BL&T No. 133: Lessons from Attending Conferences


This post originally appeared in my newsletter, Borrowed, Learned, & Thought. BL&T is sent weekly on Mondays. In every edition, I share lessons learned in agency leadership, life, and e-commerce. This post does not include all the details shared in the newsletter sent via email. Subscribe here.


“You must have a good time meeting people if you expect them to have a good time meeting you."

From "How to Win Friends and Influence People" by Dale Carnegie [Book]

Learned & Thought

I'm writing you from Las Vegas this week! I came in for Shoptalk, an annual conference bringing together thousands of retail and e-commerce leaders. Tomorrow evening should be a highlight (not because Nelly is closing the event), but we're hosting an intimate dinner for brands with our friends at Fireside and tech partners, Recharge and Rebuy.

I've been doing the conference circuit this year, or as our Shopify partner manager calls it, the roadshow. While the experience can be exhausting, it has been a great way to deepen relationships and connect with new folks.

One of the questions I've been getting from other agency folks and tech partners has been: What do you hope to get out of attending? Any lessons learned?

I wouldn't call myself a conference master by any means, but having answered this question a handful of times in the last 24 hours, I figured I'd take this as an opportunity to capture some takeaways. There's plenty more to add to the list, but for those who are new to the conference experience, I hope you find some value in these tips.

Build in some buffer

Showing up at a conference and immediately hitting the ground running is doable. I've done it. Plenty of others folks do it, too. But if you ask me, it's not ideal. You end up racing from event to event, don't have a lay of the land, and struggle to find a moment to breathe. If I can, I like to come in early, even if for a few hours, especially when I'm in a new city. It's nice to settle in and prep for the inevitable multi-day sprint.

Plan ahead

t's worthwhile to put in some prep work to get the most out of the conference. There are the basics (how you'll get from your hotel to the venue), but also getting familiar with the event schedule to figure out how to make good use of time.

It's never easy to figure out who will be attending, so my approach has been to let everyone know I'll be there. Planning might mean setting up formal meetings or exchanging phone numbers to connect during the event. Either way, putting together a rough schedule for your time will ensure you're not roaming around (if you're traveling alone) or just chatting with your same group of colleagues.

As a note, I haven't had much luck sending cold emails to set up meetings during the event. Most of the new folks I've met have come during the event.

Think long-term

Unless the conference is an opportunity to meet with a prospective client you've been in talks with, I wouldn't expect to close any new business or even walk away with more than a lead or two. Meeting brand folks at conferences is more challenging than it seems, not to mention that every agency and tech partner is vying for their attention.

When I attend conferences, my focus is on connecting with new folks, whether they're prospective clients, collaborators, or fellow agency leaders. You never know how these relationships might take shape down the line, but looking for ROI is a sure way to turn people off.

A unique feature of Shoptalk is a speed-dating-like setup where they coordinate meetings through their portal ahead of the conference, helping attendees get more value out of the experience.

Be curious

A pet peeve of mine is tech platform folks coming up to me, telling me all about their product, and only at the very end, asking me what I do. I can only imagine the experience brand folks have.

The best advice I can give is to lead with curiosity. It's worthwhile to walk up to strangers and say hello, but take the time to learn about them. With a long-term mindset, you're not trying to sell them on anything. If there's a good fit, the opportunity will present itself as you get to know each other.

Ticket or no ticket?

I've heard from folks who attend conferences but don't attend, meaning they don't buy a ticket. They hang outside the venue and plan meetings with attendees ahead of time or attend events surrounding the conference. I haven't tried this approach yet, but in my experience, I've found the ticket worthwhile, whether it's features like the Shoptalk speed dating or getting access to booths.

If you're debating, I'd recommend attending the conferences you have in mind first, seeing what it's like, then deciding if it's worth it in the future.

Connect and follow up

If you're taking the steps above, you'll likely meet a bunch of new people. The worst is when you're mid-conversation, others join, and you realize you never caught the person you were speaking to's last name. You feel awkward interrupting, so you let it go and do the investigative work later.

My tactic has been to exchange info pretty early in the conversation when it feels like we have a good synergy. I typically add the person on LinkedIn and send a message to keep a record of who I spoke with. It can feel weird at first, but then you realize most everyone is there to meet new people and network.

When I was at LA Ecommerce Summit, I got introduced to Popl. It's a digital business card, using phone tap and QR codes to exchange information. All contacts get centralized in the app. I've been experimenting with Popl on this trip — so far, so good.


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