You open your inbox to find an intriguing email heralding an upcoming professional event – a big industry conference, a thought leadership summit, a local meet-up or a networking group of movers and shakers.

This year, however, instead of the pleasure of a lavish coffee and croissant setup paired with a company-paid hotel stay, the conference will reach you through your home computer screen, accompanied by home-made, possibly even re-heated, coffee or tea. You may wonder if there’s any point in attending, or it’s worth the money – or just as valuable these days, the time – to attend a virtual event.

 

More than 75% of professional conferences shifted to an online format in 2020

More than 75% of professional conferences shifted to an online format in 2020, and the trend has reshaped event planning, with some of the largest conferences on the circuit opting for digital-only experiences. Even in-person trade shows and conferences are adding online tracks, leading to the rise of so-called “hybrid” events.

After more than a year of muting and unmuting, many people are understandably wary of participating in yet another online format, but you can absolutely get value for your time and money by attending a virtual event or conference. In fact, there are many ways to use the online setting to your advantage to propel your personal or company brand.

 

Here are 12 things you can do to bring career ROI from attendance at a virtual event:

 

Team Up.

“Going” (virtually) with a colleague can mean twice the learning and twice the benefit. If you have existing connections attending the same event, think about splitting the sessions among the group. Perhaps one of you can host a Lunch and Learn afterward to cross-pollinate ideas from different breakout sessions, multiplying what everyone learns as a team.

If you attend solo, you can still host a mini-recap session of key industry themes for your coworkers, which can boost your professional brand as an industry thought leader and spark a welcome dialogue about possibilities for change.

Research.

Before you go, it’s a great idea to research the sessions and target the industry heavyweights with whom you’d hope to connect, so you can have a game-time plan set before the big day.

Sneak a peek at all of the session descriptions, even the ones you’ve decided not to attend, and make a note of the terms, themes and topics that can inform your learning and skill development for the upcoming year.

Contribute.

While you may think networking and participating would feel more difficult in the virtual setting, it can actually be easier, in some ways! Virtual events let you type your questions into a chat box, respond to polls, have sidebar chats with other attendees, and get the personalized attention of the presenter in a way you rarely could, in person.

So go on – jump on opportunities to unmute and share what you know, ask questions in the chat, or interact with industry hot shots who are participating in the event with you.

Gather.

Collect all of the contact information you can—for speakers whose sessions you attended, as well as fellow session-goers. Occasionally, a conference attendee may rally folks in the chat window to share their email addresses, and if that happens, make sure you check the list for great networking connections. If you can’t get emails, make notes of as many peers as you can so you can connect on LinkedIn or Twitter.

Make sure to get the replays of sessions you missed (you can even watch them on 1.5x speed for faster learning). After you attend sessions, use your attendance as a great reason to reach out to the speakers to connect and say thank you via email or LinkedIn.

Be Present.

In virtual conferences, chat discussions are lively and many eyes are on the chat window that’s open while the presenter speaks. While you can watch some of the sessions on replay, try to participate “live” and in the moment as much as possible. While the show’s underway, comment – thoughtfully – whenever you can, to get your name in front of other industry pros in real time.

Follow Along.

Use the conference hashtags to keep up with what attendees are saying on Twitter. You can even set up a social media dashboard like Hootsuite ahead of time for an easy-to-read feed that pulls conference related hashtag posts into one main place. Join pop-up social groups related to the conference on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or the event host’s site.

When you come across connections-of-connections in these social networks who align with you and seem like they’ve got great energy and ideas, connect with them! They’ll appreciate the follow, and you’ll appreciate the expansion of your network.

Volunteer.

Consider getting involved in any mentoring, sandbox, or volunteer activities associated with the conference. These may be short-term and event-related, or may bring you a lifetime of mentorship, skill-building and networking opportunities.

Get Social.

Attend “social hours,” “lunch chats,” and “table discussions” whenever possible, since those are the most likely to yield the names of people you can connect to in real life.

Share.

When the conference ends, take the time to reflect on what you learned and share key takeaways in a brief post on LinkedIn. Tag speakers who inspired you, recap the themes that emerged, and bolster your professional persona as “someone in the know” who’s dedicated to continuous learning.

Take Action.

Don’t walk away inspired without taking action: Make a 30-day game plan for cultivating your new connections and setting your new ideas in motion within your organization.

Enjoy the Experience.

Best of all, a conference or virtual event gives you a chance to step back from daily tasks, clear your mind and think big picture about the work you’re doing (or want to be doing). Additionally, it can bring insight about what future career paths you might like to pursue and what companies you may want to target for your own career moves, now or later.

If you can fully “step away” from work the way you would to attend an in-person conference, you have an opportunity to come back with fresh ideas, inspiration, and even enthusiasm – the very best kind of career ROI.

 

If you do all these things during the online event, you’ll walk away with valuable new contacts with whom you can forge meaningful professional relationships, but the benefits don’t stop when the virtual meet-up ends. Post-conference, you’ll have a chance to put everything you’ve gained during the event immediately to work for your career.

Takeaway

If you’ve been holding off on going to virtual conferences or events that could further your career prospects because you think you won’t be able to network effectively, grab this playbook to help you make the right contacts and reap the rewards of event participation — including the valuable career refresh you can get without ever leaving your home office.

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