By George Butters
Ever heard of a fishing hole?
That’s a place where fish congregate, and where savvy fishers go with line and hook.
Conferences are where ideas are said to congregate, along with the people who espouse them. So for freelancers, conferences are a double whammy: attend the right conference and you’ll get the ideas and the contacts for interviews at the same time. Fortunately, unlike a good fishing hole, they tend not to be kept secret by the locals.
If you’re an experienced freelancer with one or two specialties, you’re probably already aware of conferences within your areas of expertise. If you are aware, but aren’t taking advantage, you should consider attending at least the most influential conference or two each year.
Keep in mind that sector-based conferences come in five flavours: local, provincial, regional, national, and international. So you’ll have to decide how far you’re willing to travel. More and more, you can find conference material online, but it’s not the same as being there. (And this comes from a guy who makes a chunk of his living live streaming conferences.)
Step one: Making a plan
Conferences can be expensive. So you’ll need a strategy, a plan to execute the strategy, and a realistic budget.
You don’t need a super detailed plan. I like to have a one-or-two page project plan with a brief description of the event, key names (and contact info if you have it) of vendors and presenters you want to reach, and the various stages laid out – pre, event, post – with bullet points of the main objectives / deliverables under each stage.
Refer to it as you tick off each point.
Step two: Getting access
Next, you’ll want to do your utmost to get a media pass to the conference you’ve selected.
It’s getting harder all the time thanks to the ease of setting up a blog and becoming a self-proclaimed Internet journalist. Packs of roving amateurs without a clue helped wise up most conference organizers a long time ago.
Most will ask for an assigning publisher or broadcaster, along with contact info. And it can get a lot worse from there. (It’s usually much easier the second time around with the same event, unless you make a negative impression at the first one.)
It sometimes helps if you can demonstrate that you’re a member of a legitimate media organization such as the Canadian Media Guild’s Freelance Branch.
If that doesn’t do it, and you’re in pre-assignment research mode or just trying to get deeper into a specialty, then try looking for a ‘light’ reporting assignment so you can tick off that requirement. A local newspaper might be tickled to get a 200-word localized quickie from a national event, or your local CBC morning show might be interested in a quick hit, especially if you agree to call in live at some ungodly time of day. (Maybe the afternoon drive show’s a better idea.)
The pay for the ‘light’ piece might be peanuts, but it’s a start on the income side of the balance sheet for this venture, plus it comes with a media pass to the conference. That also gives you credibility with vendors and presenters that the regular walk-through doesn’t have.
And we know no media outlet would ever consider putting travel money into what you’re offering. If I’m going to a conference without a significant assignment that includes expenses, then I expect to have to cover my travel expenses. Yes, it can be costly, but it does make your pitch unique.
Step three: Budgeting
That brings us to money.
Get ready to spend some, mainly on travel, accommodation, and food. And don’t forget to budget for some entertainment.
This is an investment. You probably invested in a computer, smartphone, tablet, digital whatever, right? You considered them “must haves”? So’s this.
Consider it an investment in your knowledge base and network of contacts. You’ll have the knowledge base and network of contacts long after that computer, smartphone or tablet are distant memories.
So you’ve done your planning and research, selected a specific conference, lined up the travel and media pass and other logistics. Now comes the tricky part that you must get right.
Step four: Gathering your material
This is about The How and When of setting up interviews at a conference.
You have two targets:
- Vendors who know the industry from a products and services point of view, and
- Presenters / panelists who usually include some vendors in addition to policy wonks, regulators, visionaries and industry elders.
If you’re after presenters, panelists or moderators for interviews or to just to introduce yourself and ask for a card for later, you need to be the first person in the room. You’re already there – wearing your media badge – when they arrive. Introduce yourself – ask for a brief interview after the presentation or discussion, and assuming you get a “Yes!”, say thank you, speak with you later, and leave. You should be able to do this within 30 seconds. Practice.
Once you get your “Yes!”, get out of her way while she’s busy thinking about going on stage. Sit through the session and prepare your questions. Wait until she’s about to run out of audience members who want to talk.
By the time you approach again, she’s done, it’s over, the pressure’s off, and you’re about to ask her to regurgitate the Cole’s Notes version of her presentation. She knows it by heart, and can and will likely rhyme off the bits you specifically ask about. Concise clips make for easier editing, after all.
If you’re after vendors on the trade show floor, then the obvious time is when all the attendees are in the conference sessions. It means missing conference sessions, but you can’t be in two places at once. That’s the reality, so plan your way through the conference agenda.
Whether vendors or presenters / panelists, do some basic research on each person you intend to approach. That’s what Google and Twitter and LinkedIn are for.
Research can lead you to ask truly insightful questions. Whenever you get an honest ‘Gee, that was a good question’ reaction, that interview subject is likely to remember you when you touch base again for quotes for future assignments.
Step five: Following up
Now it’s time for The Follow Through.
There’s little worse than fresh fish allowed to spoil. Don’t let it happen to your catch. Your conference isn’t over just because the event ended: there’s more to do before you rest.
Follow up with every single business card / data exchange / LinkedIn / Twitter promise you distributed or collected. Send an email or text or even a real snail mail letter of thanks for the interview. Let them know if they’re mentioned in a piece, even if it’s only the ‘light’ assignment you used to get your media pass.
Trolling the conference pool takes time, money, planning and some dedication to the task. In return, you get fresh information and story ideas and an expansion of your professional network.
Step six: Start small
Since you’ve read this far, here’s a freebie: number six.
Resist the temptation to start with a major event like the Consumer Electronics Show in Los Angeles with 180,000 other people and about 10,000 trying to get media passes.
Start small, and stay focused.
During an outdoor skills competition years ago, we were given a metal pot, a jug of water, kindling and matches, and a simple directive: be the first to boil water in the pot over an open fire. Like our competition, one of my team started to empty the jug into the pot. I stopped him and emptied all but a spoonful from the pot. We had it boiling in minutes.
Starting small gives you a greater likelihood of success. There’s no need to try to boil the ocean when a spoonful will do. Even small successes help breed more successes. They’re energizing, confirming, and they help keep you going when you hit the inevitable obstacles.
Success breeds success — even when you start out small.
George Butters has been a writer/broadcast for several decades. One of his primary interests is technology. He is based in Fredericton, New Brunswick. He is a member of the CMG-Freelance national board and serves on the boards of two financial services companies in the credit union system. He has two active companies, Smartypants.com and NewMediaDrive. Find him on LinkedIn here.