As a food tech startup that deals with online grocers and recipe websites, we definitely have a tendency, here at Chicory, to rely on tools like email and LinkedIn as our main channels for networking. But in reviewing our performance from last year, we realized that our most longstanding and profitable partnerships have been forged in person. 

While no one can deny the importance of digital in todays advertising and marketing landscape, it's refreshing (even to our company, full of millennials) to know that an old fashioned, face-to-face networking session is still the most effective way to build relationships. That's why conferences are topping this list for our 2016 marketing strategy. 

There are so many conference options to consider and associated travel costs can add up quickly. How should you decide on which one(s) to attend each year, then? Here are the tactics we used to weigh our options:

Will You Meet New People?

Most conferences will share their attendee list with sponsors or other attendees. If it doesn't come up as one of the "perks," don't be afraid to ask. We like to think of this as one of the items included in our purchase package. If a conference costs us $2,500 to sponsor, but we get a list of 500 blogger leads to contact as a result, that's money very well spent!

That said, often times we'll see those lists and realize that we've contacted, worked with, or even met many of those people in person already. That's not always a bad thing--solidifying relationships IRL always helps, but make sure there's a good mixture of people you want to get to know better and people you can be introduced to for the first time.

Will You Be Able To Connect with Your Customer?

This could easily turn into a larger discussion and maybe we'll flesh that out one day, but think about it, and be honest with yourself: who is your customer? We analyze this frequently here at Chicory and it always comes back to KPIs. While it might, intuitively, seem like grocery shoppers are our customer, for the past year, our main goal has been to build out our network of publishers, to present our product to more and more people. That means, our "customers" (at least for now) are publishers and bloggers. That's who we answer to, who we want to reach, and who we spend our resources on. 

Look at your KPIs, remind yourself why you set those goals and re-focus your conference research accordingly. If your goal is to get more readers, is a food blogger conference where you'll meet other bloggers the right choice? If you're looking to meet brands, maybe a trade show might be a better fit for you? Maybe you really do want to meet blogger friends in person--how will you leverage those relationships to meet your goals? These are all questions to consider.

Which High Profile Speakers Can You Hear From?

Think about this less from the perspective of "oh, wow, it would be so cool to meet Bjork and Lindsay from Pinch of Yum in person!" Instead, think about expertise. One of the more memorable and, honestly, useful keynotes I experienced in the past year was at IFBC 2015. Kim Severson, of the New York Times, delivered a speech all about journalistic practices and ethics. It framed the whole conference in a very thoughtful way and I returned from that trip feeling revved up by her take on blogging.

Conferences that go outside of their comfort zones always leave the most lasting impressions. In my past life as a theater marketer for Broadway shows, I attended so many conferences focused on how to build audience engagement. We heard from top executives at places like Disney Theatricals, but the most memorable speech was from the head of marketing at Major League Soccer. He reviewed the ways they had instilled a love of "football" in certain American communities, breaking records on Facebook and Instagram. That injection of fresh ideas made all the difference.

Do You Have Family or Friends in That City You Can Visit?

For so many of us, choosing a conference comes down to money. If you can, milk that trip for all you can (and maybe get a free stay out of it!). I was thrilled to extend my trip to Sunday Supper's Food & Wine Conference in 2015 to a weeklong Florida excursion. My mom came up to Orlando to stay a night or two with me at the hotel, and then we drove back down to her place in West Palm Beach. For IFBC in Seattle, I stayed with my uncle and, once conference activities were over, got to see my cousin play in his high school football game for the first time. Breaking up the jam-packed conference routine with some family time re-energized me for the next day of mingling and networking.

Do You Identify With Sponsoring Companies?

If all else fails, and you're not sure where to spend your conference budget, look at the companies sponsoring the event. For us, we look for conferences that maybe don't yet have a tech sponsor so that we can differentiate ourselves from the pack. In your case, look for companies with whose values you feel aligned. Perhaps your blog is all about eating local and shopping at farmer's markets. In that case, that expo packed with big CPG brands might not be your best match. Instead look for more niche conferences and events like the Sustainable Seafood Blog Conference. By going this route, you can ensure that you'll be in a room with like-minded people (hopefully people that challenge you) rather than leaving the conference feeling like it wasn't quite your cup of tea.

Wondering where you can find Chicory this year? For now, we plan on attending the Everything Food Conference in Salt Lake City this May. We'll also be back for a second time to IFBC in Sacramento! Hope to see you all there.

Photo via Carl Warren

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