For technology companies, participation in symposiums, conferences and trade shows is all in a day’s work. How else can you showcase yourselves as thought leaders and technology innovators? However, because so many of these events are held each year, the dilemma lies in deciding not only which events to attend, but how much should be invested in participation at each. Should you exhibit? Present? Just show up? Here are some guidelines to help you develop a winning conference strategy.

Narrow It Down

The first task is to narrow down the list of opportunities to the events that will help you get your message to the right audience at the right time. Base your decisions not only on what other companies in your market segment are participating in either as exhibitors or speakers, but on who the attendees are. Will the decision-makers be there?

Whenever possible, try to get a look at the previous year’s attendee and participant lists. If a conference organizer thinks it will help get you to sponsor or exhibit, they will be forthcoming with that information.

Select an assortment of events that vary from academic symposiums to technical conferences and industry trade shows, and that take place in different geographical locations. When possible, try to space the events throughout the year. This will help establish a worldwide ongoing presence, even if you can’t attend every single conference.

How Much to Participate?

Now that you’ve selected your events for the year, the next task is to determine how much to participate at each, which will determine how much of your conference budget is spent. Your choices include sponsorship, exhibiting, presenting and/or simply attending.

For key events, a three-pronged approach—sponsor, exhibit, present—is the most effective, especially when you have a new technology or product to introduce. Many events offer general sponsorship packages of varying levels, such as Platinum, Gold and Silver, that include exhibitor space and a certain number of conference badges in addition to branding opportunities.

If you exhibit, make sure your booth graphics are up to date with your message, and that you have booth attendees at the booth at all times. These folks should be both technology- and sales-savvy, as you never know who is going to stop by. Think of them as ambassadors for your company, and make sure they know your message.

If you are not presenting and have no new product announcements, sponsoring a lunch or coffee break in lieu of exhibiting is a great way to keep your brand in the forefront of a particular audience.

Not sure if a conference is the right place to showcase your company, but think the content might be informative? Why not just participate as an attendee? Think of it as a scouting trip. You’ll have the opportunity to learn more about your competitors’ technologies, and can take advantage of the networking opportunities the event offers. If you like what you see and think your company can benefit from participating further, add it to the list for next year.

Plan Ahead

Whether your goal is to present at as many conferences as possible or just a few, it’s important to plan ahead. If you suddenly decide you need to present at a conference that’s six months away, chances are you’ve already missed the boat.

Conference committees generally issue calls for participation 8-10 months in advance, and deadlines for submitting an abstract can be as much as 6-8 months in advance, particularly for keynotes, plenary speakers and panelists. Why? The organizers have more luck generating interest if the agenda can be publicized.

Be prepared to look well beyond a year when planning your conference calendar. This activity should be part of your annual marketing strategy.

Mix It Up

If your company is participating in the conference proceedings, either as a keynote speaker, panelist or presenting a technology paper, it’s important to mix it up. Having the same person deliver almost identical talks at similar conferences with the same attendee list is not the best approach. Seek out different audiences, have different messages based on your latest innovations, have different members of your organization speak, and deliver your core message in different formats.

Keynote talks should be high-level and have a clear message about industry trends. Panels are a great opportunity for establishing key executives and technologists from your company as thought leaders in the industry. Technology presentations should not be used as 20-minute product commercials; rather, they should focus on the technology innovation itself.

Also under the mix-it-up heading is selecting different types of conferences. Don’t overload your calendar with academic-focused symposiums and forgo the commercial trade show opportunities or vice versa. You never know when opportunity will present itself.

Meet the Press

Once you’ve established your conference calendar, it’s time to decide which events are the best venues for launching a new product or to make a major corporate announcement. The best ones are where the most press is in attendance. Over the years as publications cut their editorial travel budgets, fewer members of the trade press can be found at technical conferences. The larger and more commercial the event, the more likely you’ll find members of the press in attendance. Target these for key announcements.

At least one month prior to the event, get the word out about your participation, announce your news and schedule briefings with as much press as will be in attendance. Journalists and analysts prefer face-to-face meetings to press conferences, because it gives them the opportunity to get an exclusive story. No journalist wants to see a story in a competing publication that uses the exact same quote as they did.

While there is likely to be fewer journalists and bloggers attending technical conferences and symposiums, it’s still worth seeking them out and setting up briefings. Even if your company is not making any major announcements, they’ll be happy to meet with you, if only to pick your brain about what’s being presented. Here’s your opportunity to showcase your technical knowledge beyond the confines of the event itself. Play your cards right and your comments may appear in the event coverage of a well-known industry publication.

 Optimize Networking Opportunities

Whether or not you exhibit at an event, chances are the situation is ripe for building relationships with potential customers. Engage your sales force and assign one individual within your organization as the sole point-of-contact for all logistical considerations. Your agency rep will work with that contact to schedule formal business meetings in addition to meetings with the press. This will streamline the organizational and decision-making processes.

Follow-Up Is Key

Don’t think the conference is over once the closing remarks are made. Take the time to enter those business cards in Outlook, connect on LinkedIn and email that editor who offered an opportunity to publish an article based on the paper you presented. Following up is key to making the most of each conference opportunity.