One of the questions I find myself fielding more and more is the seemingly-innocuous, “Which is the best blogging conference for me to attend?” one.
On the one hand, I kind of love that there might be an absolute answer to this question—one event that stands head and shoulders above the rest, known to everyone in the industry as the pinnacle—and on the other hand, the answer really depends on who you are and what you want to to do. There’s a small, paranoid part of me that feels like greener bloggers think I’m hiding something when I tell them that, though.
The reality is that I think attending conferences can be invaluable to your career as a freelance blogger, but there is no One True Answer to the question of which conference is for you. Even after you’ve gone through the steps to ascertain which one is a good fit, there is (unfortunately) no guarantee that that particular event will still meet your needs the following year, either because the event has changed or your needs have changed. That means that every time you’re considering a conference, you need to ask yourself some specific questions to figure out if this makes sense for you.
The bad news is that there’s no simple answer; the good news is that an honest look at where you’re at and what you want should make the decision easier.
Here are the questions to ask yourself when figuring out which conference is right for you:
1) Is this an event likely to bring you into contact with like-minded and further-along-in-your-chosen-field folks? To say “I want to be a freelance blogger” is very broad; with that statement, just about any blogging conference fits the bill. What’s your niche? What sorts of professional relationships are you pursuing or hoping to obtain? Think critically about how you envision your career trajectory, then seek out people on a similar path. The ideal mix is one where you’ll encounter plenty of folks at about the same place in the game as you, but also a nice contingent of folks further along, who can potentially mentor you. While conferences are a great place to make connections with businesses, as well, the learning happens amongst your cohorts, not amongst potential clients. If you’re merely scouting for clients, chances are you already know which venues are most appropriate. (Though I might make the argument that attending a conference purely to scout out clients is a missed opportunity; there’s always more to be learned from colleagues you respect in the industry.)
2) Is this an event that tends to be relatively drama-free? If you’re trying to build your professional reputation, it’s imperative that you consider this, regardless of how juvenile it sounds. Some conferences tend to bring a reputation for scandal and/or histrionics in the mix, and those are to to be avoided if your goal is to up your credibility. Figuring this one out isn’t hard, it just requires a little bit of investigation into past events. Hint: If it’s the kind of conference where people tend to go to “party,” it’s probably not the best choice, professionally.
3) What’s it going to cost you? This is a radical thought, but I stand behind it: If you can’t afford the conference, it’s the wrong one. Seriously. There is no conference in the world worth bankrupting yourself to attend. And conferences tend to be pretty expensive affairs. Sure, it’s a deductible business expense, but at the end of the day, if you can’t afford it, please don’t go. If it’s a conference you can’t afford but feel may be truly important/useful, figure out a way to make it work, financially—get yourself invited to speak (and paid for), offer to volunteer as a worker bee to get free registration, bunk up with some other folks to save money on a hotel room, etc. There are lots of ways to make it more affordable. Just make sure you can genuinely afford it. And sometimes, that means the conference in the next town ends up being “more right” than the one across the country, purely from an economic standpoint. That’s called reality.
A couple of other things to consider from a financial standpoint: One, do remember that conference travel and associated expenses are legitimate business expenses, and therefore tax deductible. That doesn’t make them free, but it does ease the sting a bit. Two, it is possible to find a corporate sponsorship to attend a conference, but I urge you to tread very carefully if you consider going this route. For one thing, I see a lot of folks clamoring for sponsorship and making fools of themselves, and for another, typically being sponsored puts some responsibility on your that you may or may not be comfortable bearing. Just think it through. (Here’s a brief but cogent piece on how to do a sponsorship the right way.)
4) What are your goals here? What would be your ideal takeaway from a conference? If you don’t know what you want, it’s pretty hard to evaluate where you might be able to find it. Are you looking to network? Gain clients? Both? Expand a particular skill set? I’m not saying you have to know exactly every morsel of information you’re hoping to glean, but you should have a pretty good idea of what you hope to accomplish when you attend an event like this.
5) How often do you plan to travel? This one may seem like a red herring, but it’s really not. Some people go to conferences all the time; others (like me) make a concerted effort to only do one or two conferences a year for various reasons. (In my case, I’m not a huge fan of travel, plus it interferes with my work schedule.) If you’re only going to one conference this year, you have to pick a lot more carefully than if you’re willing and able to hit four or five. Be realistic; if you can only afford one conference, don’t go to the one next month figuring you’ll “figure something out” for the conference six months away which is the one you really want to go to.
6) Once you think you know which one, start strategizing. The reality is that even if you can afford a conference, being subsidized is always better. Furthermore, if it’s a conference you’ve determined is a good professional fit for you, wouldn’t it look nice on your resume if you were an invited speaker? It would! It may be that the conference you’ve picked for this year is already all scheduled, but if you go and love it, now’s the time to figure out how you can get on the schedule for next year—expanding your resume and likely netting you a free or reduced-cost attendance all in one. Many conferences solicit session proposals, and even the ones that don’t generally have available contacts with whom you can discuss your ideas. Come up with a way to make yourself valuable, and then don’t be shy about promoting yourself. It’s a lot easier to decide which conference(s) to attend when you’re being invited to speak.
Now, all of that said: Tell me what conferences you’ve been to and found the most valuable. There are many I’ve heard a lot about but never been to, and I’m curious to hear which ones you think are the best.