The best conferences for freelancers bring a mix of different opportunities to the table, from networking with other freelancers to helping you meet clients and enhancing your skills. Inc. notes that it’s important to evaluate the quality of an event and determine whether it’s the right fit for what you need at this stage in your career.
I’m not a natural networker. Given the choice, I’d rather stay in my office, writing by the fire. Mixing with strangers in a more than one-on-one setting generally gives me hives, and I’m not alone among many other freelancers who likely feel the same. But the realities of today’s market demand that you feel comfortable networking, connecting with potential clients and getting to know your peers. Conferences are one of the best venues for these practices, and they often allow you to tackle multiple goals at once.
Determine Your Budget
When thinking about your conference objectives, you’ll first want to consider your budget. Opportunities range from massive events with thousands of attendees that will cost you a few hundred dollars to semiprivate events with tuition in the thousands. Each year, I look at my cash flow from the previous year and my projected income for the year ahead, so I can set aside a professional development budget. The majority of that money goes toward covering participation in conferences.
Once you have insight into what you can spend, you can evaluate your options. On the budget side, don’t forgot that in addition to workshops and conference attendance fees, you may also need to cover lodging, travel, food and other expenses — as well as factor in time away from work or accommodations (such as childcare), which will allow you to make up that work in the evening or on a weekend.
Focus on Your Stage of Business
As with many areas of your freelance business, what you’re hoping to get out of conferences will evolve as your business grows. For example, very early on — in fact, even before I took the leap to freelancing full-time — I heavily invested in conferences with a strong learning angle. There were several areas I identified as important to my future trajectory: SEO, social media and writing for the web. I attended a range of different conferences that included detailed workshops and sessions providing the latest information on these topics.
Today, while conferences help me stay up to date in my field, I’m more focused on attending events that allow me to network with other freelancers or connect with prospective clients. I measure return on investment (ROI) in terms of conferences that help me grow my relationships or win new business. Learning is still important, but it’s only one component. One exception is an event you can attend to learn a whole new skill, which may launch a new service line for your business. I spent several hundred dollars to attend a deep dive training into video script writing, which proved to be a valuable addition to my skill set and added thousands to my bottom line.
Assess What’s Right for You
To bring it all together, there are three things you should think about when evaluating a specific conference:
- How much it will cost you to attend, including registration fees, travel and other expenses?
- What’s your primary goal this year? For example, are you interested in expanding your skill set or meeting new clients in a certain niche, and can this conference help you achieve that goal?
- When you compare your goals to the expenditure for the conference, does the potential output make sense for the investment?
Consider an example: If your goal is to learn how to use a new Adobe product so you can expand your design services, a $995 hands-on workshop that will get you to intermediate level and allow you to immediately start working for clients makes sense. If you’re a mid-level designer thinking about how to develop a steady stream of potential clients, that workshop makes less sense. A general conference might not even be the right choice, unless it offers an event allowing attendees to pitch their services to a number of potential clients. ROI comes down to value generated for dollars spent, as well as knowledge and contacts gained.
Ultimately, some of the best conferences for freelancers will gain you ROI beyond your plan. These can take the shape of a freelance friend who refers you for gigs time and again, your creative well-being replenished or a niche coming into your life you never considered. In others, your ROI calculations will be more mercenary: If you spend $500 on a conference, you expect to make at least three times that amount from business secured there. Take the time to plan your conference season with your professional goals, business plans and creative interests all on the table, and then determine what’s possible with your budget and time.
If you’ve attended the same conferences with the same people year after year, consider shaking things up. As your needs change in different phases of your business development, it’s important to have variety in the conferences you attend. An established writer might benefit one year from meeting other writers and forming a community for feedback. Another year might be the time to whet their tools and refresh their writing with new approaches, niches and tools. Finally, in another year, it’s time to be ruthless in pursuit of new opportunities to keep the business growing.
Continuously ask what you want to achieve and why you think this event can deliver. This type of introspection will connect you with the learning and business opportunities that can really grow your freelance business.