Is the conference in Bali? Sign me up. When considering whether to invest your organization’s resources and your own (valuable) time in participating in a conference, location may be the most tempting criteria, but it’s definitely not the most strategic. Just like communication or campaign planning, when it comes to conferences, strategy should always trump shiny.
So, how do you determine which conferences are worth it? The hard cost of the conference is an obvious factor. The first thing to determine is the conference fee and related expenses. If cost isn’t a barrier, there are still several strategic questions to think through before clicking to register on the website. When evaluating your return on investment (ROI) for attending a conference, consider the strategic value, target audiences and potential outcomes for each opportunity.
Will this conference help me achieve my communication goals?
You can likely justify any conference as an opportunity to network but what specific results would you consider success? A conference could be a worthwhile investment if it helps you achieve one or more of the following:
- Position your organization on an issue or in a certain role in your field; or, position you as an expert, collaborator, etc., with the conference’s attendees.
- Educate other conference attendees (more on this later) about your organization, an issue or initiative.
- Establish or strengthen your relationship with a particular organization or person(s) involved in the conference (reporters covering the issue, a policymaker, etc.).
- Learn about a new skill, issue area or campaign approach that you can apply to your own work.
Will you really get in front of your priority audiences?
If you can articulate how the conference relates to your goals, then consider if the right people will be there for you to connect with – and if you are going to have a realistic chance of making that happen.
Your audiences may include policymakers (or their staff) or other government officials, funders/potential funders, reporters, potential partners, etc. But, checking off broad categories isn’t enough to make it worthwhile. Will the specific people who can help you advance your agenda be in attendance? Don’t count on running into them in the halls and setting up coffee dates. Chances are others will also be vying for their time so do your best to get ahead of the line. Email – or even call – some of your highest priority targets and let them know you are attending the same conference and ask to get breakfast, coffee, lunch, dinner or a drink (one thing you can always count on at a conference is a lot of food-related activities).
How are you going to maximize your results?
Once you understand how the conference connects to your communication strategy, confirmed that at least some of your priority audiences are attending and have decided to attend, the last piece is a plan to ensure that you get the most out of it as possible. You have to know what exact outcomes you can achieve from the conference – and make a plan to get those results. This could include an active social media presence, setting up side meetings, thinking through post-conference follow-up, etc.
Your plan should stem from the considerations above. If you are looking to position your organization as an expert in your field and you know that an important reporter on your issue is attending the conference, is it realistic for you to aim for coverage as a result of participating in the conference? It may be reasonable if you are giving a keynote speech or part of a panel of interest. If you are going as an attendant, however, you may want to set your sights to a less ambitious result, such as setting up a follow-up conversation with the reporter to share more background about your work. Whatever you settle on, it’s critical to have a clear sense of realistic outcomes that you can evaluate after the conference. At the end of the day, this will help you and your organization assess the true return on the investment – and if it’s significant enough to do again next time around.