This week on #bufferchat, we discussed tips and advice for building community at conferences. Our community talked about ideas for breaking the ice, using social media to strengthen community building, creating an inclusive environment, and much more!

Read on to discover all of the awesome insights that were shared during the chat, from our community and from our two wonderful guests this week, Erica McGillivray and David Spinks of CMX!

Catch our weekly Twitter chat, #bufferchat, at TWO times every Wednesday for valuable industry insights and to meet hundreds of other smart marketers and social media enthusiasts. Same topic, same place, just at different times – feel free to join in to whichever chat time works best for you!

4 pm AEST (Sydney time)

9 am PT (San Francisco time)

Bufferchat on May 31, 2017 (Topic = Building Community at Conferences)

This week’s stats:
1st Bufferchat: 19 participants; 118 tweets; reach of 1,100,716
2nd Bufferchat: 111 participants; 880 tweets; reach of 1,866,318

Q1: What are the best things you’ve seen conferences do to help you connect with new people?

From Erica:

  • Besides apps, I’m kind of a fan of old-fashioned ice breakers. Like figure out the famous person on this sticker on my back.
  • Allow time for people to get creative & relax. It takes 8 real connections at a conference for people to feel successful.

From David:

  • Discussion groups are always highly rated at our events. People like to have conversation facilitated, not left open.
  • The simple answer: curate smaller discussions and events within the larger event.
  • Might sound simple, but just having everyone stay in the same hotel will result in serendipitous connections (and drinking).
  • You can also empower attendees/members of the community to be group leaders, curate smaller experiences, dinners, etc.
  • If you want to go real crazy, have everyone check in their phones/laptops at the door. Guarantee they’ll meet more people.

From the community:

  • “Putting social handles & hashtags on name tags is great for finding folks.” @ShannonRenee
  • “It’s great when conferences promote networking online prior to the event.. makes the in-person mtg so much easier.” @darcyschuller
  • “Small sessions w time for questions and discussion at the end. Reduces the fear of talking. Really helps people open up.” @TheWorldWatches

See all the great answers to question 1 here!

Q2: What tips do you have for starting conversations (or breaking the ice!) with fellow conference attendees?

From Erica:

  • Ask people questions about themselves & ask follow ups to their answers. Play a game where you only talk to prompt them.
  • Small talk isn’t natural for all of us. I’m in this group. So be prepared even with obvious things to ask people you meet.
  • Remember everyone’s human. Make room to talk about something other than your industry or professional interests.

From David:

  • Creative icebreaker: An event I went to had people write one word on their nametags that others could ask them about ( did this).
  • We always have a welcome committee at CMX Summit. A group of volunteers who stand at the door to welcome each attendee.
  • If you have tables, give each table a number and send people to that table when they arrive. Start everyone in small groups.

From the community:

  • “‘What are project are you working on right now that you’re most passionate about?’ Gets deep. Gets real. Filters out the BS.” @jjwongster
  • “Doesn’t hurt to start digitally. Follow social convo & engage w/ attendees. Use that to break ice & plan meeting in person.” @GeoffTBlosat
  • “Been trying the ‘be yourself’ thing. ‘Hello! I’m socially awkward and am just going to join your conversation. Is that ok?'” @ClockworkOps

See all the great answers to question 2 here!

Q3: What are creative ways to incorporate social media in helping to build community at conferences?

From Erica:

  • This may not be creative, but make sure your conference has 1 official hashtag for social media. Don’t split your community.
  • Surprise and delight people post-conference. For one MozCon, we sent out mugs congratulating the top 5 tweeters.
  • Let other staff members help with social media coverage & allow them to answer ?s. The finance person may surprise you.

From David:

  • We always have a full social media team at CMX Summit. Our photog brings them photos live. They’re live-tweeting everything.
  • Having a screen showing live tweets is always engaging at events. People like seeing themselves up there. (Placement is really important with these. Needs to be out of line of sight when looking at stage. It’s there if you want it.)
  • Contests work well. We’ll do live giveaways on stage at events for people who share good tweets.
  • Facebook groups are really effective for connecting attendees before/during/after events. That’s how the group started!

From the community:

  • “Leverage SM to announce “pop up” get togethers with special guests/speakers, do surprise giveaways, etc.” @SimTara
  • “We use it to support “giving back” efforts – this year, it was . Attendees love to rally around a great cause!” @emmaemail
  • “Create a dedicated Facebook group for the event. Attendees can hang out there and reflect on the event overall.” @ExpWriters

See all the great answers to question 3 here!

Q4: How can conference organizers create an environment of inclusivity for attendees?

From Erica:

  • Listen to attendees & add your own ideas. My favs are introvert zones, gender neutral bathrooms, & lived closed captioning.
  • Don’t forget the basics: enforced code of conducts, dietary needs, comfy chairs, large presentation fonts & t-shirts for all.

