6 Tips to Get the Most Out of Social Media Conferences

My new business cards surrounded by some of the dozens I’ve collected at BlogHer ’12.

Day One of BlogHer ‘12 is almost over. Here are a few tips I was reminded of today to help anyone learn more, network effectively and engage like a pro at social media and other professional conferences:

1) Break Out of Your Introvert/Extrovert Mold – I’ve written here before about my extreme introversion. Being an introvert isn’t the same as being shy; it has more to do with how much input you can take before you need to recharge your batteries in a quiet, secluded place.

Conferences present constant social and information overload for us “I” types. Normally, this much input makes introverts retreat into their shells or hide behind their smartphones. I’ve spotted a few of us today. Here’s the thing (and I say this with love), when we give off the Don’t Approach vibes, when we Cold Shoulder, when we give tablemates the Silent Treatment, it tends to make fellow conferees uncomfortable. Sure, it’s not our intention, but we risk being branded as standoffish, and we lose out on opportunities, like networking, meeting potential brand sponsors for our blogs, and hearing about job openings.

I have no idea what it’s like to be a social butterfly, but in the interest of equal time, if you’re drawn to the parties and after-parties at conferences, maybe this time set aside the final night for your Little Black Dress. On the first day(s) of the conference, take your social skills to the early morning networking breakfasts. Your extroverted self will shine like a star and, for the rest of the day, you’ll discover what it’s like to attend panels without a hangover. Who knows? You might learn something you otherwise would’ve missed while sawing logs at the post-lunch session.

2) Find a New Posse to Hang With – A VP at a former job was generous in sending her team to professional development conferences. She had one request: We couldn’t eat lunch with our colleagues. We had to wander the luncheons like nomads and join a table of complete strangers, network and learn and share. Long before social media – or the Internet – she understood the value of engaging. Sure, it was risky. We could have networked ourselves into new jobs for competing companies. But there was an equal or greater chance we’d return renewed and inspired and share what we’d learned, improving our own campaigns as a result.

3) Zip It – There’s an unfortunate trend among conference-goers that involves talking almost nonstop through sessions. There’s no question: This is utterly rude and disrespectful to the speakers and everyone else who’s paid a significant amount of money to listen and learn.

People who don’t have the capacity to sit silently through a 90-minute talk don’t belong there. Sure, there’s that last-minute presentation that needs to be multitasked during a panel discussion or the babysitter who has to be able to call no matter what you’re doing. Be graceful enough to recognize that this behavior is disruptive (and never, ever argue when someone asks you to be quiet). That work project, that ringing cellphone, that gossip about a brand that wants to sponsor your blog? As important as they seem, they’re relevant to you and you alone. Gather your things and leave as unobtrusively as possible, even if you just need to take a short phone call.

Conferences are places where you’re expected to bring your best professional self – along with basic manners. Manners aren’t some outmoded ideal, they’re about demonstrating respect for yourself and those around you. When you share your best self, you’ll find you’re the recipient of networking opportunities you never dreamed of.

4) Get Carded – Like a lot of BlogHer attendees, I got all hepped up about creating a new business card for the conference. You give away stacks of these babies at an event like this, and collect just as many.

Some are all business; many as glib as punchlines; others wonders of design. We spend hours fretting over how to present our personal brand, company offerings and blog personalities.

But, after I’d handed out a bunch, I realized I’d blown it. I’d shared my blog URL, my tagline, skill sets and contact info. What I should have done was talk about what I or my blog could do for others. Note the subtle distinction: I assumed I had the WIIFY covered by listing my skills like this: writing, social media, corporate communications.

What the people I’m meeting are really wondering, though, isn’t “What can you do?,” but “What can you do for me?” or “How can we work together?” or “Why should I take the time to read your blog?”

That requires more than a list of professional capabilities. It demands language that says something like: “I help writers develop confidence in their own writing skills.”

5) Learn Something Completely Unexpected – We were reminded today at the newbie breakfast that it can be more beneficial and inspiring to attend a session on a topic you know nothing about, that takes you out of your comfort zone, that throws you in with people whose ideas, skills and ways of working are nothing like your own.

You may feel lost, challenged, afraid someone will call on you, lonely, and/or confused, but you’ll emerge thinking about things in new ways and feeling renewed when you return to your own area of expertise.

6) Practice Real-World Engagement – All of these tips are about real engaging, not the type done behind laptops and mobile devices. They’re about approaching these amazing opportunities with your head up, hand extended, ears open, and eyes ready to make contact. They’re about intellectual and emotional connection.

Social media folks already spend enough time glued to the glowing screen. A conference is our chance to embrace and practice engagement for real. Who knows what exciting connections we’ll make in the process?

Bonus tip: If you’re attending a conference in Manhattan in the summer, don’t stand too close to buildings. Look up at almost any edifice, and you’ll notice a sea of air conditioners protruding from windows on every floor. Now you know where those mysterious drops of water come from when the sun is shining and there’s not a cloud in the sky…

The Social Full Monty: Are You Being Transparent on Purpose or by Accident?

