People attend conferences for a myriad of reasons—to learn best practices, be inspired by thought leaders, to discover technology, and to network with industry peers. And if the event is worked right, you end up connecting with new and meaningful people. Ideally, a few of those conference connections turn into trusted advisors or actual friends.
But conference friendships are unusual. These are not your In Real Life (IRL) friends; conference friends are like summer camp friends. Remember those?
Year-over-year at summer camp (or summer vacations) you and your tight-knit posse considered yourselves to be the best of friends—you talked about all the important things, especially the things you wouldn’t share with friends back home. And when the summer ended—you and your summer camp friends wrote, perhaps you called, but unless it was something big, the updates could, and did, wait until you saw each other the next year.
Why do you need more friends?
Before you pack your bags and head out to SXSW, Relate Live, or another industry event, put some intentions behind your conference friendships. Who is it that you want to meet? What should you expect from the relationship? What will you provide to the friendship circle?
To help you out, we’ve brought together a few practitioners of conference friendships. Each started their network of friends online—through social, lists, or working groups—and then fostered them after meeting in person. While from very different industries, and different stages in their careers, they each have some masterful advice to share.
Let's talk about conference friends
You initially met most of your conference friends online, which isn’t atypical for business relationships these days. (Think LinkedIn or Twitter.) But what made it so important to meet in person and take the friendship to the next level?
Amber: As part of the Salesforce Admin Community there's a ton of knowledge sharing online before the events. Often we’re working on presentations together, and having a face and voice with a name is helpful. As mutual Salesforce Admins (now friends) we attend the same happy hour events, or team up to divide and conquer the expo floor.
Michelle: I started following customer service influencers on Twitter. After ‘meeting’ them that way, we arranged to get together at the big ICMI event one year. For me, I really wanted to put a face to the people I respect so dearly.
Heather: The bottom line is that we all shared a passion for the Internet/Web—the specificity of that passion didn't matter. It’s what brought us all to SXSW. We could have the kind of conversations you just couldn't have with other people. They understand you instead of saying, "www what?"
We could have the kind of conversations you just couldn't have with other people. They understand you instead of saying, "www what?" - Heather Hesketh
Do you typically see your conference friends outside of the event?
Amber: Aside from Dreamforce (the big one!) there are regional events that attract this same group of folks. We often coordinate schedules so we can share Uber rides to and from the airport.
Steven: Our last year at SXSW, a conference friend threw a sort of reunion for the folks who were part of the ‘original 200 geeks in a hallway’. Given that M3AAWG is held at least once a year in San Francisco, and we have lots of friends there, it's a good way to meet up in person. We have the luxury of our hometown being a hotspot for the things my friends do, so we've played host to many. It helps that we have a guest room with its own bath.
Heather: There are some people that I only see at events and we stay in each other's lives on Twitter (both public and direct message) or reading Medium. If we see that we're going to be in the same town at the same time, we try to meet for a meal, or at least, a chat.
How do you typically communicate in-between? How do you ensure the relationship stays strong?
Amber: Communication happens mostly on Twitter, email, and even old school Internet Relay Chat (IRC). More and more we're using Chatter in the Salesforce Success Community and Slack. It's an ever-evolving toolset.
As for how we keep the relationships strong, accidentally. It's not a concerted effort. We help each other through the highs and lows of working on the platform. That shared struggle and success is what keeps us close.
Steven: I started up a mailing list for the original reunion folks. It's a way for us to keep in touch outside of the noise of Facebook, and we've actually strengthened old friendships a lot through the simple existence of that list.
Heather: With regards to staying in touch, email is big. Twitter is for the incidental ‘what are you thinking about now’ or ‘what are you doing’. DM is for quick questions. And email is for longer catching up and for coordinating getting together.
Would you say your conference friends are closer to you than those you have IRL?
Amber: I consider them my closest work friends. Working from home I'm isolated from my actual colleagues. We have, and heavily use Slack at my job, but my IRC friends are folks I talk to every day. We share work stress, life stress, and give lots of virtual high-fives when things go well. It's quite epic really.
Steven: We've been lucky to have made a lot of great friends online, and honestly we'd probably take a bullet for most of them, but it's not qualitatively different than the good friends we have who happen to be local to us.
Michelle: They are definitely my support system. They get what I do and why I do it. They are also ‘work people’ I choose to be friends with, and not because we work together. Oh, and they make the most amazing references. None of my IRL are able to fulfill that.
Do your conference friends serve a different purpose—whether personally or professionally than IRL ones?
Amber: Because my event friends are also work friends, they are better equipped to understand the ups and downs of networking, job searching, certification prep, etc. My IRL friends nod and smile when I talk about Salesforce, but really don't get what I do or how.
Michelle: They are a wonderfully neutral party. They are in my industry, but not part of my day-to-day job, so we can talk about the dirty stuff. When I was new to the business, I would reach out and ask questions and never feel stupid about anything. Ok, I’m not new to the business anymore, but I still do that!
Would your relationship with your event friends be tighter or stronger if you saw each more often?
Amber: Probably, but nobody's got that kind of money! Two-to-three times per year is really the limit of most folks budgets and PTO allocations.
Steven: I don’t think so. Knowing that there are people out there who just know what all your acronyms mean is awesome. Seeing each other often doesn't change that.
Michelle: I’m not sure. We talk enough, and we talk when we need to. Sometimes I think we purposefully load up on drama right before a conference, just to see who has the most going on. Would I like to see them more? Sure. But I’m really not sure my liver could handle it.
Knowing that there are people out there who just know what all your acronyms mean is awesome. Seeing each other often doesn't change that. - Steven Campeon
What’s a favorite conference friendship moment?
Steven: I just met one old friend in person for the first time last week. I've known her for almost twenty years through various lists, but this was the first time I'd met her IRL.
Heather: I can remember one conversation that started with "how did you get into this field"—the person I was talking to had started as a chef and the conversation wound its way to what kind of bourbon was best in a Manhattan. That person, in particular, I stay in touch with on Twitter.
One of the closest friends I made at SXSW was with someone at lunch. He met his wife at SXSW. We went to the wedding. Now when he's in our town, our house is his home base. When we're in his town, we stay with him. We keep in touch most regularly playing Words with Friends and the occasional phone call or text. He's someone we know we can count on. The kind of friend who will take you to the airport.
The joys of summer
Just like summer camp friends, conference friends should play a very important role in your life and career. No matter the industry—be it contact centers and customer service, emerging technology, music, email marketing, or hospitality—there are those few conferences a year that bring together the best and the brightest. Leverage them. Make the connections, make friends, and make a network of people that you can count on, even after the summer (or conference) is over.
Sarah Stealey Reed is the editor of Relate. When she's not wandering the world, she's a loud writer of customer experiences, contact centers, and optimistic relationships. Find her on Twitter: @stealeyreed.