Attending conferences can be a huge waste if you don’t spend your time wisely. I wanted to share how I prepare for, attend, and follow-up after any conference to make the most out of attending:
Preparation, preparation, preparation. It’s the one thing that matters the most. However, if you only have time to prepare one thing before attending a conference, it should be to set a clear and measurable goal, which is where we’ll start:
Set a clear and measurable company and personal goal
You shouldn’t attend any conference without a clear goal in mind. It’s hard, but it will help you prioritize how to spend your time preparing for, and attending, the conference.
When I was part of the game studio Dirtybit, one conference goal was to “Pitch Dean Takahashi to write about Fun Run 2 when it launches”, which I managed during Slush in 2014 and it resulted in this article.
An example of a personal goal is to step out of my comfort zone and make 75 new connections from networking. To make it more attainable, I’ll aim for 15 new connections each day.
Review the program for relevant presentations and plot them in your calendar
I learn a lot from listening to people’s experiences; so I always review the program to find which presentations I should fit into my schedule. Make sure to emphasize which presentations are critical to attend and which are just “nice to know”. That way it will be easier to prioritize what times you are available for meetings. I usually scan the presentation titles, names and companies of the speakers when deciding, and look for people/topics that are relevant to achieve our goals.
Most of my friends working for service providers (i.e. B2B companies, enterprise software vendors) don’t spend time going to talks. However, I have found that if you really want to build a strong relationship with a game studio, listening to their presentation, and using it in follow-ups and meetings, really helps to build rapport. It’s a great way to understand their struggles and concerns, and most importantly where you fit in and can provide value. I’ve been on both sides of this table.
Book meetings in advance
There’s always a few people that you really need to meet during a conference, which will be prioritized above all else. When I was part of Dirtybit it was keeping relationships warm with my Apple and Google contacts. I would try to book these critical meetings as early as possible before filling my calendar with other meetings. You are probably not the only one trying to get their attention, so be early!
Hot tip: If you are a scrappy game developer you should try to book your service provider meetings during meal times to reduce your costs. If you are a scrappy service provider you should try to book coffee meetings to avoid expensive meal or drink costs.
Get a speaker slot!
For most companies, it’s important to make people aware of your existence. One of the most cost-efficient ways to make it happen is by giving a presentation. From my experience, most of the times I’ve given presentations about Dirtybit and Fun Run, at max a fourth of the room have heard about us beforehand. Now that I’m speaking at GDC 2017 on behalf of Megacool, a new company, I don’t expect anyone knowing about us.
In my experience, all speakers get their ticket for free, which means a lot of money saved for scrappy startups. This is especially true for service provider startups as there is a huge price difference for conference attendance for game studios and service providers. The hard part is that most conferences choose speakers half a year in advance, which is farther ahead than most startups are able to plan!
Another important benefit from speaking is that you are invited to special events, like the speaker dinner. This is a great place to mingle with industry veterans, interesting creators and decision makers, over a delicious meal. If you’re lucky, they might learn something about you that they will share with others. I experienced this as part of Dirtybit at Casual Connect in Amsterdam in 2015, where Corum Group after we spoke with them during one of the special events. They mentioned Fun Run in their presentation as an example of a game that had $0 user acquisition costs and still hit the top charts!
Announce on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn that you will attend the conference
By announcing, you might reconnect with old connections face-to-face and have someone new reach out to get connected.
Update your company website, social media sites, LinkedIn, AngelList and CrunchBase profiles
You should expect an increase in traffic to your sites before a conference. This is especially true for speakers (and companies with mega cool names). Therefore it’s important to have up-to-date information across all channels, as a lot of conference programs link to your company website, etc. This also goes for key employees, as attendees and meeting candidates might research them as well. We review all our “about” sections before a conference to make sure they display the correct information.
Attendance — Meetings
For game developer meetings: Play their games! Use Google, Twitter, and LinkedIn to get the latest information on your meeting candidates. Decide what the goal for the specific meeting is and get a good understanding on how you will get their attention. Prepare “small talk” points for the meeting from your research.
Take notes during the meeting
Have your business cards and something to write on ready for each meeting. By taking notes you show that you value your counterpart’s time and are prepared to follow-up on whatever you discuss. Make sure to agree on these follow-ups when the meeting is over. Note taking will also make it easier to share the most important takeaways with the rest of your team.
Show, don’t tell!
If you have something to show, make sure you have prepared a demo that is quick to show. A live demo is best and builds the most credibility. Make sure to test properly every morning to avoid surprises. For Megacool, I have three different demos ready:
1. Live demo showing how the product works in a live game. The demo takes approximately 1 minute.
2. iMessage chat with different GIFs from our live games to show what it would look like for a receiving player.
3. GIFs showing the various implementations you can do with Megacool.
Schedule time for post-meeting work
It’s hard to get everything down on paper, so I strongly recommend scheduling a time to write down any additional notes from each meeting. E.g.. 5 mins of meeting debrief following a 25 min meeting. Additionally, you should schedule 30 minutes between the end of a conference day and networking parties to digitize your notes. This will add context to your notes and will help a lot when revisiting them post-conference.
Attendance — Presentations
I usually give a presenter 5 minutes to convince me it’s worth my time
If it’s not, I try another presentation or hang by the coffee machine to catch someone random for small talk. You’ll never know who’s thirsty! It’s been a good presentation when I’ve not browsed my phone.
Be present — take notes!