I’m still shocked at the number of people who share their Twitter feed on LinkedIn. Facebook and Pinterest accounts, too.

It’s one thing to make a conscious decision to do the social equivalent of the Full Monty: after all, your social profile will be vetted thoroughly by most HR departments before you ever sign a contract, so why not make it explicit? Share everything in one spot and make it easy for potential employers to get to know the real you.

But, if you run your full Twitter stream on LinkedIn just because the functionality enables it, then you may want to consider doing some social redressing.

Know Your Channels

Just as television networks target certain demographics – Spike programs for young men; OWN and Lifetime seek female viewers; if ESPN doesn’t offer enough of the sports you like, there’s always the Golf and Tennis channels – social media channels serve different purposes for different audiences. (That’s why there’s so much discussion about the number of women who use Pinterest: it makes the channel a highly targeted way for brands to reach that demographic.)

Check out this interesting view from Brian Solis of the vast spectrum of social media channels and who they’re targeting.

LinkedIn is a bit unusual among the social channels because it focuses exclusively on your professional profile. Sure, you may have created a blog to showcase your professional expertise, but blogs don’t have the same capacity for professional networking and being spotted by headhunters. Likewise if you’ve shared your profile on the website of a professional organization that you’re a member of, you’ll be able to share within the organization, but it’s harder to network these profiles beyond the group’s members.

Channels like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, MySpace, and Orkut are far more social and casual than professional in nature. You tend to let your hair down in these settings, share opinions (sometimes regrettable ones) and photographs (ditto), swear, diss other people’s favorite bands, and sometimes even log on from places like bars or the Superbowl to write updates that demonstrate, perhaps, a propensity for imbibing intoxicating substances.

You Can Leave Your Hat On

Sure, you’ve heard all the warnings about drunk-tweeting or putting Saturday night’s party pictures on Facebook. My point is that different channels require different levels of social behavior. You wear your friend (or sister/
brother/cousin) hat on Facebook; on LinkedIn, you put on your business hat. It’s the digital equivalent of dressing up for an interview.

Unless you’re using the other social channels exclusively for business, and your only social profile is professional, then beware the convenience of linking accounts. You may reveal far more than you intended.

What’s at Stake?

You say something that a potential employer doesn’t like – and you will never know why you didn’t make it to the first, or next, round in the hiring process. You simply won’t get a call back about that dream job you wanted.

You say something negative about your existing company – and find yourself being reprimanded (worse, fired) for violating the company’s social media policy.

Your network tunes you out – and Unconnects you – because your Twitter feed clogs their Updates stream – you become the social version of spam. LinkedIn now allows you to anonymously Unconnect from Connections, which means you may already have reduced your networking options without even realizing it. Keep spamming them and see how your professional network shrinks.

You risk looking like you don’t understand the purpose of LinkedIn – which is unfortunate for anyone in any field, but especially so for communications, PR, marketing, advertising, and social media professionals. The better you understand the purpose of the social channel, the better it will work for you in reaching the people you most want to connect with.

You show the world that you don’t understand how to use LinkedIn – because there is a way to connect Twitter and LinkedIn without going Full Monty. If you decide to add your Twitter account to your LinkedIn profile, make sure that you click the option to “Share only tweets that contain #in.” As The B2B Social Media Book notes, “although it can be easy to forget to add the #in hashtag, it’s better than the alternative of posting too many irrelevant updates to your professional network, which could easily overwhelm your connections.”

You miss real opportunities to share your expertise on LinkedIn and network in a professional realm – using the Share an Update feature or within LinkedIn groups, which offer you options for starting a discussion, asking a question, or creating a poll. Like all the other social media platforms, LinkedIn has its home-grown methods of sharing, and one of them involves answering questions and professional knowledge-sharing within groups. This is where you truly network with people beyond your existing network, show them you care as much about helping them as promoting yourself, present yourself as a seasoned professional with excellent advice, and look like someone that other professionals might want to work with in the future. Don’t forgo the networking opportunities of LinkedIn by relying on a one-way blast of tweets intended for a different audience.

You look like you spend more time on Twitter than you do on your real work – and that’s the most important stake of all. Being on Twitter may be part of your job requirements; you may be a freelancer, using it to promote your work and attract new clients, but if your LinkedIn network – and the headhunters who search that network looking for good job candidates – don’t know that, your constant stream of tweets may look more like play than work.

So be your best professional self in a professional networking channel like LinkedIn and consider, in all those other social arenas, that your social self may need to be somewhat more guarded than your real self. Perhaps treat social channels like a PR or marketing person does the media. To excel in those fields, you’re always “on,” always playing the role of brand or company representative, and you never let anyone sneak a peek behind the curtain.

Be a professional spokesperson for yourself in social channels, and you may find far greater social success the less you reveal.

Check out this related post:

8 Twitter Tips for the Savvy Social Media Practitioner