conference learning tips: how you can learn from a conference without attending

After six months at DragonSearch, (and one long afternoon updating Ric Dragon’s whiteboard) there’s one  thing that has become crystal clear to me – trying to keep up with all of the SEO/Social Media conferences that go on is a full time job! Whether it’s NMX and SearchLove or MozCon and SMX – these great events, rich with learning opportunities and prospects for building solid connections, are happening all the time – all across the country.  What I also realized is that although the possibilities for learning and networking are sky high, so will be your frequent flier miles if you plan on attending all of these conferences!

Photo Credit: @WilReynolds

Photo Credit: @WilReynolds

Recently, there’s been a buzz of excitement around our office from several Dragons who were thrilled to be heading off to the “Emerald City” of Seattle for MozCon.  (A place I envisioned as a stadium full of who’s who in the world of SEO and online marketing world.)  Enthralled by their energy, I became eager to absorb all that I could learn from the event myself. Knowing I wasn’t attending the event, I became resourceful and quickly developed a plan on how I could use social media and other resources to learn from the conference without attending it!

Phase 1: Pre-Conference

So how exactly does a person set learning objectives and plan on learning something from a conference taking place across the entire country, you ask? Well, I started with prioritizing. I knew that even if I was attending the conference, that there would be no possible way I could cover everything and meet everyone, so the first thing I had to do was some pre-conference homework.

1. Create a List of All Speakers

Almost all conferences announce the participating speakers.  These announcements are made days if not weeks prior to the event, making the task of finding out the speakers easy. Once you’ve researched the event’s roster of speakers, you should create lists as a resource for yourself and others. Twitter lists and Listly lists are the perfect place to start because they are shareable.

2. Choose Conference Targets

Now that you have put together your complete list of speakers, and shared them within your community of conference-goers, it’s time to move forward. Go through your entire list of all speakers and highlight 4 or 5 people that are influential to you. These should be speakers who are leading the discussion on a topic that you find important and engaging.  This truncated list of people becomes your conference targets.

3. Research Speaker Times & Set Reminders

With your conference targets selected, it’s time to see their speaking agendas and set calendar alerts for yourself 15-30 minutes before as reminders that your targeted speakers are  headingto the podium. It will give you time to see who else in your timeline was sharing in the excitement of Rand Fishkin speaking, or tweeting about meeting Ross Hudgens after his presentation. This gives you an early jump in the conversation and an opportunity to engage within that small community of people. These other people, who are most likely at the conference, will ultimately, become additional sources for you to learn about what’s happening at the conference without sitting in the audience.

Phase 2: During the Conference

Now that we’ve done some preliminary “homework” for the conference, and identified a few key people from the conference to highlight – it’s time for the conference to begin. The second phase of our conference learning is by setting up ways for us to monitor and engage with both conference targets and other attendees.

Streamline the following three tips into your daily activities

1. Twitter Tracking

Setting up lists on Twitter is the first and the easiest step to “eavesdrop” on conversations that are happening at the conference. In addition to the working list of speakers and fellow attendees we set up in our previous step, it is important to closely monitor the official hashtag(#) of the conference, providing a wide-range of people who were chatting about the event.  With MozCon, I tackled multiple lists in Hootsuite thus creating a central source to see everything conference related. I saw what my targeted speakers were interested in, who they were talking to, and what their personal schedule was like.  In a sense, I was shadowing them.


2. Real-Time Social Monitoring

Topsy has recently become my new best friend. Topsy is a great tool to use for in-depth social monitoring. The web-based tool and it’s advance search features perfectly complemented those lists that I had set up, because I was now able to do searches in real-time outside of my Twitter lists and also see who was talking about it on G+.

Topsy returning searches for 'MozCon'

Topsy returning searches for ‘MozCon’

3. Engage, Engage, Engage

So what if you’re not actually AT the conference? Act like you are! When there’s someone live-tweeting about a certain speaker you are following, let your followers know about it too. Most likely, there are people who follow you who will be interested in what they’re saying as well. When one of your target speakers gets off stage, tweet them and thank them – you can even include a compliment on specific point you appreciated. There is no rule that says because you are not there, you cannot interact with those who are – it’s about networking, isn’t it?

Phase 3: After the Conference

Now that your conference is over – the learning doesn’t stop.  Actually, now that the conference is over, I think there are more opportunities for you to gain knowledge, and continue learning.  By completing the last section of our easy conference learning tips – you will not only ensure yourself some rich information and great takeaways, but you also put yourself in a great position to create a relationship with both the speakers you’ve targeted as well as other conference attendees.

1. Read Recap Posts

A great way to continue learning after the conference is to find and read conference recap posts. Whether they relate to specific speakers, detail particular or even the conference as a whole – reading first-hand accounts from attendees will provide more depth and insight than you received over social media. Often the speakers themselves will post blog posts with their slides. If you find a certain post useful, make sure to share it, and leave a comment thanking the author.

2. Download SlideShares/Conference Presentation Decks

Most conferences will make the presentation decks for their speakers available; either after the speaker speaks or after the conference is over. This is a great way to get more detailed takeaways from your conference targets. In addition to the conference-released decks, the presenters may choose to share their slide deck. SlideShare is a popular place where presentations are shared because they are embeddable.

3. Follow Up

As the conference winds down, it’s important to reach out to those with whom you have connected. Whether its a speaker you targeted or someone who has shared some useful content with you – following up with them is crucial.

Here are a couple of ways that you should “follow up:”

Connect with them on LinkedIn using a personal, customized mention thanking them for their presentation, follow them and retweet them on Twitter, and most importantly leave a comment on a post-conference blog post they’ve written. Trust me, bloggers love to read the comments on their posts [hint, hint].

Use manners and say thank you.

Use manners and say thank you.

By taking some time to do a handful of simple tasks, you’ve pretty much secured yourself front row seats to any conference (minus the popcorn).  By setting the right alerts and doing some Twitter tracking, I was able to tune in directly to an ENTIRE room full of people who had front row seats to the speaker, which allowed me to do some serious conference learning. I created a team of live-tweeters, commenters, and side-conversationists filling me in on everything conference related, right at my disposal.  If you’ve attended a conference – or more importantly if you didn’t attend a conference, but you found ways to learn something from it, let me know how you did it.

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