I’ve recently been to my 3rd web conference: Future of Web Design, in London. You can’t say I’m a conference pro — I’ve never been to SXSW or something that big (or even workshops), but I think my experience may be helpful to those of you who’ve never attended a conference and are thinking of doing it in the future.
When I first attended Future of Web Design, in 2008, I wasn’t living in London, and I had to pay for everything myself: ticket, flights, hotel and expenses. I didn’t regret having spent that money for a second!
Are conferences really worth it?
My advice is try it at least once. The feeling of being in a room with dozens or even hundreds of people that share your vision and are interested in the same things as you is great, and you won’t be getting it anywhere else.
I’m usually a bit disappointed about the content itself though: my expectations can be a bit too high, I suppose. Even though some presentations have inspired me to go home and do something amazing, a big percentage of the speakers focuses too much on their own portfolios and their companies and on a “how good we are” theme instead of “how good you can be”.
But there are some real gems occasionally. For example:
- Andy Budd, Clearleft @ Future of Web Design 2008: “Designing the User Experience Curve”
- Ben Huh, ICanHasCheezburger.com @ Future of Web Apps 2008: “How to take your community to the next level”
- Jina Bolton @ Future of Web Design 2007: “CSS3 And What Could Be”
If your company doesn’t pay for you to go to conferences, first, they suck, second, pick a cheaper, local or a free event, save some money, book flights and hotels (if needed) in advance, share expenses with a friend, couchsurf, do whatever it takes, but just go. And maybe if you bring something valuable from the experience that you can share with your colleagues, they’ll see that it is a good investment and pay you to go next year.
Convinced? Go do some homework before you go!
Prepare before you go: whether you’re going alone or with someone else. The main purpose of these events is to network, so if you go with 3 friends and meet no one else, where’s the fun in that? You could’ve just gotten the same results with a couple of hours at the pub next door.
It’s good to know who’s going and have some names of people you’d like to meet, be it because you like their work, are interested in their specific area of expertise, or just find them interesting in some way.
Search on Twitter, Upcoming (also a great tool to look for events to attend) and Facebook — this should give you enough information about who’s coming. A lot of people are in the same situation as you and looking for someone to hang out with, so it’s OK to pop them a dm on Twitter or write a message on the wall of the Facebook event’s page.
The first time I attended FOWD by myself, I didn’t know a single soul. I searched mainly on Upcoming.org and on the event’s list of attendees for people who were in the same situation as me, and I even got a couple of emails from other people who were doing the same. It was less scary than just showing up at the pre-party all by myself.
Make business cards. You don’t have to spend a lot of money and it’s something people can keep and that will remind them of you. They don’t have to be amazing, but it helps!
Here are some of the business cards I’ve been handed in the last couple of years:
Are you there yet? What to do during the event?
Twitter. It’s mainly a good thing. If you’re going, I advise you to start using it, you may feel left out and it’ll be easier to know where people are and what fun things are happening that you wouldn’t know otherwise. You can easily find someone’s username online but not their mobile number.
But Twitter can also be a major distraction during the presentations and a bad thing, especially if you’re a speaker! The audience can (and is) merciless and they won’t refrain from telling how your presentation sucks (you’ll have to be particularly thick-skinned if you’re from Microsoft!):
If I ever were to talk at a conference, I’d make sure I didn’t check the live stream during my presentation, or I’d probably burst into tears…
In conclusion, Twitter is, no doubt, the main tool to use while at a conference. That and a mobile phone.
Don’t be shy and go talk to someone. This is where the preparation comes in hand, because if you already know someone online, it’s much easier to go to them and say “Hey! Are you [insert username/real name here]? I’m [insert username/real name here]! Nice to finally meet you!”. Exchange business cards, and the rest will come up by itself.
I have a friend who’s very good at grabbing people that are clearly alone and starting a conversation with them. It’s good to see how they always seem to be relieved of not being by themselves anymore. :)
Demystify the concept of internet celebrities. This is easier said than done, but it’s true that most of them are very accessible, and as lovely as the rest of us and wouldn’t mind having someone to talk to for 5 minutes. Just tell them how and why you like their work, how pleased you are to finally meet them, and how they have inspired you. Ask about how they’re liking the conference or the city so far, and you’ll have enough things to talk about for some good 5 or 10 minutes.
Don’t forget to keep in touch with your new acquaintances: use Twitter (the easiest way), follow their work, subscribe to their blogs. Sending follow-up emails can also be a good idea: pick a few people you’re really interested in keeping in touch with and send them a nice reminder of yourself.
And do something with what you’ve learned: go do more research on a subject that grabbed your attention, create something new, start your own projects. If you didn’t learn anything, why not make sure you’re a speaker the following year and do a better job at it!
Remember: next time will be even better!
Where I’ll be next
This week I’ll be attending OFFF Lisbon 09. As usual, my expectations are higher than high, and I really hope Lisbon is as sunny as it usually is! :)
I feel I need to go to smaller meetups around London too, so if you have any suggestions, please write them in the comments section, I appreciate it!
As I mentioned before, this post is based on the little experience I have, and I know that other people have different opinions about these type of events.
In my opinion, going to these events has always proven to be a positive experience, mainly for all the nice and interesting people I’ve met, and I truly believe that’s what matters in the end.
I’d love to know what’s your input on these, and how you improve your conference-experience even further.
UPDATE (6th May 2009): I am going to Future of Web Apps, in London, later this year (got my early-bird ticket today), so I’ll see you there! :)
UPDATE (19th May 2009): I just got my ticket to BuildConf, Belfast, in November. Tell me if you’re coming too!
UPDATE (9th July 2009): I will also be attending dConstruct, Brighton, in September. Who’s coming?