Having returned from the NAFSA Annual Conference in Boston a several weeks ago, I’ve found a little downtime to reflect on this year’s conference – and more importantly, how I want to follow-up with some of the connections I made over the week. For me, NAFSA is always an exhilarating whirlwind of thought-provoking sessions, reception invitations, exhibit hall strategizing, business card collecting, and extreme networking. Two weeks later… and I still feel like I have that post-NAFSA conference glow. My checkboxes are numerous as I calculate my follow-up and my energy is sustained by the “ah ha” moments I gained and the new connections I established.
This year marked my eighth NAFSA conference, and only now do I feel like I have my post-conference routine down. I know it can all feel overwhelming as a participant, so I am fortunate I had the privilege of serving as a conference mentor to six “first timer” attendees. Below are post-conference follow-up hacks and some of the advice I gave to my mentees over coffee, lunch, and expo hall aisle browsing. I hope this advice might also help other international education conference attendees manage business card follow-up and continued networking.
During the Conference
Make it a game to give away at least five business cards: Business cards have no value if you don’t pass them out – or collect them. I consider myself a high-functioning extrovert, and yet 50+ conferences later, I still consider it one of the hardest things in the world to walk into a room of strangers, make small talk, and then try to not only give, but take business cards from those contacts you’ve only just met. Some days are easier than others! To get through the intimidation of knowing business cards are where it’s at, I challenge myself to try to connect with at least five people throughout the conference. If by the end of the conference I still have two business cards to go, I use that challenge as motivation to approach and reach out to people. Conference card pick-up lines can include, “Have you been to any memorable sessions?”, “How far did you travel to get here?”, or, “Happy NAFSA! I have some great take-aways from the conference so far – what are some of yours?”.
- Lighten your name badge load: Conferences are notorious for making your name badge a flashy billboard of program provider stickers, region buttons, ribbon bragging, and, for me, business card storage. Every night, no matter how exhausted I am, I always take five minutes to clean out my name badge holder. It makes my name badge lighter for the next day, and gives me the chance to review all the business cards I collected throughout the day.
- Rank your interactions: After I’ve compiled all the business cards I collected over the day, I rank each interaction on a scale from 1 – 5 (with 5 being the highest). If the person on the business card was a great contact, I write specific details about the conversation, and make action items from that conversation. The goal is to write as much as I can on the back of the business card to jog my memory of that person, conversation, and possible next steps. This is important because when you do contact the person, you can be specific and personal. If the business card has a dark backside – or no room to write commentary – I bring along Post-It notes to write further follow-up and attach it to the appropriate business card. I then prioritize the comments I write on the back of the business card dependent on the level of interaction.
On the Way Home from the Conference
- Three gems: What are the three things you took away from the conference? Be prepared to answer this question, as colleagues, friends and family are going to ask how the conference went. Instead of the standard, “It was great, but exhausting…” answer, be prepared to show and tell what you learned.
- Business cards are your friend (literally): I don’t know how many conference friends started out as a business card. If you take the time to treat business cards as potential future coffee buddies, session proposal panelists, or reception hopping friends, the payoff of investing in keeping the card might be big – or at least fun! This is your connection to that person – hold on to it! And, if you don’t want to (literally) hold on to the card, invest in a business card scanner.
Link in on LinkedIn: One of my favorite post-conference activities is sending LinkedIn requests to ALL my business card connections. I usually do this in the airport when I’m waiting on a flight. First of all, I love to learn more about the person I might have briefly met. Secondly, this is a great way to keep your connection in the know about you – especially before you send that follow-up e-mail. A LinkedIn request is much easier to “accept”. Plus, if you happen to lose that business card, you always know where you can find that contact any time during your career.
- Refrain from hitting “send”: It’s okay to draft e-mails to your new conference contacts, but try not to hit “send” on your follow-up e-mails the day after the conference is over. Wait a few days (or maybe even a whole week) for their work life to resume just like yours needs to. Be sure to follow-up though! As they most likely will be going through that post-conference glow too – and you want to monopolize on that. Also, it’s safe to assume that most everyone at the conference will still have an “out of office” message up. You don’t want your e-mail to get lost in the long list of other unanswered e-mails that are awaiting that contact after the conference – so best to wait for them to dig out of their inbox a little before you hit “send”.
A Few Weeks After the Conference
- Follow-up is key: Load up your calendar with post-conference follow-up tasks. Make your tasks timely and realistic – especially while you’re still energized from the conference. The first two weeks after the conference are the best time to schedule meetings and continue building momentum on your growing network. Make sure you schedule and prioritize this follow-up before you even attend the conference!
- Get personal: DO NOT write generic follow-up e-mails that you send (or worse, BCC) to your business card pile. People want to feel like you remembered them – and maybe they need some help placing your name with the interaction you had. Be sure to include a couple of sentences that refreshes who you are, what you discussed, and why you connected long enough to actually exchange business cards.
- Call to action: It’s important to put a “call to action” in your follow-up e-mail – something that will keep the conversation going. I suggest mentioning something specific, actionable, and realistic that you’d like to connect with that person on in the future. Think about how you can help them and/or how they might be able to help you.
- Hand written “Thank You” cards NEVER hurt: Did someone do something for you out of the ordinary? Stand out by thanking that person with a handwritten “thank you” card. Your “thank you” will stand out if it’s handwritten versus lost in the post-conference virtual world. It makes a difference, I promise. You don’t want your heartfelt thanks to be one more e-mail that has to be read after your contact turns off their “out of office”.
- Be a connector: If you’ve made a contact that might benefit another contact, make the introduction. I believe this is where conference karma comes into play. As you build your network, you should always be looking for ways to help others build their own. Nothing beats a vetted introduction.
- Share the conference love: I take notes at every conference session I attend. I consider it part of my post-conference routine to share those notes with colleagues who might have also benefited from the session – even though they weren’t able to attend. If nothing else, it shows a willingness to share knowledge. This will also aid in showing the benefit and value of the conference so that if funding is limited in the future, you may be more likely to attend since you had previously already shared its worth.
A Couple Months Down the Road
- It’s all in the cards: I keep a pile of my high ranking (4-5) conference connections on my desk. If I have a down moment, I might reach out a few to just “check-in” on how the year/semester is going. It’s a great way to keep conversation going throughout the year, even if it’s a little nudge that serves as a “remember me”.
One Year Later
- Quality time: Uninterrupted time rarely happens during a conference. Make it a priority to meet those contacts who are worth catching up with outside of the conference center. Plan early – before schedules fill up.
- Yelp Dates: To me, a successful conference also includes time outside of sessions and the expo hall. I try to schedule informal meetings with conference buddies for coffee, lunch, happy hour, dinner or reception hopping. Since conferences tend to be in bigger cities – that I haven’t explored fully – I make a list of highly rated restaurants and try to fill every meal time with a catch-up date. Over the years, I have my long-standing NAFSA buddies to catch up with over new, fun restaurants. Reach out to these contacts and plan meals to also include networking and connecting!
Maybe you’re over your post-NAFSA (or another conference) glow… or maybe you’re still trying your best to make the best out of your conference experience… BUT, wherever you are, please share some of your tips! What does your post-conference routine look like? Share it in the comments below!
About the Author: Lesley Robinson is a valued member of the Melibee hive and serial NAFSA conference attendee! You can read more about her here.