I’m writing this while on the plane to Chicago, en route to attend the Business Marketing Association (BMA) conference. It promises to be three days of learning and best practices sharing and networking with other B2B marketers like me. Inevitably, when I tell others I’m headed to conference, I hear variations on the theme of “Oh, I’d love to go to that conference, but I can’t afford it.”
I get that. For many of these conferences, even with early bird pricing, you’re looking at $1200 in registration fees. Plus hundreds of dollars in airfare, not to mention hotel costs. It’s easy to sink $2500 into a conference when all is said and done. But that said, I still think it’s a small price to invest in your professional development. In competitive, hyper-change fields like marketing, I think you actually can’t afford NOT to attend these events, if you want to stay competitive and employable.
Reason #1: Conferences, by Their Nature, Give Insight into Emerging Industry Trends
Why is this important? Because although you may not be up on what’s going on in your industry or profession, chances are your organization’s competition (and the professionals you compete with in the job market) will be. Not all industry trends stick around for the long run (remember when Second Life was heralded as the next frontier in marketing and customer service? No? Well there you go.) but many of them are relevant and timely markers for shifting customer expectations.
Adoption of social media for customer service and marketing is a great example of an emerging trend that’s gone mainstream. Companies and professionals who quickly embraced this trend, and figured out how to make it work within their customer ecosystems, saw their brand image and customer loyalty increase. Imagine how much of an opportunity cost laggards have accrued if they’re just now waking up to the impact of social media on current society.
Reason #2: You Learn More, and Have More Creative Ideas, by Immersing Yourself in a New Environment
Most of us work in the same office environment, surrounded by the same colleagues, on a daily basis. There’s comfort in this familiarity, but numerous studies on creativity and breakthrough ideas have shown that breaking out of your comfort zone and working in a new environment is a great way to spur creative thinking and creak out ideas.
Packing up and traveling to a conference not only gets you into a new physical location, it changes up your information inputs, and surrounds you with all sorts of unfamiliar people who have the potential to spark new ideas. And that’s even before the education sessions have started!
Similarly, the trade show floor is your opportunity to have 1:1 time with suppliers of products and services others in your industry are using to be more effective. Walk that show floor and see what catches your eye. It just might be a tool that can help you work smarter and faster. And who doesn’t want that?
Reason #3: You Can Build Connections With Other Professionals With Similar Challenges, Building Your Own Personal Think Tank
Perhaps even more valuable than the best practices and new ideas you take away form conference education sessions are the connections you make with other professionals like yourself. More than just building your LinkedIn network count, these connections can start to form your own personal best practices community, that you can consult when you are wrestling with business and professional challenges of your own, or looking for recommendations for new service providers.
I should note that I tend to “meet” a number of attendees at conferences through livetweeting interesting tidbits from sessions I attend, and from sharing my key takeaways from events in blog posts like this one, on my experience at Content Marketing World 2013. The real time conference back channels at conferences are a great way to connect with others, especially if you’re an introvert who gets hives at the thought of walking up to someone you don’t know and making small talk.
How to Make it Happen
If you’re self-employed, or your company doesn’t have a budget set aside for staff professional development, it can be difficult to find the funds for attending a conference. But often, if you can provide your boss with a concrete area of learning you’ll be able to bring back and share with the team, you can get your company to foot at least part of the bill. Some of the other ways you can bring that conference price tag down a notch include:
- Group registering with your colleagues
- Paying before the early bird deadline
- Volunteering at the conference
- Successfully applying to share your expertise by being a speaker
- Asking partners who are exhibiting if they have a discount registration code
If none of these options are open to you, and you can’t swing a large lump sum at once, start planning a year ahead for the event, saving a little bit each week, for your conference fund. Consider starting a change jar, or skipping one fancy coffee each week and putting that cash into your conference fund. You’ll be surprised at how quickly those dollars can add up.