3 Tips for Standing Out at a Conference

by Ellen Lee on October 11, 2012

TechCrunch Disrupt has become one of the technology industry’s go-to gatherings, drawing hundreds of startups, many of them launching to the public for the first time.

The latest conference, held in September, packed 2,800 attendees into the Concourse at San Francisco Design Center. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made an appearance, his first since the social network’s IPO, as did actress and entrepreneur Jessica Alba, who started The Honest Company, which sells natural and eco-friendly products.

The conference hall was filled with row after row of startups, divided into alleys and pavilions dedicated to different sectors, such as hardware startups and new businesses from South America. Each tried to attract the attention of potential investors, partners, and customers, as well as the media. As a result, the event offered some lessons to any small business that plans to purchase a booth or table at a conference. Namely, how do you make your company to stand out in a crowd? Here’s how:

1. Reach out to the media before the event. Most conferences maintain a list of journalists who plan to attend that is available to sponsors and, occasionally, to exhibitors. Use this information to send writers and editors a message before the event starts. Keep it brief — a few paragraphs at most — and personal. Introduce yourself, your business, and why you think it might be of interest to the journalist. Offer to send a press release if you have one in the works.

Note that the press tends to get bombarded with pitches before a conference; however, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bother. If your email attracts their attention, they may decide to seek out your booth at the show — or even contact you in advance. At the very least, the name of your business is likely to ring a bell if they happen to meet you during the event.

2. Use a (carefully orchestrated) gimmick. There were plenty of gimmicks at this year’s TechCrunch Disrupt — mimes, a guy dressed as one of the Super Mario Bros., a cotton candy machine, cupcakes, and an artist drawing caricatures, to name a few. Some were more were successful than others. The life-sized videogame character? Distracting and annoying. The cupcakes? Yum.

Think carefully before you roll out a cheesy ploy to attract attention. The cotton candy was a nice touch, because it was tied to the startup’s cloud business. Giving away sweets almost never fails, but the costs can add up and you may draw mostly hungry freeloaders instead of people who have a genuine interest in your company.

3. Train your support team — and have a backup plan. Everyone manning your booth needs to know your business. You can’t be there all the time, and you could be busy talking to someone else. Your staffers may not want to give your entire presentation, but they should at least be prepared to answer basic questions and draw in visitors.

Whenever you demonstrate a product or talk about your business, be ready for mishaps. Because TechCrunch was packed, the internet service was slow at best and nonexistent at worst — a common problem at popular conferences. The lack of connectivity meant that many startups couldn’t properly demonstrate their websites or services, so they were unable to truly show off their companies. Be prepared for snafus and have your presentation ready to go no matter what the circumstances.