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Bloggers IRL: Get the Most Out of Blogging Conferences

As bloggers, we bathe in the glow of our computer screens as we snatch moments to post between work, school,…

As bloggers, we bathe in the glow of our computer screens as we snatch moments to post between work, school, kids, the gym, the grocery store, the dry cleaners’, soccer practice, dinner with friends, doing the dishes, sleep…

When we find ourselves in a hotel ballroom with a thousand other bloggers — otherwise known as “being at a blogging conference” — it can be overwhelming. With a little preparation, a basic game plan, and a few tools, you can get a lot more from your conferences than a free tote bag: new friends, new readers, new ideas, and new skills (AND the tote bag).

Wait, there are conferences?

You can find everything from 3,000-person mega-events like the BlogHer Conference to WordPress-focused WordCamps to community events like BlogathonATX and Blogger Interactive (in addition to a host of topic-specific events for food bloggers, photo bloggers, fashion bloggers, tech bloggersparenting bloggers, wine bloggers, DIY bloggers, beer bloggers, fitness bloggers, design bloggers and more). A conference for every blogger!

Released from their laptops, the new bloggers, startled but excited, slowly more away from the periphery of the room and coalesce into groups.

Look! Released from their laptops and herded into the open, the new bloggers, startled but excited, slowly move away from the periphery of the room and coalesce into groups. A conference begins!

Conferences are usually organized around blogger-focused workshops led by other bloggers and tech/writing/photography/social media leaders, with plenty of time built in for meeting, greeting, and drinking too much coffee. They’re designed to help you grow as a blogger and give real-life texture to connections that were previously online-only.

You might go to sessions on SEO and photo processing, sit with ten new-to-you bloggers at lunch, hear a panel of pro bloggers discuss their top tips, and head out for coffee with your new best friends. Maybe you’ll go to some workshops on poetry and creative writing, grab a quiet moment to jot down some thoughts, hit up an impromptu meeting of flash fictioneers, and continue your conversation at an afterparty.

Perhaps you won’t go to any workshops, and just spend a day schmoozing with people you don’t normally see in person. Maybe your conference is an “unconference,” and you’ll lead a session. Whatever your preferences are, you can set yourself up to make the experience a valuable one.

But I already have friends, and I like my blog the way it is.

Conferences aren’t mandatory — plenty of bloggers, including those who make their living blogging, skip ‘em. Time spent connecting with others online and teaching yourself new skills go a long way, and there are likely opportunities for interaction in your community (a local blogger meetup, for example, or an HTML class at a community college).

For bloggers who are interested in trying a conference, there are three areas where they shine:

  • Education. Sessions at blogging conferences are often created by bloggers for bloggers, so they’re focused on your needs. This is especially true at topic-specific conferences — consider a Photography 101 workshop versus a Food Photography 101 workshop. Understanding depth of field is useful; understanding how playing with depth of field makes a photo of Caesar salad mouthwatering doubly so.
  • Networking. If you’re hoping for bigger and better things from your blog — a book deal, or a new career — networking can help you forge that path. Conferences give you a chance to meet other bloggers who can help with advice or a link, sponsors who might be interested in your site, and more. A connection that might take months to finagle on Twitter can take a few minutes in person.
  • Friendship. Blogging is about community, and relationships with other bloggers help sustain us. Taking time to meet people in real life and break biscotti with them cements those relationships. When you’re feeling uninspired or are low from a negative comment and need a pep talk, you’ve got a circle who understands. At conferences, you also meet bloggers you might never have run into online, strengthening and broadening your network.

(There is one other big consideration — cost. Conference fees range from free to several hundred dollars, and depending on location, you could be looking at a plane ticket and a few nights in a hotel. Some bloggers seek sponsorships to attend conferences; there are also ways to make a conference more affordable, like carpooling and sharing hotel rooms. Luckily, many communities have local, low- or no-cost events (like the meetups or classes, or a WordCamp) that provide great alternatives, and some conferences have online components you can tune in to from home.)

What should I bring?

Don't be fooled by an attractive villain! Choose your conference wisely.

Don’t be fooled by an attractive villain! Choose your conference wisely.

You’ve decided to try a conference. Hopefully, you’ve selected one that seems like it will be interesting, rather than pinning a list to a wall and throwing a dart. (If you did select via dart, planning for success is even more important, so put the rest of the darts down and keep reading.)

