Many of the product managers I speak with look at conferences differently. Instead of being lead generation factories, they are opportunities to connect with real people. They recognize the majority of the value of the conference isn't in what is being presented (though there may be value there) nor is it in the leads that are being captured (though there may also be value there), it is in the knowledge gained through informal conversations.
Like a good number of product managers with a software engineering background, I am an introvert. Having spontaneous conversations with strangers puts me way outside of my comfort zone, so I have to work to overcome my natural desire to sit back and listen.
Here is how I approach conferences to ensure I get value out of those informal conversations:
Prepare Before the Conference
I don't just try to "wing it" at the conference. I'm not very good at striking up small talk and have a harder time directing the conversation if I'm not prepared. Before the conference, I will:
- Determine what the significant open questions I want answered are. I look at conferences to give me specific feedback to specific questions, so I need to know what the questions are.
- Determine what types of people can answer those questions. Do I need to be speaking to a particular level of person (CxO, manager, etc) or do I need to be speaking to somebody in a particular vertical?
- Visualize the conversations. In particular, for me, it is about getting the conversations started, so I spend time thinking about the various times I will be able to direct the conversation and how I can do that.
Find the Best Times for Chatting
Some times at a conference are better for chatting about your product than others. Some of best times for striking up a conversation are conference meals, receptions, and while waiting for a session to start. You may not have time to have a full conversation, but you can try to get permission to contact the person later.
Starting the Conversation
I find it easiest if I initiate the conversation. This allows me to direct the conversation where I want it to go from the outset, rather than trying to reshape an existing conversation. This is the most difficult part for me, but after a little experience, it becomes almost second nature.
People like to talk about themselves, so I almost always start the conversation by looking at their name badge, finding the company and asking something like "What does Company X do?" or "What is your role at Company X?" I never ask about titles because they are meaningless for the most part.
Guiding the Conversation
As I find out a little more about the person or people, I determine whether they fit any of the types of people who can answer the questions I previously identified. If I think they can, I introduce myself, my company, my role, and my product (using my elevator pitch). I then ask for permission to ask questions, making it clear that I'm not a sales person or in any way looking to make a sale.
As I mentioned, people like to talk about themselves, but now you've upped the ante. You've asked somebody to talk about what they consider themselves experts at. I have never been turned down.
Thanks to my prep work, I know what information I'm trying to get. I may not ask the specific questions I identified above, but those will guide the questions that I do ask.
Finally, I always ask for permission to contact them later and swap contact information. Business cards are still the most common way to do that, so I write contextual information on the card (when and where we met, etc).
After the conference, I follow up with everybody I talked to. Depending on the conversation, the follow up ranges from a "Thank You" email to a telephone call with more questions.
There seems to be a large push on-line that conferences have little marketing value anymore. Perhaps that is true (I'm not totally convinced, but that's another article), but that doesn't mean they don't have product value. The real value of a conference for a product manager is not what the presenters are talking about, but rather what the attendees are talking about. Make sure you are ready to listen!