Making the Most Out of Unconferences

It’s my favorite time of year right now, not only are we in the middle of the holiday season, but we freelancers have another season to celebrate–unconference season!

If you’ve never heard of an unconference before, it basically entails Barcamp, Podcamp and WordCamp. Unconferences are informal get togethers where freelancers and web professional come together to network, attend informative 25-minute talks and come out with some neat swag.

Most cities offer these unconferences once a year and they’re the perfect place to get out there and meet your community. While I don’t go there expecting to get any work out of it, I find these are important events to attend–you never know when someone local will need your services. Plus, the cool swag and t-shirts are too awesome to pass up

So how can you make the most out of these unconferences and use them to your benefit?

Note–I recently attended WordCamp¬†Louisville!

Business Cards

I never ever use business cards–except for unconferences. You’ll be meeting a ton of awesome people, from business owners to fellow freelancers and business cards are still the easiest way to keep track of those you meet after the event.

In order to make use of your business cards though, you need to make sure you actually use them. As you introduce yourself to a new person, hand them a card right away. This makes sure they remember who you are and allows them to take a note or two about you. However, make sure you don’t talk too much about yourself and NEVER “sell” your services to anyone at any unconference. There are hundreds of people who attend these just to find some work and they end up being the annoying guy no wants to talk to.

Similarly, make sure you get a card from everyone you meet as well. Make sure you follow up your talks after the event with a quick “was nice to meet you email”. I’ve actually been able to make some close relationships with local businesses and freelancers this way, and have been able to connect people as well as get some local work from it.

Attend the Speaking Events–Only If You’re a N00b

The main feature of the unconferences are the speaking events. There are normally several rooms dedicated for people who give around 25-minute talks on some kind of web-related subject. While some of these speakers are pretty awesome to listen to every time, more times than not, the talks center around pretty basic concepts that you probably already know about. Many of them are simply on social media and how to use it for your business.

The best part of an unconference isn’t in one of the speaking rooms–it’s in the halls or main hang out room. This is where all of the cool contests and networking goes on. This is where you’re likely to meet some colleagues or help someone out. Stay in the main rooms as much as possible.

Speak at the Unconference

I admit I’m too shy to do this myself, but if you’re braver than me, speaking at one of these events is the perfect way to get noticed. I know several of my colleagues who actually travel around the US speaking at different unconferences–and that makes them very well known and recognizable, which is a must for any successful freelancer.

What should you speak about? In my opinion, the best speakers are those that pick a niche topic, something that isn’t general and is unique. I love listening to Justin Davis‘s talks on user experience. This guy has to be an awesome speaker if he can keep someone like me from falling asleep. He interjects jokes, varies his pitch and uses other techniques to make his talks interesting. I suggest watching a few of his videos to get a feel for how to be a great speaker.

Sponsor If You Can

If you have the budget for it, sponsoring the unconference is another great way to get your name out. Depending on the event itself and your level of sponsorship, you can get your logo on the event’s t-shirts, on swag and on the several cards, banners and promotional materials around the event itself. It’s also a great way to support your local web community.

If you do decide to sponsor, I suggest you also add something neat to the swag bags to give away. Emma in Nashville always has the coolest swag, including their famous Emma face moustache pins. The cooler the swag, the more of a chance you have that the attendees will both use your swag and check out your company.

For example, CarlSays sent a giant green octopus to our Barcamp last year–he was so awesome I decided to check out and sign up for their service. Make sure you do something funny and¬†memorable.

Your Thoughts

Do you attend unconferences? How do you make sure you get the most out of them?

Image by Lisa Brewster