At Prichard, we’re big fans of professional conferences for social change communicators. Our favorites include the annual events sponsored by frank and The Nonprofit Technology Enterprise Network. These and other gatherings offer terrific opportunities to share ideas, reconnect with old colleagues, and make new friends.

At the end of this month, my colleague Jenna Cerruti and I go to Detroit for the sold out 2016 conference of The Communications Network. We’ll help our clients at The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation give a workshop on the strategic questions foundations should consider in communications support to grantees.

Whether it’s a big national meeting or a small local workshop, conferences offer an opportunity to meet leaders in your field, connect with your peers, and learn new skills, too.

But how can you make the most of these events?

Here are six steps I recommend you take at any social change conference:

Know Your Goals Before You Sign Up

Before you hit the send button on the online registration form, know what you want to accomplish. Have a clear idea of what you intend to gain at a conference before you arrive.

Possible goals might include exploring new ideas, meeting leaders in your field, or finding new vendors. Knowing what you want to accomplish upfront can also help demonstrate the value of the conference to your boss, making it easy for them to say yes to your attendance.

Plan Ahead, Not on the Fly

Study the conference website, especially the agenda, and map out the events you want to attend. Review the speakers’ biographies and blogs so you can ask informed questions or get the most out of conversations when you meet.

Check online registration lists to see if former colleagues or people you’ve met at previous conferences will be there. Reach out ahead of time to schedule a coffee or meal to catch up.   

Networking: Lather, Rinse, Repeat

Some of the most productive times at professional events come in the conversations between sessions in hallways or at meals with other participants. These connections can lead to new ideas and business relationships.

Chat up the person next to you before a workshop starts or at the lunch program. Introduce yourself at receptions. People will be grateful for your interest. And you’ll have great conversations and make new contacts.

Networking can be challenging, especially if you’re shy. To make the most of your opportunities at a conference, brush up on your skills before you arrive. Check out these networking tips for introverts from the Harvard Business Review.

Share What You Learn Online and in Real Time

You can increase your visibility and help others by sharing online what you learn at any event. Tweet what you hear in sessions, retweet what others say, and always use the conference hashtag. Set up a public Twitter list for the event and add speakers and attendees. Use this list to stay in touch with other attendees after the event.

Livestream sessions via Facebook or Periscope. Post photos of presenters on Twitter, Instagram, or Snapchat. Live blog a session. Attendees, organizers, and presenters will see and appreciate your contributions and will also want to engage with you.

Ask Questions, Don’t Give Speeches

Stay for the Q&A. Some of the most interesting learnings come from the Q&A sessions after the speaker. Listen to these conversations to hear reactions or get fodder that can spark new and interesting one-on-one conversations.

Follow Up When You Get Home

Ever returned from a conference with a stack of cards that gathered dust for months before you tossed them in the recycling bin? Don’t let those contacts go to waste.

When you return to the office, invite the people you met to connect with you on LinkedIn. Look for ways to stay in touch, such as interacting with them on Twitter and LinkedIn or leaving comments on their blog or LinkedIn posts.

Perhaps you have unexpected shared connections that can help you in your work. You never know how these relationships may come in handy down the line.

What about you? What suggestions do you have for conference networking?