Effective Conference and Tradeshow Networking Tips for Small Business Owners

With the 22nd Annual OSDBU Procurement Conference coming up this Thursday in Washington, DC, I thought it would be an opportune time to share some tips for making the most of conferences and trade shows.

Everyone knows that one key factor to growing your business is networking. However, attending conferences and trade shows can get very expensive for small businesses. Not only are the attendance fees a larger chunk of a smaller marketing budget, but also small businesses generally utilize every single person on the payroll to the largest extent possible, so having a team member out of the office means very significant work isn’t getting done.

While a large company has an army of employees that may focus exclusively on events like these, whoever a small business sends also wears a hundred other hats and will be missed while they’re at the event. That makes it imperative that small businesses actually benefit from these events so here are some of the top tips for ensuring conference and trade show success:

  1. Do your homework: If you want to make the most of your event, plan in advance who you must meet and who you want to meet and then make yourself a rough schedule so that you’re sure to fit everyone in. Also, make sure that you’re up to date on industry news, current events, etc. so that you can easily make conversation and appear knowledgeable and well-read. Be able to ask intelligent questions of the people you meet as well as answer any questions they may have for you. The point of networking is to set yourself and your company apart from the competition. That means potential clients need to see the value your company can bring to the table and like you as a person.
  2. Don’t forget your toolkit: You obviously want to be prepared with enough business cards and any other marketing materials that you deem appropriate for the event and your role at it (speaker, attendee, exhibitor). You also need to have a place to write notes to yourself so that you can remember to follow up on any interesting conversations you had, even if you didn’t get a business card. If you’re exhibiting, have a draw. While most small businesses can’t afford to set up the extravagant displays and give away the expensive prizes that a big business can, it is possible to draw a crowd with something as little as candy on the table and a Starbucks gift card raffle. Just make sure that you get something – other than a business card – in return for the chance to win. Require attendees to sign up for your newsletter, for example, to be entered in the giveaway. This allows you the time to have a conversation with the prospect at your table and allows you to make continued contact, so it’s way more effective than having a bunch of business cards from people you never actually met because attendees dropped them in the raffle box and walked away.
  3. Stay for the whole (long) day: The best times to have great conversations are early and late because the event is less crowded and the people you want to talk to don’t feel like they have to split their time between dozens of people waiting in line at their booth. If you’re one of just a handful of people there, you’ll get to have an in depth conversation, be remembered, and truly form the basis for a future relationship….and that’s what you’re at the event to do. Take an energy drink if you need it, but don’t miss any opportunity to get to know a potential client or partner.
  4. Follow up: It’s amazing to me how often people I meet at networking events simply don’t follow up. Networking is about building relationships and meeting someone once for 5 minutes does not a relationship make. Once you’ve made initial contact with the people you want to know, you have to follow up to keep the relationship going. Send a follow up email, connect on LinkedIn, ask to meet in person to finish the conversation, send articles the person may find interesting. Do whatever makes sense for that particular person and relationship but doing nothing is never the right choice. Also, keep checking in. Relationships are built over time so be pleasantly persistent. Don’t annoy or harass anyone, but don’t think that 5 minutes at a conference and then one follow-up email is going to land you clients. You may get lucky once in awhile, but generally it will take a bit more effort than that.
  5. Be identified as an expert: If at all possible, get on the agenda as a speaker, panelist, or moderator. Once someone hands you a microphone you gain instant credibility with the rest of the crowd that is invaluable for promoting yourself and your business.

I hope these tips help you make the most of your next event! Please share your top tips for conference and trade show success in the comments below.


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