Bring a notebook to presentations. When writing down relevant learnings that apply to us I find that my focus is on the presentation and my time is well spent.
Grab speakers before they go on stage, not after!
If you want to talk to a speaker, make sure to grab him/her before they enter the stage. Speakers tend to become very popular after a presentation, and it’s hard to get their attention when there’s a big line.
If you didn’t get to talk to the speaker before the presentation started, you can try to stand out from the crowd by asking a question after the presentation when the mic is passed around. If the speaker doesn’t have time to talk to you following the presentation due to time and/or popularity, ask if it’s ok to follow-up over email and what your subject line should be to get his/her attention. When I stopped Dean Takahashi after his presentation at Slush he told me to use “Norwegian game developer something something” as a way to stand out in his inbox given that he never hears stories from the Norwegian gaming scene.
Attendance — Networking
Bring business cards, demo, pen and a notebook to networking
Quickly write down what you talked to someone about on the back of the business cards. Make them amazed by showing a quick demo of your game/product.
Go to networking events
Never ever go to a conference and go straight back to the hotel room in the evening. This is the best time to reconnect socially with established connections and meet new ones. Avoid the noisy parties if it’s important to be able to talk. Even try to crash them if you didn’t know about them in advance or weren’t invited.
Choose smaller events over large parties
Make sure to attend the more intimate events if your goal is to make real connections. Examples can be Gaming Insider dinner, mini-summits like the More Summit hosted by HelpShift during GDC, or Mobile Marketing Mini-Summit hosted by Mobile Growth Fellowship.
Create opportunity for an ice breaker
Wear your team hoodie or shirt, put stickers on your badge, or write something short and concise regarding what you do on your badge. All of this will help people who approach you with their ice breaker. When I put Fun Run stickers on my badge people would ask me about them or say: “Hey I’ve played that game!” and we would have a conversation going.
Being able to put yourself out there is not an overnight accomplishment, especially if you are somewhat uncomfortable talking to strangers. It takes time and practice. I try to sit with new people during meals, sit next to someone at presentations, and try really hard not to look away when someone looks my way. I try to say “Hi, I’m Aurora, how are you enjoying the conference so far?” Here are a few other opening lines if you’re stuck:
- What do you think of the conference?
- What’s your favorite presentation so far?
- Are you attending any exciting parties tonight?
- Caught any new Pokémons here?
A way to measure how many people you talk to is by tracking how many business cards you’ve received.
Establish common ground before talking business
To build strong connections you should always aim to build common ground before asking the most boring question of them all: What do you do? Rather ask about their hobbies, which games they play, what their first game addiction was, etc. Understand what makes them tick and how you can help them reach their goals. Any strong connection is built on trust, so for this to work you have to be genuine.
Practice leaving conversations
Most people I talk to about networking worry about how to leave the conversation without feeling rude. Disclaimer: I’m working on this myself, but what I’ve experienced worked best is to say: “Hey, it was really great to talk with you. Do you happen to have a business card for us to connect later?” And then you swap the business cards and it’s all cool to move on. It is also ok to say: “It was really great talking to you. I’m going to catch-up with some more people. See you soon!”
After the conference
Allow yourself to refuel after the conference
The feeling when a conference is over is similar to when you had your final exams in college. Your body is drained from being focused and on for several days straight. All you want is some peace and quiet, but usually, there is so much work to get done! There will always be a lot to do, that won’t change, so my recommendation is to schedule time to relax during the evening of the last conference day, allow yourself to sleep in the next day, detox and exercise. Don’t beat yourself up about time not spent on work. You will get so much more done if you allow yourself to refuel.
Schedule time for follow-ups during the days after the conference
Following GDC, I’m devoting half of the following week to do follow-ups. The sooner you send those emails reminding each other how the conversation went and what the next steps are, the better. It’s easy to postpone it due to other important work that has piled up during the conference. Not following up right away can cause you to mix up all the different meetings into one big mess of nothing. If you do that, you might as well have “stayed at home” and not attended the conference in the first place!
Add relevant email addresses to your email/contact/CRM list
We record name, title, company, category, where we met, what we talked about, and follow-ups for everyone we meet. This will help us connect with them again in the future.
Add your new contacts on LinkedIn and remind them how you met and say thanks
I review all my new business connections and add them to LinkedIn. I make sure to write something along the lines of:
“Hi X, Thanks a lot for meeting with me at GDC. I hope you had a great and valuable experience. [Reference something from your conversation]. Looking forward to keeping in touch! Cheers, Aurora”
This is important, as most people have a hard time remembering who was who and giving some indication on how you met increases the chance of being accepted.
Follow your new contacts on Twitter
Many within the industry are quite active on twitter. I’ve found great value from following those I meet on Twitter.
Evaluate your participation at the conference
Remember that measurable goal? I’ll end with the second most important step: Do a retrospective where you evaluate your goals, what worked, what needs to be improved and what you will discontinue for your next conference. What’s the point of having goals if you don’t come back to them and track whether you reached them or not? This will help you improve and become more efficient going forward.
You should also think carefully of whether it was valuable enough to attend the conference in the first place…
Why am I reading this?
In the spirit of attending GDC 2017 in San Francisco, you’ve now read my updated best practice list for attending a conference. This is based on the original 17 Steps to Hack a Conference I wrote in 2015. I hope you found some valuable takeaways. If you have some clever conference attendance or networking tips that I’ve missed out on I’d love to hear about them!
Let me know if you are around to meet up during GDC 2017!