I have nine NAFSA Annual Conferences under my belt, and only now do I feel like I have my post-conference routine down. For me, the NAFSA Annual Conference is always an exhilarating whirlwind of thought-provoking sessions, reception invitations, exhibit hall strategizing, business card collecting, and extreme networking.
With NAFSA’s Regional Conference in full swing, I thought it would be a good time to share some of the tips and tricks I have learned for maximizing professional networking both during the conference and when you are in the “post-conference glow.” You know what the “post-conference glow” is, right? It’s that feeling after a great event where your follow-up checklist is long and your energy and enthusiasm is sustained by all those great “ah ha” moments and new connections.
During the Conference
1. Make it a game to give away at least five business cards
Business cards have no value if you don’t pass them out – or collect them. I consider myself a high-functioning extrovert, and yet 50 plus conferences later, I still consider it one of the hardest things in the world to walk into a room of strangers, make small talk, and then try to not only give, but take business cards from contacts you’ve only just met. I challenge myself to try to connect with at least five people throughout the conference. Conference card pick-up lines can include: “Have you been to any memorable sessions?” or “How far did you travel to get here?”
2. Lighten your name badge load
Conferences are notorious for making your name badge a flashy billboard of program provider stickers, region buttons, ribbon bragging, and, for me, business card storage. Every night, no matter how exhausted I am, I always take five minutes to clean out my name badge holder. It makes my name badge lighter for the next day, and gives me the chance to review all the business cards I collected throughout the day.
3. Rank your interactions
After I’ve compiled all the business cards I collected over the day, I rank each interaction on a scale from 1 to 5 (with 5 being the best). If the person on the business card was a great contact, I write specific details about the conversation, and make action items from that conversation. The goal is to write as much as I can on the back of the business card to jog my memory of that person, conversation, and possible next steps. This is important because when you do contact the person, you can be specific and personal.
On the Way Home from the Conference
4. Three gems
What are the three things you took away from the conference? Be prepared to answer this question, as colleagues, friends, and family are going to ask how the conference went. Instead of the standard, “It was great, but exhausting…,” be prepared to show and tell what you learned.
5. Business cards are your friend (literally)
I don’t know how many conference friends started out as a business card. If you take the time to treat business cards as potential future coffee buddies, session proposal panelists, or reception-hopping friends, the payoff of investing in keeping the card might be big – or at least fun! This is your connection to that person – hold on to it! And, if you don’t want to (literally) hold on to the card, invest in a business card scanner.
6. Link in on LinkedIn
One of my favorite post-conference activities is sending LinkedIn requests to ALL my business card connections. I usually do this in the airport when I’m waiting on a flight. First of all, I love to learn more about the person I might have briefly met. Secondly, this is a great way to keep your connection in the know about you – especially before you send that follow-up e-mail. A LinkedIn request is much easier to “accept.”
It’s okay to draft e-mails to your new conference contacts, but try not to hit “send” on your follow-up e-mails the day after the conference is over. Wait a few days (or maybe even a whole week) for their work life to resume just like yours needs to. Be sure to follow-up though, as they most likely will be going through that post-conference glow too – and you want to capitalize on that.
A Few Weeks After the Conference
8. Follow-up is key
Load up your calendar with post-conference follow-up tasks. Make your tasks timely and realistic – especially while you’re still energized from the conference. The first two weeks after the conference are the best time to schedule meetings and continue building momentum on your growing network. Make sure you schedule and prioritize this follow-up before you even attend the conference!
9. Get personal
DO NOT write generic follow-up e-mails that you send (or worse, blind carbon copy) to your business card pile. People want to feel like you remembered them, and maybe they need some help placing your name with the interaction you had. Be sure to include a couple of sentences that refreshes who you are, what you discussed, and why you connected long enough to actually exchange business cards.
10. Call to action
It’s important to put a “call to action” in your follow-up e-mail – something that will keep the conversation going. I suggest mentioning something specific, actionable, and realistic that you’d like to connect with that person on in the future. Think about how you can help them or how they might be able to help you.
11. Handwritten “thank you” cards never hurt
Did someone do something for you out of the ordinary? Stand out by thanking that person with a handwritten “thank you” card. Your “thank you” will stand out if it’s handwritten versus lost in the post-conference virtual world. It makes a difference, I promise. You don’t want your heartfelt thanks to be one more e-mail that has to be read after your contact turns off their “out of office” message.
12. Be a connector
If you’ve made a contact that might benefit another contact, make the introduction. I believe this is where conference karma comes into play. As you build your network, you should always be looking for ways to help others build their own. Nothing beats a vetted introduction.
13. Share the conference love
I take notes at every conference session I attend. I consider it part of my post-conference routine to share those notes with colleagues who might have also benefited from the session – even though they weren’t able to attend. If nothing else, it shows a willingness to share knowledge. This will also aid in showing the benefit and value of the conference so that if funding is limited in the future, you may be more likely to attend since you had previously already shared its worth.
A Couple Months Down the Road
14. It’s all in the cards
I keep a pile of my high ranking (4-5) conference connections on my desk. If I have a down moment, I might reach out a few to just “check-in” on how the year or semester is going. It’s a great way to keep conversation going throughout the year, even if it’s a little nudge that serves as a “remember me."
One Year Later
15. Quality time
Uninterrupted time rarely happens during a conference. Make it a priority to meet those contacts who are worth catching up with outside of the conference center. Plan early – before schedules fill up.
16. Yelp dates
To me, a successful conference also includes time outside of sessions and the expo hall. I try to schedule informal meetings with conference buddies for coffee, lunch, happy hour, dinner or reception hopping. Since conferences tend to be in bigger cities, I make a list of highly rated restaurants and try to fill every meal time with a catch-up date.
What does your post-conference routine look like?
Lesley Robinson is director of the Global Engagement Office at St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas.