How to Attend a Conference and Take It Over (Even If You’re Not a Speaker)

Aaron Orendorff
Aaron Orendorff

If you’re like me … your relationship with conferences is a bit manic.

I love attending conferences. And I hate attending conferences.

On the love side, stand all things bright and beautiful: growing, learning, traveling, and connecting.

Then, there’s the hate.

Whether you’re an extrovert or introvert doesn’t really matter. Strangely enough, even if standing up in front of a thousand faces doesn’t turn your stomach, staring down those same thousand faces — or even just a few hundred — one on one? Terrifying.

No matter where you fall on the spectrum, I feel your pain. Seriously. So why write an article about how to attend a conference and take it over?

Because not only is it possible … I’ve done it.

This is the true story of how Nadya Khoja and I went to one of the largest marketing conferences in the world — Content Marketing Institute’s CMWorld — as nothing more than lowly attendees and burnt the mother down.

Before you head off to your next event, let’s spend a few minutes unearthing exactly how we turned one conference into:

  • Four articles (two guest posts at major outlets)
  • Thousands of social shares and counting
  • A host of on-going relationships with key influencers
  • Countless links and mentions
  • A one-on-one sit down with Joe Pulizzi
  • Two full interviews where we were the subjects
  • Tons of new friendships
  • And an invitation to be a speaker next year …

All without being keynoters ourselves.

(Oh, and just in case you’re impatient: at the end, I’ve boiled everything down to 10 tips, so feel free to jump ahead.)

As for the story, it all started with a plan …

1. How to Attend a Conference: Before

Like all great things in life, you can’t attend a conference without a plan. Even less, can you take it over.

A month before CMWorld, Nadya — Venngage’s CMO, who’d I’d only met on Slack a few weeks earlier — reached out with a simple idea:

The conference plan begins — Slack 1

I was hooked. And after a few more back and forths, our conference-dominating baby was born:

The conference plan begins — Slack 2

The plan we hatched was threefold.

First — prior to the conference — we’d build a roundup post with direct contributions from as many of the speakers as possible. Second — during the conference — we’d get attendees to contribute their own insight on a similar topic, post them to social media, and compile everything for a — third — official-CMI article after the conference.

Here’s what it looked liked:

Pre-Conference Plan: Before

  1. Reach out directly to CMWorld’s speakers with one question: “How should you approach keynoters at a conference without being weird or bothersome?”
  2. Compile their answers into a blog post, infographic, and Click to Tweet links of each response using the speaker’s Twitter handle along with the hashtags #CMWorld and #ConfJedi (we created our own hashtag so we could easily track everything on social as it unfolded).
  3. Set up in-person meetings with those speakers to record their answers to a second question during the conference.
  4. Launch the post on day one of the conference and Tweet each speaker’s answer during their session along with an invitation for attendees to jump in and answer their own question, “What is your best networking tip at a conference?”

Pre-Conference Plan: During

  1. Ask, record, Facebook Live, Snapchat, and tweet answers for the second question — “What’s your best networking tip at a conference?” — from attendees and presenters.
  2. Invite attendees to post their own answers with the hashtags #CMWorld #ConfJedi:

Tweet 1

#CMWorld What’s your best networking tip? Tweet an answer for a chance to get ft. on @CMIContent #ConfJedi

Tweet 2

Ready for #CMWorld? What’s your best networking tip? Let us know by video and get ft. on @CMIContent #ConfJedi

Tweet 3

Are you a #ConfJedi? Share your best networking tip for #CMWorld by video and get ft. on @CMIContent

Pre-Conference Plan: After

  1. Compile three lists of responses: Keynoters, Presenters, and Attendees.
  2. Create a massively epic post for CMI: “How to Network a Conference like a Jedi: X Tips from the Very Best (YOU!)”
  3. Create an infographic (Venngage) to highlight the very best of the responses from all three lists.
  4. Enlist the promotional help of everyone included when the post goes live.

To execute that plan, the first thing we did was make a list: a giant list.

Nadya nabbed every speaker from the CMWorld agenda and dropped all 204 names into a single Google Doc. We broken them down into two categories: (1) keynoters (i.e., headliners) and (2) breakout speakers.

Once we had eyes on, we both went in and color coded every name based who we had existing relationships with:

Even if you can’t read all the names, the visual gives you a clear picture of just how much work was ahead of us.

So we kicked off the outreach in three phases.

Conference Outreach Phrase 1

To build as much good will as possible — and eventually encourage the people we didn’t know to participate — we started by getting buy in from a couple of the big-name folks we had relationships with. For me, that was Ann Handley and Andy Crestodina, who — full disclosure — I adapted (i.e., stole) the core idea for this undertaking from, How to Meet Everybody at an Event CMWorld Yearbook:

Conference Outreach Phrase 2

I focused my social-media outreach squarely on the keynoters themselves. I followed each one, liked, retweeted, and shared a couple of their recent posts, and then sent out a Tweet directly to them. However, instead of going in cold, I found existing Tweets they’d already sent related to the conference and jumped in on the conversation:

Lars wasn’t the only one who wrote back, but the response was nowhere near 100%. We needed to do more.

Conference Outreach Phrase 3

We created an email template by rolling together the question itself along with buy-in from Ann, Andy, and Lars (like this one I sent to Kristina Halvorson):

That approach worked brilliantly. But we still didn’t have enough responses for a post worthy of the title “epic.”

Conference Outreach Phrase 4

One at a time — and with only one request each — I asked the people who had contributed if they could connect us with someone who hadn’t. Aaron Agius was one of the first to help. To make it super easy, I wrote up another template to hand off to friends, and Aaron got us a quick response from Rand Fishkin:

I also connected with CMI’s Blog & Community Director Lisa Dougherty to run the whole plan by her and get the official thumbs up. She connected me with Pam Kozelka — VP Operations Content Marketing Institute — and I asked her to reach out to just one keynoter, Marcus Sheridan.

Again, I gave Pam the same, short template. (Hopefully you’re noticing a pattern: make it insanely easy for people to help you!) I ran the entire list by a few more close friends. Then Andy Crestodina — who always goes above and beyond — helped me round up three more:

Conference Outreach Phrase 5

Finally, to grab the rest of the holdouts, Nadya put together some preview images of what we’d done with four of the speakers and we commenced another round of tweeting:

By the end of August — just about a week before CMWorld — we’d racked up 26 contributors … and put together this bad boy: 26 Headliners on How to Connect with Influencers at a Conference [Infographic].

pasted image 0 5

Inside was a Star Wars laced introduction — because Mark Hamill was the show closer — a full infographic, individual graphics for each speaker, and a Click to Tweet link for their tip. At the end was an invitation to join in during the conference.

But — of course — content creation is only half the recipe for a successful post. The other half is promotion.

Again, we got organized:

First, launch the post on Wednesday, August 31st so that by the time the conference started on September 5th we’d already have traction on social media. Second, email a personal thank you — along with the link — to all 26 contributors (Nadya did that). Third, tweet a personal gif to all 26 contributors (that was me).

Fourth, create Facebook Ads targeting both CMWorld and MozCon — which was the following week — to run during the conferences. Fifth, post the article to and GrowthHackers on day one of the conference and share the hell out of it in our Slack groups as well as social media.

Finally, we were ready. Nadya and I flew into Cleveland, met for the first time face to face, solidified our plan … and it was go time.

2. How to Attend a Conference: During

Day one, we hit go on promotion. And immediately, it connected:

By noon, the article was the number one trending post on

pasted image 0 7

In the end — on and GrowthHackers alone — it racked up 128 upvotes and  60 comments.

Nadya published a separate article on her own site as well — How to Network with Influencers at a Conference — which also did insanely well on and included this gem of a closing paragraph:

The best thing you can gain from an event is the networking possibilities. Take advantage of the opportunity to market yourself. No relationship is as valuable as one that has been solidified in person.

During each speaker’s keynote or session, we shared their tip along with invitations to get in on the action:

On the ground, Nadya and I both began collecting as many answers as we could to our attendee’s question about their best networking tip.

Amazingly, Nadya even got Foundr Magazine’s editor-in-chief Nathan Chan to let us take over their Snapchat and here’s the full reel of almost everyone who was awesome enough to help us out — including Joe Pulizzi’s first official Snap:

Even better — and I knew this going in — CMI posted my own “Back By Popular Demand” article in the middle of the conference: How to Build Your Email List: The (Better Than) Ultimate Guide.

pasted image 0 1

I knew this kind of “perfect storm” networking synergy — and yes, I hate myself for using that word — wouldn’t come along again so that post went all out: 2,288 words, 30 images, a downloadable PDF checklist, and an infographic.

Thanks to the article, I did a video interview with CMI on the second day of the conference. And this is probably the most jaw-dropping part of it all.

After the interview I got a text from Michele Linn — VP of Content for CMI — that said:

IMG 5367

Here’s the really funny part that I didn’t tell Michele.

I’d actually applied to be a speaker at CMWorld that year … and got turned down!

But I bit my tongue and the next day Joe’s handler pulled Nadya and I into a room with him. That’s where he did his first official Snap … and ended by telling me:

I hear we should get you as a speaker next year. It’ll open up in November. Let me know when you send your application in.

(Oh, my fluttering heart!)

In the midst of our hustle, all sorts of other wonderful things happened: Ann Handley punched me when we finally met in person, Andy Crestodina pulled me into the speaker’s lounge to hang out, Mari Smith — the queen of Facebook videos — recorded her answer and shared it live, I met up with Susan Moeller from Buzzsumo — hands down my favorite social media tool — and ended up appearing in her Content Marketing World: 30 Ideas From Industry Experts, and to close it out Nadya and I did an interview together for Outbrain that’s still forthcoming:

On the networking like a human side, some of the best people I met were this group of folks right here:

And — like the marketing nerd I am — I took plenty of selfies (huge thanks to Jenifer Walsh, the only keynoter who actually tracked me down at the conference, instead of the other way around):

Then — as fast as it had begun — it was over.

3. How to Attend a Conference: After

Once Nadya and I went back to our respective homes, the final stage was on: transform all those videos, tips, Tweets, and new connections into a single post for Content Marketing Institute.

Nadya’s team at Venngage were amazing!

After I compiled everything into a coherent article, they put together this beautiful infographic:

How to Network a Conference (Infographic)

I tracked down all the Twitter handles and emails of our 56 illustrious contributors, created Click to Tweet snippets of each person’s two cents, and submitted the whole thing to Lisa at CMI.

Special props to Berrak Sarikaya who actually started a Slack group — CMWorldCommunity (which you can join) — to keep the conversations going. Super helpful in the tracking-down process.

The turnaround from submission to publishing was blazing, especially because we wanted to strike while the CMWorld iron was hot.

In fact, if I had to guess, that article is the very reason you’re here right now.

So the question remains: how do boil all that down to practical takeaways? I’m glad you asked.

Ten Tips for How to Attend and Take Over a Conference

Alright, so enough of my shamelessly self-promotional narrative. Let’s get practical.

How exactly can you implement this on your own at the next conference?

Ten tips stand out.

1. Collaborate

Do not go into your next conference alone.

Content is a team sport. And so are conferences. Find a friend — or more than one friend — to go into conference-domination mode with. Partner up and lean on each other for your existing connections, for idea generation, and especially for moral support and celebration.

2. Create

Rand Fishkin pointed this out in his tip when we met at CMWorld. Create a piece of content to take with you to the conference. However, you can do one better than the Wizard of Moz. Start the creation process before you go … but make the conference part of your content itself. Best lessons and roundups are fine; extra points for originality.

3. Plan

Get organized with your approach.

Make a list of all the people you want to connect with at the conference. Track them down on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and the conference app. Find their emails if you can.

Write up a comprehensive to-do list mapping out your entire approach. And always have an end goal in mind that transcends just connecting.

4. Template

Work smarter, not harder.

Notice how many touch points of communication there were throughout this process. Getting all this off the ground would have been impossible if we’d done everything in a one-off manner. Instead, create templates you can personalize for every stage: Tweets, outreach emails, follow up emails, thank you notes, and even to announce the final product.

5. Leverage

Nadya and I know less than 20% of the total speakers at CMWorld.

But those we did know … we leveraged. This doesn’t have to be demanding or manipulative. In fact, it shouldn’t be. Get buy-in from the folks you’re already in relationships with and then never be afraid to name drop or ask for additional contacts once they’re on board.

6. Share

Go nuts on social.

Not just when you’re at the conference or finish up whatever piece of amazing content you’re creating … go nuts way before. Share the process as it unfolds. Use wins and roadblocks alike to post updates. Tag the people that are on your list of connections throughout. Get involved in the hashtags. Share.

7. Collect

This goes and in hand with the next point, but before you start “asking” — whether that’s for contact information, additional connections, one-on-one meetings, or contributions — you’ve got to have a collection method in place.

Do not rely on email to collect influencer contributions.

I suggest creating either (1) an open Google Doc you and your new friends can all contribute to directly or (2) a Google Form you can send to your new associates to by email or social with all the questions you’re looking to ask mapped out (just remember to keep it short).

8. Ask

It can be scary to start asking for help … but the worst thing anyone can tell you is no. Be polite. Be brief. Make it easy on them to say yes. Stick to one request at a time.

At the same time, be utterly shameless. Most people are happy to help out — even the big names on your connections list — as long as you don’t forget number nine.

9. Give

Let me repeat this one: give, give, give, give.

Give compliments. Give shares. Give connections. Give links. Give smiles. Give anything and everything you can: before, during, and after. A fantastic conference experience turns on real human relationships. And real human relationships turn on by giving first and asking later.

Always ask yourself, “What can I give to this person?” never, “What can I get?”

10. Smile

Alright, this last one might sound funny.

Go back through the pics above. What do you see in all of them?


Goofy? Yes. Essential? Absolutely. Once you’ve mustered up your courage — whether it’s a pre-conference email, a mid-conference hello, or a post-conference follow up — do it all with a smile.

William James — the great Harvard psychologist — put it like this:

The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.

And Charles Schwab said it even better:

I consider my ability to arouse enthusiasm among my people the greatest asset I possess, and the way to develop the best that is in a person is by appreciation and encouragement.

Be relentlessly, unflappably, and enthusiastically positive.

Because really … that’s the only way to attend a conference and take it over.

Let’s save the world from bad content

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