It never fails. Whenever I speak with friends who aspire to be successfully self-employed, one of the first questions is, “How do you find your clients?”
Sometimes the answer is, “accidentally.” But more often, it’s “persistence,” “planning,” and “organization.”
One of my best attributes is that I can schmooze. Another is that when I find something that works, I’m smart enough to keep doing it.
That’s how I developed my conference and trade-show strategy for finding new clients.
And while most conferences have been forced to go virtual over the last year during the pandemic, many are expected to return in the near future as the vaccine distribution continues to ramp up here in the US. That means now is the perfect time to start planning to utilize this tactic.
Furthermore, you can even apply many of these strategies to virtual conferences as they also offer online networking opportunities!
My first conference
Although I don’t maintain a blog of my own, I dream of launching one someday.
I heard about the BlogHer conference when it came to my hometown – but the last-minute price for admission was out of my budget.
The organization intrigued me and the conference agenda looked packed with value, so I got on the events mailing list and registered at the early bird price for the following year’s event.
That gave me 11 months to plan out a budget-friendly trip.
The big surprise
I expected to enjoy the sessions and workshops (and did), but was surprised to be blown away by the sponsors and exhibitors.
At most conferences, exhibitors generally try to sell their useful services and products to the attendees. That was still true at BlogHer, but a huge percentage of exhibitors also want to develop strategic and mutually beneficial relationships with bloggers.
These companies – hundreds of them – were there actively seeking bloggers. That probably means they have corporate blogs of their own.
It definitely meant they are marketing their products online. The number of possible opportunities for a freelance writer was virtually without limits.
Next, I attended NMX (formerly known as BlogWorld) in Las Vegas. Again, I registered at the early bird price.
But this time I decided to skip the sessions altogether and purchase a very inexpensive exhibit hall-only pass. That turned out to be a bit of a disappointment because some big names in the blogosphere – like Pat Flynn – gave outstanding presentations.
But I made the decision to keep my costs low and stick to my purpose, which was to network.
Stepping up my marketing efforts
A couple of months before NMX I had professional photos taken, and used the new headshots to update my website.
I also worked with a nonprofit student design firm to create an 8×5 glossy postcard to hand out in lieu of business cards. The cost for design and printing (500 copies) was under $100. The tactic set me apart from everyone else handing out cards.
Once at the conference, I made a point to introduce myself and hand out a postcard to every exhibitor. Even for a schmoozer, it’s not easy to maintain a genuine smile and remain interested and interesting all the time, for two or three days in a row.
But you never know which contact will turn out to be the one who has work, so I powered through and stopped at every booth. Several turned out to be good leads. I made a point to follow up within a couple of weeks, while our conversation was still fresh in recent memory.
My success rate?
At least one lead has turned into a client after every conference I’ve attended. In fact, all of the clients I’ve found at the conferences have turned into ongoing monthly clients, not just one-time jobs.
6 Tips for Using Conferences to Find Clients
Here is my rundown on how I prospect at conferences:
- Pick a conference in any industry where you want to make connections. For instance, I attended AFCEA – its focus is information technology issues affecting the military (not my niche). I do have experience writing military training materials though, so it was worth my time to shake a few hands and introduce myself to the exhibitors. Bonus: Attendance is free and the event takes place in my hometown. I also attended the bike-industry conference Interbike, which offers a special discount to media representatives.
- Look for discounted admission. Register early. At conferences that charge a registration fee, find out if you can obtain a less expensive “exhibit hall access only” pass. Some conferences also offer student discounts and press passes. If you already write for a company in the industry, try to leverage that relationship for a better price.
- Stay close to home when possible. Once you factor in airfare and hotel room costs, trade shows and conferences can get pricey. Browse the website for your local convention center and see what’s on the schedule. It’s generally available for free to restaurants and other businesses nearby around conference time.
- Plan ahead. Don’t panic if you find out about an event at the last minute, and don’t pay a premium for last-minute admission. Use the 11th-hour discovery as an opportunity to get the best price for the following year.
- Stick with what works. If a conference fits you, go again. Exhibitors change – you are likely to meet new leads the second and third times around. Plus, your experience, skills, and professional exposure will have grown, possibly opening the door to new opportunities with leads from past years.
- Follow up. In case you haven’t noticed, this whole post is about networking and building new relationships. Connect via LinkedIn and Twitter to as many conference attendees and exhibitors as you can. Create lists and groups. Follow up while the memory is still fresh. Be direct, brief, and polite. Don’t badger anyone and ignore those who don’t respond to you. When the chemistry doesn’t work, just cheerfully disengage and leave them off your mailing list.
Have you ever prospected at a conference? Leave a comment and add your tips.
Kimberley Rotter is a freelance writer and content strategist in San Diego.