Optimize Conference Networking and Content-Creation Opportunities

Content Marketing

Aaron Orendorff hacked a new approach to conference networking that helped him meet key influencers and other new people, build his brand, and bolster his website’s SEO value.

Orendorff, copywriter and content strategist,  is the founder of iconicContent and recently became the Editor in Chief of Shopify Plus. He’s a regular contributor at Entrepreneur, Huffington Post, Lifehacker, Inc., Fast Company, Business Insider, Success, Content Marketing Institute, Copyblogger, and more. His life’s mission? He says it’s “Saving the world from bad content.”

Recently, Orendorff joined Act-On’s Nathan Isaacs on the Rethink Marketing Podcast to talk about getting the most out of networking at conferences, capitalizing on the content-creation opportunities they present, and effectively promoting the resulting material long after the event is over.

The key, says Orendorff, is to acknowledge ‒ and even embrace ‒ the possibility of rejection, but minimize that fear by creating a solid reason to approach and converse with people at a conference … and ask yourself how you can be of service to them.

This transcript has been edited for length. To get the full measure, listen to the podcast.

Nathan Isaacs: Welcome to the Rethink Marketing podcast. I’m here today with Aaron Orendorff. Can you tell us a little bit more about yourself and iconiContent?

Aaron Orendorff: Absolutely. I’m excited to be here, Nathan. Thanks for inviting me on. I am proud to say I’m an Oregonian, just like Nathan, down here in the middle of nowhere, Klamath Falls, Oregon, instead of the beautiful Portland. I’ve been in the content marketing game for about four years now, coming up on five pretty soon. Still feel like very much a newcomer. iconiContent is a company I started on my own four years ago. And since then I’ve had the distinct privilege and delight of writing for a whole host of online outlets and publishers, as well as some fantastic clients. Namely, I’ve gotta give props to Shopify Plus, which is my main gig these days.

‘Let’s Get Rejected’

Nathan: To the subject of our podcast today, you and your collaborator Nadya Khoja put together a mini-campaign around the topic of best advice for conference networking, which we’ll link to in the show notes. Can you tell me the background behind it?

Aaron: My catchphrase, and this is gonna be 100 percent right in line with this story, is ‘Let’s get rejected.’ And I’ve even hashtagged it. It’s because when I started out in content marketing and I started to go after the big publications, I didn’t have a name, I didn’t really have any connections, I had no track record. And so every time that I would submit something and try to punch above my weight, I would tell myself, ‘Let’s get rejected.’ I did the same thing when I would up my rates, when I would email new clients, or send off pitches.

And I say that because Nadya and I were both rejected from speaking at Content Marketing World two years ago. What we didn’t do was take our rejection lying down. We’re in a couple of Slack groups together. And so she floated the idea of: What if we tried to create some on the ground content for Content Marketing World that we could do beforehand, during, and after?

Connect and Create Content

Nathan: And the conference networking idea itself was what?

Aaron: The idea was: How can we connect with as many of the keynoters and conference attendees as possible, create as much content as possible in various forms, with the least amount of effort on our part? So it was one half ‘Let’s leverage the influencers we know,’ and one half ‘Let’s show a ton of love to the people that are actually there on the ground at the conference as well.’ So we started by launching a piece on Venngage, where Nadya is the chief marketing officer. They’re an infographic and poster-maker SaaS. We started by creating an infographic and reaching out to what ended up being 25 or 26 of the headliners at CM World that year. And we asked them one question: How do you approach a keynoter at an event without being weird or bothersome?

And we asked that question because we thought this is precisely what a lot of us do when we go to conferences. We have all these stars in our eyes over the people that we look up to, and we’re just not sure how to approach them. So it was a really practical question that gave the keynoters a chance to weigh in on what they liked and didn’t like, as well as practical advice for people who were showing up to the conference on exactly how to do this difficult awkward thing.

We asked that question of all these different presenters and keynoters. We put that together into an infographic. And then when the conference actually came, we launched it a couple of days beforehand and tagged all of the influencers that were out there on social media. I sent out custom-made gift thank yous via social media to every single one of them as well. And then we pushed it on a couple of hubs like inbound.org and growthhackers.com, to try to get as much critical mass as we could around this initial post.

