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(*this entry was originally a guest blog post I wrote on the Marketing Mix Blog last April; this new version below has been expanded upon)

I used to go to this one diner every day for lunch. This was back when I lived in the city. One time, after my meal, I went up to the cashier to pay, and the lady at the register started laughing at me. Was there food stuck in my teeth? Was I having a bad hair day? I followed her gaze down to the counter at my book that I had brought with me to lunch: Keith Ferazzi’s Never Eat Alone. BUSTED. The irony was lost neither on me or the cashier, as I was, of course, eating alone.

The book’s full title is Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time. It’s about using the power of networking to build relationships and community with colleagues, contacts, friends & mentors.

Each of 31 short chapters highlights a specific networking technique or concept.

In one of the chapters, he advises readers to “Be A Conference Commando.”

Last March I went to the BRITE conference—Branding, Innovation, and Technology—sponsored by Columbia Business School’s Center on Global Brand Leadership. What would Keith think –  was I a Conference Commando?

Let’s find out. (So far, I’m doing pretty poorly on the Keith Ferazzi scale, based on the fact that I almost always eat lunch alone.)

I went to BRITE for two main reasons:

-in 2007 I moved out of NYC to rural central New York state so I needed some mental stimulation, exposure to new ideas, and a good write-off-able excuse to hang out in the city for a few days.

-At the time I was in a program with a group of other creative professionals, following something called the Grow Your Business Marketing Plan + Calendar and felt attending this conference would be an excellent networking component to my marketing checklist—along with all the other strategies we’d been learning about: research calls, crafting an online bio, blog creation/posting, etc.

Ferazzi suggests that conferences are not actually for gaining information and insight, but instead are opportunities to develop relationships. And in order to do this, you must be pro-active, not passive.

How does he do this? He researches the attendee list to make plans in advance for who he wants to rub shoulders with. But who do you think is more even more important to know about than the attendees? The speakers and presenters – the VIPs. He volunteers to help on the conference planning committee in order to have access to the Speaker list. Then what does he do with that? He’ll co-opt some planned boring evening cocktail event and throw his own dinner for the VIPs. He’ll plan the dinner in advance and send out invitations personally to them.

………….

While I was at the BRITE conference. I attended various addresses, breakout sessions, and a fantastic keynote given by Seth Godin, the social media and marketing guru and author of 10 books, including Purple Cow, the bestselling marketing book of the decade.

I gained a better understanding of such current catchphrases as ‘crowdsourcing’ (the average person can be tapped, via the internet, to help companies with solutions to their problems) and ‘tribes’ (leading a movement is the most effective way to spread your ideas); was able to hone my Twitter skills on my iPod Touch (in fact, unlike most other public gatherings, this audience was actually encouraged to dialogue with their devices while the talks were taking place, and after each speaker, the MC would field “tweeted” questions); and was exposed to compelling new technologies—my favorite of which is prezi.com, zooming presentation software.

However, according to Keith’s standards, as a conference attendee, I failed. (Well, maybe a D+).

Did I sign up to volunteer at the conference in order to gain access to its inner workings? No.

Did I research the VIPs beforehand and set up opportunities to hobnob with the ones I wanted most to meet in person?

Uh, no.

Much like some of you, I did not even really set goals for myself, other than that I would go, meet people, and learn a few things.

However, upon returning home, I did follow up with each of the people I met (one of Ferazzi’s tips), with an email that read:
Hi LaTeisha,

Nice to have met you at BRITE. What did you think of the conference?

Although there were some speakers that I felt were better than others, I really enjoyed the conference and came away with some new ideas and a better awareness of what’s currently going in the branding world. I run a small design and branding firm in central NY, and most of my clients are nonprofits and small companies, not these huge global brands. My challenge will be to take what I’ve learned and see how I can apply it to the work I do in this sector.

What are you working on these days? Have any challenges or questions I can possibly help you with?

Finally – would you be interested in receiving my email newsletter? Very occasionally I send out a short e-blast with news from the studio and marketing tips.

All Best,
Julia

This follow-up resulted in a few nice email conversations and a way to grow my e-newsletter readership.

The conference was short (1.5 days), small, and well-organized. Being an introvert (OK, a recovering introvert), I often feel drained by longer conferences. I left BRITE, however, feeling I had sufficiently established a few connections with people I did not know, and was appreciative of the insight I gained into the current branding and technology world.

So in these regards, my goals were met. Maybe not on the Ferazzi level, but I felt satisfied.

………….

Let’s go over some other, slightly more superficial Conference Commando tips. These are my own (not Keith’s).

1. Dress the part.

a. Attending a conference is business. Even though you may be out of the office, that’s not an excuse to look sloppy. Wear business-appropriate clothes.

For the BRITE conference, I figured attendees, being in the technology, marketing and branding worlds, would probably look sharp, and I was right. I made sure I did too, and I fortunately fit right in.

(As a side note, I did notice many of the men had a kind of “uniform” – jackets, jeans, and nice shoes. Sometimes jackets, jeans, nice shoes and TIES. Nice jeans – dress-up jeans.)

b. add something unusual to your outfit, like a necklace or funky tie. In my field, as a creative professional, I have a little more leeway here, but still, you can try it, as long as you don’t look like Carmen Miranda or anything. It will help you stand out from the crowd, give people something to break the ice with as they comment on your unique addition, and help you be memorable after you’ve met (“oh yeah, I remember her, she was the one with the light-up pin”)

2. Shaking hands

When you meet someone and shake hands, grasp firmly, not wimpily. Women are the worst offenders here. Practice in advance if you have to. Look the person in the eye, and smile.

Nametags: You may also want to say hello and use their real name, but not if you can’t find their nametag or its obscured. You will probably be shaking with your right hand, and so will they. Where do you think is a good place to put your nametag?

…………

Keep in mind that we all can’t be great charismatic networkers on the level of, say, a Bill Clinton. But I do hope this helps motivate some of you to attend a conference more ‘actively’ , less passively, and to think more about how to create relationships when you do go.

I don’t feel too bad that I may not have earned a Keith Ferazzi Conference Commando merit badge. I did some things right, and through the book Never Eat Alone, I am now aware of further strategies that I can work into my repertoire for next time.

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