From David:

  • One amazing thing did when running CMX Summit was create signs for an “Introverts Zone”.
  • A critical step in making your conference more diverse and inclusive is making sure your speaker lineup is diverse.
  • has been incredible making inclusivity a priority for . Here’s our commitment.
  • Offer scholarship programs to ease the financial burden for underrepresented groups. Here’s our program: Diversity & Inclusion Scholarship

From the community:

  • “Inclusivity starts with the planning. Make sure core team offers diverse points of view and backgrounds.” @MollyKoernke
  • “Always have to be on the lookout for experiences & viewpoints you hadn’t thought of before – what would block someone here?” @AnnDiab
  • “Give all attendees a voice and a role to play. Adopt an unconference model for some sessions.” @dshiao

See all the great answers to question 4 here!

Q5: Many conferences fall back on parties as after hours events — what are your ideas for other kinds of evening activities?

From Erica:

  • My fav activity I’ve done is Ignite-style talks: 5 mins w/ auto-advancing slides about not marketing (the industry).
  • These talks allowed people to connect w/ personal stories & form deep bonds. We heard about people’s joys, hobbies, & pain.

From David:

  • My fav activities are small group dinners and afterparties that form. Playing Werewolf at the hotel. The organic stuff.

From the community:

  • “Always good to relax after a long day of learning! We’ve had a ‘serenity lounge’ with yoga, massages, and a juice bar!” @weareintheevent
  • “Walking tours around the city for the exploring types attending the event. Might be tiring, but worth doing.” @90DigitalAgency
  • “Game nights (feel silly, but I’ll learn more about a colleague or potential client/sponsor through a game than a beer).” @TheBdgtBckpck

See all the great answers to question 5 here!

Q6: What’s the best (or the not-so-best) swag you’ve seen being given out at conferences?

From Erica:

  • My favorite swag I’ve given out is Roger (’s mascot) action figures, figurines, plushies, & Legos. Too cute and fun.
  • My fav swag: nice gym socks from Summit & a bathroom travel tote with my initials from speaking at .
  • Worst: cheap chargers that might damage devices, t-shirts aka tents & flight no-noes like matches & giant liquid bottles.
  • Bad swag decisions happen. Giant hand sanitizer bottles were at my con. Hand sanitizer’s A+, but the size, not TSA approved.

From David:

  • People seem to like waterbottles (if they’re good quality), phone chargers, good pens… the usual stuff.
  • One year early in my career, I gave out bacon egg and cheese sandwiches at our booth. It was a HUGE hit.
  • At CMX Summit, every sponsor provides an experience at their booth, not just swag. Headshots, flash tattoos, cornhole, etc.

From the community:

  • “Best SWAG – Drawstrings. People collect lots of things at conferences, give them something to hold it all w/ your logo.” @MegAHakey
  • “I am still using the phone battery chargers I’ve gotten at conferences. But none of the stress balls made it home.” @SFerika
  • “I love pens & stationary. Safe but we need less useless stuff in the world – make swag cool & useful (ideally eco-friendly).” @SocialBoffin

See all the great answers to question 6 here!

Q7: How do you stay in touch with people after a conference is over?

From Erica:

  • Connecting on social media. The platform depends on how we bonded. On LinkedIn, personalize that connection message.
  • Get excited about seeing them again at other conferences or make this conference an annual thing.

From David:

  • This is the ultimate challenge for conference organizers. Keeping everyone engaged long after the event is done.
  • First, your event is NOT your community, its a space for your community to come together. Now you have to create more spaces.
  • You can keep your community engaged in two ways: online platforms and regularly hosted meetups or smaller events.
  • Events are great for DEEP connection during a fixed time. Online is great for more frequent, but shallower connection.
  • The reason that people come and participate in an event may be different from why they participate in an online community.
  • Don’t just put people in a group and say “keep connecting!”. You have to continue to facilitate connections. All year.
  • If you want people to continue to connect in person, consider empowering attendees to become organizers of local meetups.

From the community:

  • “LinkedIn is good b/c of the notifications of change events. It’s a natural ice breaker to get back into a conversation.” @HollyMDeWolf
  • “I’m an introvert so twitter is my best way of staying in touch afterwards!” @season_90
  • “Instead of biz cards, I give out my Twitter handle. That’s easiest way to build relationships, I find.” @martinlieberman

See all the great answers to question 7 here!


Thank you so much to Erica and David and to everyone who shared their advice in this chat!

Do you have any comments or answers to these questions? Leave your thoughts in the comments! We’d love to hear from you!

Image sources: UnSplash

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Written by Arielle Tannenbaum

Community Strategist at Buffer. In addition to her love of community building, Arielle also loves vegetables, cooking, practicing yoga, meditating, living mindfully, and exploring the connections between health and happiness!