Then on the ground in the conference, we took over a Snapchat, ‘cause neither one of us really have a big Snapchat following. Foundr Magazine, which is run by Nathan Chan ‒ just a brilliant guy, fantastic publication ‒ let us take over his Snapchat. And we asked one question of all the keynoters and attendees we could find there, which was simply: What’s your best networking tip at a conference? We had a ton of fun, and we got Joe Pulizzi to record his first Snap ever. We recorded all of these, compiled all those into another article, that then turned into an infographic, went up on Content Marketing Institute in the wake of the conference itself, celebrated both speakers as well as attendees. And then I got to put together another giant piece of content on my own site that basically walked everybody through this entire behind-the-scenes process of how these big pieces of content were put together.

So having an assignment ‒ going to the conference with a piece of content we were creating on the spot ‒ gave me a reason to walk up to people and start talking to them, speakers and attendees alike. And that’s the biggest lesson I learned from this for myself and that I’ve taken elsewhere. And it’s such a fantastic two-for-one because it opens the door, gives me a reason to actually talk to other humans, so I’m not as nervous. I’ve got a go-to question, I’ve got a reason [to approach people], that sort of thing. But then also it means I’m not wasting any of the time and money or time away from work that I spend at conferences. I’m actually building a piece of sharable, useful, practical content right there and then.

Keep the Conference Networking Momentum Going

Nathan: How do you convert that from being a one-off conference networking event where you just ask some question, to being able to reach out to somebody a year from now?

Aaron: Every piece of content I create, I have two basic rules that I follow. The first is: ‘never one and done.’ The second is: Content is not a single player sport.

I never want to hit ‘publish’ on something and then be done with it. Ever. I’m always coming back to it. And, at the very least, if all you do is make yourself a little note, just set yourself an appointment reminder for a month to go back and brainstorm about what to do with this next. Just do that with everything that you publish or post.

The other part is that content is not a single-player sport. So, two things. One, I start with the people that I already know. I get their buy-in to that one question. I set up a really simple, easy Google form in those cases if it’s not a live event. Name, preferred link, job title, one question. And then I can share that with a whole bunch of different people very easily and compile all of their answers for a post. On the back end, when someone says yes, I then follow up with another single question. You’ll notice a pattern here. One ask, for one question, for one Google form. And then once they’ve done that, there’s one follow up question which is: Hey, do you know so and so, and could you maybe connect them for this piece?

So I’m broadening with each step. But I’m only doing it a step at a time. And it’s this whole idea that I learned from writing landing pages, and really sales of any kind, which is all I can ask the audience to do is one next thing. Once they take that step, then what’s the next step? I’m constantly rolling it into one thing after another.

Nathan: So you’ve created the content and you’re wanting to promote it. What are your tips about that?

Aaron: I’ve collected the information ‒ it’s a really short composition ‒ and it’s that ‘one thing’ again. I’m not like: Here’s the article … OK, do something with it. No, no. Here’s a click to tweet link, here’s the social share that I’ve already put up, and here’s a customized image that we made for you. And the response is brilliant. It’s just gangbusters.

Conquering Nerves by Asking a Key Question

Nathan: What about for those folks who attend an event and may have had a conference networking plan, but then they’re in a crowd of 1,000 people and they chicken out. Any advice to those guys, when your nerves get the best of you, how to make the best of that?

Aaron: I could say some practical things like: I feel your pain, breathe deep, leave for an entire session or two if you need to, or if you don’t want to be around during meal times, which is one of the times I get most nervous. The times I get most nervous are the stupid after parties. Those freak me out. I hate that, but I force myself to do it most times.

The best piece of advice I ever got on this front was stop asking yourself: ‘What can I get?’I had a friend who said, ‘Man, you gotta get out of your head. What’s stressing you out is you’re like: Am I gonna sit next to the right person? Am I gonna make myself look silly? Am I gonna open with the right words? What are they gonna think of me?’ He’s like, ‘Forget all that. Instead, the next time you talk to somebody, just say to yourself: How can I help this person, how can I serve them?’

And maybe it sounds silly and cliché and trite, but it absolutely like revolutionized the rest of my experience at that conference and every conference I’ve been to since. And if it’s easier to have that opener with a question, that’s a real sneaky trick from myself. But everybody is just as freaked out as you, for the most part. They really are. They’re just as sweaty and uncomfortable and scared.

Nathan: It seems like with those sort of inspirational comments, I think that’s a good place to wrap up. How can folks learn more about you moving forward?

Aaron: I’m sure you’ll include some show notes to iconiContent, to the how-to-attend-a- conference-and-take-it-over article. I’d love to have you check out some of my stuff on Shopify Plus.

Nathan: Excellent. Hey, I appreciate your time today.

Aaron: I had a blast being here. I’m so glad you asked to talk about this particular subject. Thank you.