On the "Short List": Conference Networking

Just Cause

Trade and industry conferences are often viewed as an invaluable component of business development strategy for lawyers and law firms. As marketers, we leverage sponsorship opportunities for advertising and brand awareness, showcase attorney panelists to demonstrate their experience and thought leadership, even host evening events and parties in an effort to maximize face-to-face time with attendees. Conferences offer a targeted, captive, in-person audience, so it stands to reason that if we spend enough money we can’t possibly fail to get some new business out of the investment, right?

On the contrary, a firm can spend a considerable amount of money to be visible at a conference and still not succeed in generating new leads or meeting the best target prospects for new business. In fact, one of the downsides to a well-attended conference is an increased difficulty in identifying—and then finding—that person who you want to connect with face to face. It can be quite overwhelming.

Few would disagree that it is helpful to target prospects and know which of your existing clients are registered to attend the conference, so that you can plan meetings or research networking opportunities before you arrive on site. Conference planners recognize that this is an incentive and may reserve advance viewing of the registration list as one of the exclusive benefits of sponsoring the conference. The firm pays a little extra money so that they can beat the competition for limited meeting times and dinner reservations before on-site chaos ensues. It does involve additional cost—and as we marketers know—a lot of advance work.

There is no perfect system for navigating these large conferences, but those who do it well benefit greatly from a business development perspective. It is no surprise that technology is again finding a way to help us with all of our human shortcomings. Recently, as I skimmed through my afternoon dose of Crain’s Daily News (February 23, 2012), a video headline by Lisa Leiter caught my attention: “Shortlist Innovates Networking.” My first reaction was skepticism. I truly hoped that I wasn’t about to be introduced to another Facebook, Linkedin, or Twitter-esque account that would require me to register and invest time that I don’t have in order to follow activity. Instead, and thankfully, I learned of a new conference innovation called “Shortlist.”

What is Shortlist?

Chicagoans Gretchen and Jason Goodrich created Shortlist in 2011. They found that networking at conferences was increasingly overwhelming for attendees and saw an opportunity to develop an app that would be helpful in maximizing the networking opportunities for vendors and participants. To my surprise, Shortlist isn’t just another social media account.  Instead, it is a temporary platform that creates an online environment where conference networking will be easier and more relevant to one’s personal needs.

Shortlist is marketed to conference organizers and is free to both attendees and planners. While it isn’t unusual to see a conference app available for download, most of these are nothing more than a mobile, electronic version of the conference onsite guide. Shortlist takes it a step further. The app deploys an algorithm that uses your voluntary digital footprint and the context of your conference setting to suggest educational sessions and (wait for it!) make recommendations of people you should meet. Shortlist users can also access their LinkedIn account to see the list of their LinkedIn connections who are registered to attend the conference.

A “short list” of recommendations is generated and the user is provided with an environment for email outreach, which is especially important at conferences where email addresses are no longer included on registration lists. The app can be used prior to and during the conference. Attendees can check off the people they have met, add comments and notes about the exchange, and then Shortlist will save the contact and additional information for business development follow-up later on.

The app hits upon critical touch points of relationship management. It helps identify key prospects, provides a forum for connecting with them, and then allows for a degree of tracking the relationship.

View Crain’s video interview

Shortcomings

From my perspective, the app is an excellent tool to add to one’s networking workbench. However, it isn’t a perfect solution.

No app can do all of the work for you in a conference setting. It will streamline the experience and make you a better consumer of conference opportunities, but at the end of the day there is still no substitute for extending your hand and offering an introduction.  The conference attendee has to be willing to take the next step and facilitate the introduction. One needs to be motivated to seek out new people, introduce oneself, and follow up in order be a successful networker. You can’t stand behind a trade show booth or in the corner at a reception and assume that eventually the perfect opportunity for an introduction will happen to head in your direction. Likewise, you can’t generate a list and assume that the work stops there. Even while using this app, the user is required to take some sort of action. As we have learned, an electronic environment is meant to enhance, not substitute for personal relationship building.

Unfortunately, the technologically challenged attorney probably isn’t going to be helped by this innovation. The app assumes a certain level of comfort with a digital environment in order to be effective. It also requires some sort of online footprint before it can put the algorithm into action. While Shortlist isn’t just another social networking site, it does rely heavily on your previous participation in those sites in order to produce viable networking opportunities at the conference. If your attorneys don’t embrace the idea of social media and online networking resources, they will have their work cut out for them with this innovation.

Brooke E. Loucks is Marketing Manager at Cassiday Schade LLP, co-chair of the LMA International Recognition Committee, and Assistant Editor of In the Loop. Contact Brooke.

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