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Surviving and thriving at an SEO conference

I was recently asked about an issue many of us in the SEO industry face:
“When you’re attending a conference where you’ll be meeting peers, clients and prospective clients, how do you avoid awkward silence?”
This is obviously a good question in and of itself, but it got me thinking about a larger issue search professionals often face: how people can make the most of their meetups and time together.
Having attended SEO conferences since 2006, I’ve learned some strategies to use before and during conferences to help maximize my time while I’m there. Some of these strategies apply to meeting with peers, others to clients and prospective clients, and some to both.  Whether you’re attending your first conference or just looking to improve your game, I hope you will find this advice useful.
Be prepared
The initial question about how to avoid an awkward silence is what got me thinking of this topic, as it implies that the person posing the question wasn’t going into the conference prepared.
Generally, you’ll know in advance if clients and key industry peers will be attending the conference, so don’t wait until you’re there to figure out how to talk to them and what to talk to them about. Instead, prepare in advance via social media.
Now, let me be clear: I’m not suggesting that you friend people on Facebook if they don’t know you. However, some fairly simple research on their public posts, Twitter stream and LinkedIn profiles will likely produce some key information such as:
What’s the person’s work history?
What subjects do they talk most about?
What non-work topics are they interested in? (This is key!)
Are they married and do they have kids?
And more.
You get where I’m going. Armed with an array of information on the people you’re meeting, there will be no awkward silence. Furthermore, you’ll have an opportunity to connect with them on a human level. I am reminded often of two quotes from the great Dale Carnegie:

“The royal road to a man’s heart is to talk to him about the things he treasures most.”

and

“When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but creatures of emotion.”

Both of these are true. Yes, that person probably wants to talk shop with you, but they’ve got plenty of people doing that. The difference will come in the non-shop talk. Let’s say you’re talking to a prospective client; they will likely be talking to a half-dozen other people with offerings like yours. The difference will come in discussing their favorite sports team, a movie they’ve seen, or — one that I’ve found works well — a person they’re inspired by (like Dale Carnegie!).
Connect in advance
We talked above about using social media as a data-gathering tool, but it obviously is much more than that. Connecting with people you want to meet on social prior to an event is a valuable introduction. LinkedIn is an obvious go-to; Facebook is discouraged unless you actually have met. Twitter I’ve found to be probably the easiest way to engage others, as it’s a simple communication point that by its nature discourages pitching. Connect on LinkedIn to be sure, but follow them on Twitter, read their posts and comment when applicable.
By connecting with others in advance, you’ll be gathering the data you need from our first discussion point above and allowing your prospect to get to know you in an open and welcome place. You’re showing interest in their activities, and by commenting, you’re showing you’ve read and thought about what they’re saying. Remember, people love themselves.
I also recommend joining Facebook groups related to the conference you’re attending. This is a great way to interact with others who will be there and perhaps the people you want to meet. Even if this doesn’t connect you with the people you’re specifically interested in, it could provide other valuable contacts. You may find yourself sitting at a table with someone from your Facebook group, giving you an easy conversation starter.
Use social media during the event, too
Is someone you want to meet speaking? Is another tweeting out what’s going on at the event? If they are, be sure to leverage that by tweeting about their session or replying to or retweeting their tweets. Once again, this is an easy and effective way to illustrate that you’re paying attention, interested in what they do and engaged with their work.
We are marketers, after all. If we’re not engaging with the people we want to convert (even if that conversion is just meeting someone), then how good are we?
Look the part
There’s a quote from Socrates, “Be as you wish to appear.” It’s a great quote with a lot of truth, but for our purposes here, we can rephrase it as, “Appear as you wish to be.” I’m not saying, “Fake it until you make it,” as that’s a philosophy I loathe. But if you want to be taken seriously, it’s wise to dress the part.
As a marketer, you know that a slight tweak in design can yield big increases in conversions — this is as true for you as it is for a website. If you’re there to meet clients, show them the respect of looking your best. If you’re meeting colleagues you respect, do the same.
One caveat here is to read the room. If it’s a small conference you’re attending with just your industry peers, then consider how they dress and just kick it up a bit. If you’re attending a larger conference or one with clients or prospective clients, then it never hurts to present yourself at the top of your game.
Self-care and time management
For the veterans in the crowd, you’ll know this might be the hardest part. You’re up early for the breakfast, in sessions and working all day, dinner and networking in the evening, and then undoubtedly you’ll be invited out for drinks after that — resulting in a 7 a.m. wake-up after a 2 a.m. bedtime. And that assumes you don’t have emails to power through.
Let’s face it, you probably aren’t at your best after a few drinks on four or five hours of sleep, so pace yourself. There’s a lot of networking to do, and it’s better to leave a bit early (at a time when others probably won’t remember how witty you are anyway) and be your best the next day.
It’s also crucial to get some time for yourself in between the various parts of the conference, whether it’s simply a quiet place to work uninterrupted (though that’s hardly “you time”), a chance to have a quiet coffee before the sessions start, or some time after the conference but before the evening’s activities. If you want to stay sharp, it’s often wise to take some time to unwind. And if you need to somehow justify it to those around you, then hit the fitness center and do some easy workout like a stationary biking, or make use of the sauna.
By taking care of yourself — by getting ample sleep and not overdoing , you’ll be better able to manage the balance of networking, learning new things and getting your day-to-day work done.
And above all…
Be authentic
We talked about faking it until you make it, and there’s a big reason why I dislike this philosophy: Pretending to know things you don’t can seriously undermine your reputation, especially among peers who can easily call you out on it.
If you don’t know something, then be up front about it — mentioning, of course, that you specialize in something different. None of us can know everything (until Google plants a chip in our brains to access all human knowledge), so no one will begrudge you that. If it’s a client or prospective client, simply tell them it’s a good question and you’ll get back to them on it after you look into it or ask someone you trust.
Of course, being yourself isn’t just about what you know, it’s about who you are. It’s about being authentic. We all want clients that are good fits, and that means they know who you are and want to work with you. While you want to be your best self at conferences, you should still ultimately be yourself. One can’t sustain being something they’re not indefinitely, so it’s better to simply make friends and clients that want to associate with you knowing who you are.
Conclusion
Enjoy. SEO conferences are a great way to make friends, find clients, meet people you respect, and even learn a great deal about an amazing subject from some amazing people. Take in the experience, and you’ll get even more than you might hope.
If you’re not enjoying yourself, and you’re just checking off things to do like a shopping list, that’s going to come across. If you’re enjoying yourself, then not only will you have a better time, but you’ll be more successful, too — people like people who are having fun doing what they love, especially when they’re doing the same thing and love it as much as you do.
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

About The Author

Dave Davies founded Beanstalk Internet Marketing, Inc. in 2004 after working in the industry for 3 years and is its active CEO. He is a well-published author and has spoken on the subject of organic SEO at a number of conferences, including a favorite, SMX Advanced. Dave writes regularly on Beanstalk’s blog and is a monthly contributor here on Search Engine Land.

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