To make sure no drop of conference-y goodness is lost, here’s your packing list:

  • A smile. Unless you’re going with a group of friends (and even if you are), you’ll be meeting a lot of new people. It can seem intimidating, especially for introverts, but remember: everyone’s feeling a little unsure and awkward, and a smile and friendly hello can go a long way. If introducing yourself to a large, bustling group is too much, look for smaller groups or other singles milling around — you’re not the only one. Plus, you already all have something in common: blogging! (If you’re still uneasy, here’s a great piece on conference survival for introverts.)
  • Your elevator speech. Remember all those new people? Every single one is going to ask “So, what’s your blog about?” Have a pithy answer — you should be able to spit it out in the time it takes to ride an elevator for a few floors — and get ready to hear theirs.
  • A smartphone, if you have one. Your phone will come in handy dozens of times: quickly pulling up your website, jotting down a new friend’s URL, tweeting about what you’re learning, or getting a photo of yourself with a blogger hero. Some bigger conferences also have their own apps to help you keep track of your schedule.
  • The conference hashtag. Your conference probably has a hashtag; check the website, or ask at registration. Use it when you tweet or as a tag on your blog to help other attendees find you online during and post-conference.
  • Business cards. If you’re making the conference rounds, have some cards made with your blog name, URL, email, and Twitter handle and/or other social network contact info. They save you from spelling your URL aloud eleventy-billion times, and you’ll feel slick when you meet a helpful contact and can whip out a card. Services like Zazzle or bloggers’ favorite Moo Cards make design and printing accessible. (Remember, if you’re a blogger, you’re a brand.)
  • A laptop, or a notebook and good pen. You’re probably going to have a lot of ideas. Conferences usually make presentations available online post-event, but you’ll want to capture the brilliant idea you had while listening to the presentation or chatting with a comrade over coffee.
  • Comfy shoes. Conferences are often held in hotels or (shockingly) conference centers, where it can be a trek from Main Ballroom A on the first floor to Abigail Adams Conference Room C on the fourth. You may also find yourself walking off-site for lunch, or to an afterparty. Be prepared.
  • An extra bag. More and more, conferences mean swag — the conference organizers and sponsors provide lots of freebies. If you’d like to take advantage of the goodies, make sure you have a way to carry them home.

I’m here, and I’m overwhelmed. What do I do?

First, take a deep breath. Second, make sure you don’t have spinach from the breakfast mini-quiche between your teeth. Third, think of something adorable, like a red wagon full of puppies. (What? It helps me.) Then, dive in, using this seemingly contradictory advice.

Plan your itinerary!

Check out the schedule in advance and decide which sessions you want to catch. If there’s an exhibition hall, check that out too, and see if anything interests you. If there’s a map of the venue, take a few minutes to orient yourself and see where you’re going to be (and where the bathrooms are — if you know that, you’ll be instantly popular). Go into the conference with a sense of what you’d like your day to look like and what you hope to learn.

Ignore your plan!

Once you’ve sketched out your day, decide which sessions are must-sees and which are expendable. Things are going to come up: you might not want to cut the incredible conversation you started at lunch short to go to a workshop, or you might need a people break to recharge. Blogging success requires a little serendipity, and so does conference success. Don’t plan your day so strictly that you can’t take advantage of a new friendship or opportunity.

Shut up and listen!

Question-wise, aim for somewhere between Helen Thomas and Clarence Thomas. (Photo by LCBGlenn, CC-BY-2.0.)

Question-wise, aim for somewhere between Helen Thomas and Clarence Thomas. (Photo by LCBGlenn, CC-BY-2.0.)

You’re surrounded by people with more (and less) blogging experience than you. Listen to them! And not just during educational sessions, but in the hallways, at lunch, and by the bar. You never know when you’ll be gifted with a nugget of wisdom from a fellow blogger that you didn’t even know you needed to hear.

Pipe up and ask questions!

If you’ve chosen your conference for a specific purpose and thought about your goals and itinerary, you probably have a bunch of questions and one chance to be in a room with the people you’d like to answer ‘em. Raise your hand and ask, or stop the presenter at the afterparty to get clarification. Everyone is there to share their skills and experiences, so don’t be shy.

Bonus advice!

Share wisely. It was definitely funny when you had a few drinks and then all tried to recreate the putting-on-lipstick-with-your-cleavage scene from The Breakfast Club (men too!), but you might not want that on your Facebook page or Instragram feed, especially if they’re connected to the blog for which you have high hopes. Have fun and make memories, but remember that not everything needs to be online for consumption.

Do I need a post-game plan?

A good golf swing needs the right setup and good follow through. Well, I assume it does; my hand-eye coordination is terrible, and I never made it past putt-putt. Put in a last bit of effort post-conference before sleeping off the information overload, and be a better blogger than I am a golfer.

A few basics:

  • Go through all the cards and names you’ve collected. Subscribe to your new friends’ blogs, and add any new favorites to your blogroll. Follow them on Twitter — maybe say hi, and tag them to get the online conversation going.
  • Review your notes, and sift out the usable ideas and things you’d like to try immediately.
  • Post a follow up post on your blog. Lots of attendees do wrap-up posts, or give some link love to bloggers they met. Tag the post with the conference hashtag to help other attendees find it.

Like blogging, much of what you get out of conferences depends on what you put in. Be prepared to make the most of the experience, and you could find conferences a key way to move your blogging forward.

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