I’ve attended quite a few conferences in the last few weeks… in fact, I flew home from a long traveling stint where I spoke at Search and Social Summit and Search Exchange last night. And at both of those conferences I noticed something… quite a few people in our industry have a hard time figuring out how to mingle, network and meet the people they’d hoped to meet at SEO conferences.

And posts have been done before… two that pop to mind are Todd Malicoat’s SEO conference tips and tricks and fifteen ways to be a conference douchebag. But I figured I’d give you my spin on how to get the most social ROI from a conference… which will likely turn into financial ROI down the road if you do it right.

Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself to people

This is unequivocally the number one reason people don’t get to meet “who they want to meet” as far as I’m concerned. I’ll give you an example. When I got home from Search Exchange, I saw the following tweet from cyandle, a twitter user that I regularly converse with on the service…

“@sugarrae glad u had a safe flight…hate we didn’t get to chat last night…” – cyandle

Yet, I was in the same bar, at the same party where cyandle was. The reason cyandle didn’t meet me was simple… he didn’t introduce himself to me. Last I checked, “well known” (seriously? my mother doesn’t even understand what I do for a living) SEO folk didn’t bite. But, we do know a lot of people and have a lot of people to say hi to in our “rounds” at conference events. If you don’t seek us out, there’s a good chance we’ll miss you even if we’ve previously spoken with you through online channels.

Seize the opportunity, say hi, mention if you’ve conversed with them previously and if you’re really shy or there’s no previous contact to mention? Buy them a drink. I don’t know how many times we have to tell you in these kinds of posts that SEOs never turn down free drinks – or conversations with the person who bought them.

Make the most of opportunities that arise

I’m a pretty outgoing person (shocking, I know) and I will be one of the first people to see someone sitting awkwardly by themselves and invite them to join the rest of us sitting at a nearby table (or possibly the pool). At the Search and Social event, I did that twice. One guy seemed a bit shell-shocked when I invited him to sit with Michael Gray and myself and was very quiet once sitting down at the table. I joked that we were probably a bit more interesting than the palm tree at his last table. He didn’t say much and when we moved to the pool, he stayed to himself. Later that week, I saw him tweet that he wished he could have done it over again and been a bit more social with the opportunity.

Compare that to me seeing Ethan Stanislawski walking around on his own and inviting him to join us in the pool if he didn’t know anyone (which he confirmed he didn’t). Ethan grabbed a swimsuit, hopped in and spent the day getting to know some of the other SEOs at the event and was even brave enough to come out to dinner with us when invited later in the evening (a choice he may or may not regret based on the number of drinks he was goaded into having ha ha). He spent the rest of the night hanging out by the pool with us before he finally retired to bed (luckily for him, right before people started being thrown in the pool).

The result is that he now “knows” several folks in the industry, will likely be able to reconnect with them at future conferences and become even more connected within the community by continuing to meet new people as a result of hopping in the pool at a small conference in Tampa. Be an Ethan and make the most of opportunities that present themselves to you.

Use Foursquare to find the “hang outs”

First, I want to be very clear that there is a definite line between using Foursquare to find the “hot spots” and stalking. The former is a “foot in the door” and the latter is downright creepy. Find the line and stay on the former side of it. That said, the reality is that we’re all geeks and a lot of us are using Foursquare and if you’re looking for where people are hanging out during conferences, Foursquare can be invaluable to finding out that information.

Be aware though that you don’t want to show up at restaurants where folks are having dinner (can we say awkward?). What you’re looking for is what bars they’re using for “after parties.” Once you find where the larger portion of conference attendees are checking in, you can take the opportunity to show up and mingle. But make sure you mingle! Standing at the bar hoping to be noticed or doing three walk-throughs of the venue isn’t enough. You need to take a breath and walk up and introduce yourself (see point number one above). Even better, find *other* conference virgins and form a group to enter the venue with. You’ll all feel more confident at least knowing each other and you won’t be “that guy” standing alone at the bar.

Sell yourself and not your company/services

Once you do find and meet the folks you’d hoped to, be genuine, be yourself and get to know them as *people* and not as “business contacts”. No one wants to hang with the asshat handing out ten million business cards and repeatedly telling folks how awesome his company is and constantly trying to find the “angle” you can work together in with everyone he meets. Your goal in conference networking is not *business deals*. It’s *forming relationships*. Your financial ROI will be a lot higher if you simply focus on the social ROI in the beginning.

Finally, a note to conference vets

It becomes very easy over time to hit a conference and hang out with the same group of folks over and over. But, I’ve got to tell you that I’ve always had a lot of fun purposely seeking out new folks at the conferences and finding the wallflowers and bringing them into the social fold. Sure, every once in a while it turns out they’re “that guy”, but for the most part, there are a lot of cool, genuine and smart folks we don’t “know.”

So if you’re a conference vet, make it a point to find a newbie at your next event and help their conference experience become a lot better. It helps the individual, helps the industry and frankly, helps your own karma.

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