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tips for attending conferencesThe fast-approaching conference season offers a goldmine of learning and networking opportunities for PR and marketing professionals. Besides presenting superb opportunities to promote your brand, conferences offer an excellent opportunity to learn about industry best practices, emerging trends and valuable business skills.

While conferences overflow with valuable information and networking opportunities, compressed schedules create a time crunch. Attendees who don’t define their goals and sufficiently plan their activities may squander the occasion.

The following tips on optimizing conference opportunities can help PR and marketing professionals make the most of their precious time at upcoming conferences like the PRSSA 2016 National Conference or PRSA 2016 International Conference.

Determine what you want to accomplish. Establish or reinforce contacts with journalists or influencers? Meet speakers? Earn media placements? Learn more about (name of subject)?  Identify new strategies or trends? Explore new technology? Network with established experts? Identify potential employees? Find new clients? Promote awareness of your organization? Establish your expertise? Find a spouse (just kidding)?

Decide which sessions you wish to attend beforehand. More conferences now allow attendees to pre-select sessions. Do you want specific information? Do you want to meet the speaker? Don’t dismiss lesser known presenters. However, consider sitting in the back for a quick exit and don’t be afraid to leave a session which isn’t meeting your needs.

Specific or general? If you’re seeking new, specific tactics, avoid sessions with general descriptions. If you’re considering a new strategy, look for sessions that present an overview of general benefits, advises Andy Crestodina at web design and development firm Orbit Media Studios.

Beware of “big brand” sessions.  Although presentations by well-known companies attract more attendees, small and average-size firms may not be able to apply or afford their strategies and techniques. “Unless you’re trying to meet the speaker to network with that company, you might want to avoid these,” Crestodina says.

Watch videos of speakers beforehand. If you’re unsure of a speaker, look for a video of one of their presentations online to get a sense of their style and substance. Professional speakers always have videos on their speaker bio pages or on YouTube. Search for “[name] speaker bio.” You may even find a full version of the session the speaker plans to give.

Take notes during sessions using your preferred method. Some people prefer old-fashioned hand-written notes. Recording the sessions enables you to share session with others and quote speakers verbatim if desired. Voice recording apps take advantage of phones’ built in mics. Some conference attendees take pictures of slides. Some use Livescribe, a pen that records the audio, while you write on special paper.

Sit upfront. Notwithstanding the temptation to escape a session inconspicuously, the front seats offer the best views and audio for recording. Plus, they’re usually empty. “I always gravitate toward the front of the room,” says Cathy McPhillips, marketing director for the Content Marketing Institute. “ One, because I’m a big nerd and want to soak up the knowledge that I’m paying for, two, because there’s likely power outlets there, and three, because it gives me a chance to engage more with the speaker and those most excited about being there.”

Divide and conquer. If a colleague is also attending the event, agree to attend different sessions and later share information. “This ensures that you cover a broader array of sessions and meet different people,” digital marketing guru Heidi Cohen says in her Content Marketer’s Guide to Attending Conferences.

Socialize. Before the event, view the attendee list and consider: Who do you want to meet? Are there influencers you’d like to meet? Do you want to co-create content with them? Take the time to outline your ideas. Who else would you like to meet beyond the speakers and influencers? Between sessions, introduce yourself to others and make small talk about the meeting or the other person’s employer. Attend meals with groups.

Network on social media. Check the conference hashtag on Twitter. Many marketing conferences use their hashtag all year round.  Visit the conference’s LinkedIn group if it has one. Through social media, you can find people to meet in person at the event, send them a message, ask them a question and ask to meet.

Use business cards. When you meet someone and accept their business card, write on the back of the card where you met and one memorable point about the person. Connect with people soon after the event while their memory of the meeting remains fresh. Visit each person’s LinkedIn page to help you personalize your introductory message. “Find a reason to follow up with everyone you met. Your goal should be relationship building, not sales,” Cohen says.

Review goals and accomplishments each evening. Take a look at the list of goals you wanted to accomplish and evaluate how you’re doing for each. Organize your activities for the next day, focusing on what you haven’t yet accomplished.

Bottom Line: Conferences offer a wealth of professional educational and networking opportunities. It’s essential to understand your goals and plan carefully to take advantage of those opportunities. Carefully establishing conference goals, reviewing the conference schedule and attendee list before you head to the airport, and aggressively implementing your plan will assure you get the most from the conference.

Do you have any additional tips for getting more out of PR and marketing conferences? Please comment below.