How social media can help improve networking at conferences

With Meeting Professionals International's World Education Congress warming up in the bullpen (sorry, been watching the Red Sox too much lately), this guest post on how to use social media to enhance your networking at events might come in handy. It's written by Jessica Edmondson, who writes about social media training and Internet marketing training for the University Alliance, a division of Bisk Education, Inc. Here's what she has to share.

Have you ever attended a social event at a conference where everyone seemed to know each other already, even though they had never actually met face-to-face? Thanks to social media, you too can get to know other conference attendees before you step foot in the hospitality suite. By expanding your networking skills to include social media, you can also learn more about sessions and special events, and share information and resources. In short, combining social media with in-person networking can make conferences much more productive—and fun.

Social Media Basics for Conference Attendees

The main social networks used by business professionals are LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Google+.

• LinkedIn has more than 160 million users worldwide. It’s a great place to promote yourself, make connections with others in your industry, and find groups of like-minded professionals. Many conferences will set up a LinkedIn group so that attendees can connect.

• On Facebook, you can turn to a conference’s page to get updates and RSVP to events.

• Twitter makes it easy to follow all the news about a conference through hashtags used for tracking tweets. For example, a medical equipment conference might use the hashtag #medequip. Tweets containing a hashtag can be searched and even saved as a stream in platforms such as HootSuite.

• On Google+, you can easily communicate with other conference attendees by adding them to your circles. Or host an audio or video conference among users, known as a hangout.

Before the Conference

When you sign up for a conference, find out if there is a social component. For example, South by Southwest (SXSW), the annual music, film and interactive conference, offers a robust social platform where attendees can set up a profile, ask questions, find others with similar interests and participate in conversations. The SXSW Facebook page and Twitter feed offer valuable updates, tips and more ways for attendees to connect.

Preconference tips to try:

• Check your conference registration page for links to its LinkedIn group, and Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ pages. Join in the conversation by tweeting and posting. Use the official conference Twitter hashtag to find more attendees.

• If you’re new to a particular conference, ask previous attendees for tips on restaurants, panels or breakout sessions. Then seek out other newbies to share your insider information.

• Make plans to meet up with your new connections at the conference to continue the conversation and share information. Schedule a lunch, after-hours social time, or coffee break.

By getting social ahead of time, you’ll meet plenty of new connections before you arrive at the check-in table.

During the Conference

Here’s how to combine in-person networking with social media networking:

• Keep following the hashtag: You’ll find plenty of attendees tweeting at the conference. Keep up with what’s happening by following the conversation on Twitter, including getting valuable information from sessions and panels you missed.

• Check in on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+: Use social media to find out where your new connections or favorite speakers are hanging out or having dinner.

• Maximize face time: Social media is very useful but there’s nothing like making face-to-face connections. Make sure you take advantage of your time at the conference by establishing new relationships. Collect business cards or digital contact information for following up.

After the Conference

Following up after a conference is vital to maintaining relationships with new connections. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google+ make this much easier, although there are some tips to keep in mind:

• Don’t wait to make contact; get in touch while post-conference enthusiasm is still high.

• Don’t forget to send referrals and opportunities to appropriate contacts, especially if you hope to get the same in return.

Whether or not you enjoy in-person networking, combining it with social media can make it much more effective and fun. Leverage the power of social media before, during and after your next conference.

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