with me, and my posting on LinkedIn about being at INBOUND is actually the reason Dyan and I met up, as she messaged me shortly after saying she was there as well.
9. Have Fun
At the end of the day, everything that goes into a conference can make it absolutely amazing. It’s a time where you are able to hear informational speakers, while also being entertained and meet new people. So even if you aren’t meeting the exact number of people you wanted to, or are wandering around a little lost, remember that you are at an event that probably took months of planning to put on, and you should enjoy it. I had a fantastic time at Hubspot’s INBOUND this year, not only was I able to see hilarious comedians (and even meet one!), but I was able to attend talks that taught me much more about marketing than I expected, and also meet some incredible people. I am so happy I attended INBOUND this year, and I already can’t wait until next year.