By Dorie Clark
Attending a conference is a whir of activity — flying to a destination, engaging in several days of nonstop networking, and coming home to an inbox that has spiraled out of control in your absence. Back at work, most of us immediately go into catch-up mode; the last thing on your mind is following up with the people you just met. That’s especially true if you’re an introvert and feel overtaxed by the whole process.
But a small amount of focused effort can reap long-term benefits and ensure the arduous days you spent connecting face-to-face weren’t wasted. Here’s a framework for structuring your post-conference follow up to maximize the chances that your new connections turn into meaningful professional relationships.
First, it’s important to set aside “processing time.” The conference has probably left you with business cards scattered in your briefcase, pockets, and travel bag. Unless you transfer them quickly into whatever database system you use, they’re likely to get lost quickly. The system doesn’t much matter; it’s personal preference whether you use a business card app or add them to a spreadsheet manually.
What matters is capturing the data (including writing down where you met them, so you don’t forget over time), and also making a list of people you spoke with whose cards you didn’t obtain. That may be a substantial number if the conference discourages card exchange (some conferences fear that people trading business cards will make the gathering appear too “salesy”), or if your encounter has been brief, such as a chat in the lunch line. After I spoke at the recent Global Peter Drucker Forum in Vienna, I took close to 45 minutes to go through the program booklet listing conference attendees and circling the names of those I had conversations with. I hadn’t exchanged contact information with most of them, but they were still connections worth maintaining.
Second, for each person you’ve written down, take a moment to identify your goal for that relationship. You can’t invest in all connections equally, of course — so where should you prioritize your time? You may want to discard some connections upfront — for instance, someone who came up to you, handed you their card, and immediately started pitching you to buy their product or service. It’s not worth subjecting yourself to that in the future.
But most new relationships will fall into three categories. Specifically, those are “miscellaneous interesting people,” with whom there’s not an obvious point of connection; people with whom you have a specific reason to follow up; and people you’d like to build a deeper relationship with.
Miscellaneous interesting people. At the Drucker Forum, for instance, I had a nice conversation with a woman who is an executive with the Port of Vienna. My work doesn’t generally overlap with hers, but I’d be glad to keep in touch because it’s always nice to know a diverse set of people. For instance, in the future, I could imagine a hypothetical situation in which I was hired to speak to a shipping company. Having a contact knowledgeable about industry trends would be valuable as a way of understanding what was important to the client. Similarly, there may be unexpected ways I could assist her in the future.
For connections like that, I apply an “ambient awareness” strategy and send a friend request on LinkedIn, so that we can stay in touch through that channel and she may periodically be exposed to my posts in her news feed, and vice versa. Note that it’s important to be aware of national preferences related to social channels. Immediately after Vienna, I headed to Moscow to teach an executive education program and discovered that most Russians don’t have LinkedIn accounts because the service is officially blocked there. I connected with those colleagues on Facebook or Instagram, instead.
A specific reason to follow up. For other conference attendees, my mission is clearer: they mentioned specific business opportunities (an invitation to speak at a university, give a talk for a large company, etc.). I make a point of emailing them in a timely fashion — within a week is ideal — to remind them of their suggestion and request a follow-up call.
Building a deeper relationship. Finally, you’ll meet some people with whom you’d like to build a long-term connection. Their work may be extremely salient to yours (they’re a VC and you’re an executive coach that works with startups), or you may just have great personal rapport. Either way, you want to develop a strategy to turn a one-time encounter into something more meaningful, as I describe in my e-book, Stand Out Networking. If they live in your city, the options are more plentiful; you can invite them to join you at a future professional event, such as a Chamber of Commerce gathering, a tech meetup, etc., or to a hybrid business/social event (after meeting a theater executive at a conference and hitting it off, he invited me to join him a couple of weeks later at a Broadway show for which he had an extra ticket).
If you live in different cities, you’ll need to develop a more deliberate strategy. Perhaps there are future conferences coming up they might be likely to attend; you could get in touch to inquire if they’ll be there, and if so, plan to meet up in person during the event. If you’re a frequent business traveler, you can also put them on the list of people you ping when you’re in town for visits. Even if it’s unlikely you’ll meet in person again anytime soon, you can be on the lookout for interesting articles to send them, or look for ways to be helpful (for instance, if they mentioned they’re looking for new contributors for the magazine they edit, you could suggest talented colleagues).
Of course, it’s essential to make sure the help you offer is actually helpful; there’s a big difference between connecting an editor actively seeking contributors with great candidates and connecting an overwhelmed editor with would-be columnists they don’t have the time to deal with. It’s essential to listen to their stated needs, not make assumptions about what might be useful and risk turning yourself into a burden in the process.
Almost every professional attend at least a few conferences per year. By following these strategies, you can make sure the time, effort, and money you spend on them actually turns into true relationships, not just one-time conversations that are quickly forgotten.