Maximizing conference impact: A guide for early-stage enterprise B2B startups

Recently, an early stage entrepreneur emailed me:

I’m considering attending two upcoming trade shows. Are they worthwhile in terms of time and money? Do decision-makers attend these events? Can one genuinely generate leads there? I’d appreciate your insights.

Ah, the $1M question. Having been involved in dozens of trade shows, I have some advice to share beyond the standard “it depends” – plus tips to maximize your conference presence.

FAQs about attending conferences

1) Do decision-makers attend these events? 
YES, absolutely, but unfortunately, it really does depend. You need to have a good understanding of your target ICP (Ideal Customer Profile) and research each conference.

2) Does one really generate leads at these events? 
YES, when done right (more on that below), and if your ICP attends.

3) Are they worth it? 
YES, when done right, with the right ICP.

^ So yes, the answer to the conference question is often “it depends,” but that doesn’t mean you can’t make an informed decision. Our conference consideration template can help you forecast and benchmark your conference goals. More in our full post on the topic – “Should I go to this conference? An analytical framework”.

For early-stage startups with limited budgets, I recommend starting small. Focus on conferences with a proven track record of hosting your ICP as attendees. Attend with just the CEO or a salesperson. Avoid costly sponsorships. This way, your only expenses are travel, an exhibit hall ticket, and your time. If you do well, go bigger next year.

And once you lock down that conference appearance, here are some evergreen tips for making the most of your investment:

⭐ 6 tips to maximize your conference participation: ⭐

▶ Go to all the sessions that relate to what you do, and strike up conversations with the people who attended that session. If your ticket doesn’t give you session access, wait by the door.
💡Pro-tip: Most conferences have different colored badges for sponsors / vendors, and for “real” attendees. Learn the difference and ignore the sponsors.

▶ Similarly, “work the floor” by going to booths of sponsors with similar offerings and talking to people who visit their booth.

▶ Email / LinkedIn message relevant speakers before the conference and try to set up meetings. And hound them at the conference. A follow-up note with specific, thoughtful feedback about their talk can often lead to a conversation.

▶ Try to figure out who in your network is attending the conference, schedule meetings with them, and ask them for intros to others. The key is to have as many quality meetings as possible, ideally set up in advance.

▶ Discover any “side events” like dinners and happy hours, and finagle your way into them. There are some great aggregators out there for these sorts of parallel events, including Conference Parties.

▶ Post on your LinkedIn that you’re attending, share it in your newsletter, post in relevant communities, etc. You want to make noise about your presence.

The bottom line

Like with anything at your stage, you need to hustle to make it worthwhile. We encourage experimenting with conferences, particularly early on in your startup lifecycle. Go to one big and one small conference in H1’24 and see what happens. If you’re in enterprise B2B, closing one deal from a trade show more than pays for the entire thing. 

And most importantly, go in with a game-plan – conferences can be chaotic. The best way to make them worth your while is to make noise about your participation, and secure quality meetings with your ICP.

Further reading

Netta is the founder and CEO of Blue Seedling. She loves third wave coffee, thin crust pizza, and B2B marketing.

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