A few weeks ago, I went to FutureM, a marketing conference in Boston organized by the Massachusetts Innovation and Technology Exchange. I’m sharing my experience to give other students an idea of what a professional conference is like and why they should consider going to one.If you asked students why they haven’t gone to a professional conference, they’d probably say something along the lines of: What? I didn’t even know that was happening.I don’t have time, I’ve got classes.Doesn’t that cost like five hundred bucks?Why would I go to a professional conference if I’m not a professional? It’s not for me.I found out about this conference through the Career Center and Imaginet (Tufts’ marketing club), but you could also take initiative and stay on top of the local scene using social media – by joining a Boston LinkedIn group in your field, or following local companies on Twitter (they tweet about how they’re attending or speaking at conferences).Even though classes prevented me from going to most of the three-day conference, I had no classes on Friday. Likewise, maybe you’re done with classes by 12 and could make the last four hours of the conference on two days, or maybe you have no classes till 3 on one day and can go to all the morning sessions. Even one day of sessions was worth it to me, since I only had to pay the student rate of $35. Many conferences have a steep discount for students, if you poke around. While there’s no central Tufts fund for professional development, you can sometimes get your department to pay for some or all of your registration fee. As for the last reason, I’ll address that later.What’s it like?It was my first professional conference, and since most students haven’t been to one I thought it might be useful to give you an idea of what it’s like. Types of sessions: Each day started and ended with a Keynote Lecture by particularly notable speakers, attended by everyone. After that, most sessions took the form of panel discussions, in which a moderator would ask a broad, open-ended question and then each panelist would answer, followed by a looser round table discussion for maybe 15 minutes and questions/comments from the audience. A few companies or researchers gave solo presentations on their area of expertise, such as “Connect with the Sports Fan Through Marketing and Technology” presented by Turner Sports. And there were one or two demos, like three members of Google Glass’ Explorer program talking about the technology’s effect on changing the brand/consumer interaction. All these different types of events went on simultaneously, with 3 – 5 options in each scheduling block. Lastly, passes included at least one after-hours social event each night, to give opportunities for networking and having fun. These social events ranged from an unstructured mixer at a pub, to a “fireside chat” with a career guru, to Boston.com’s Hive 25 Under 25 awards and afterparty. The type of events will obviously differ depending on the industry, but I think this was a good representation of the potential variety. One thing this conference lacked is breakout discussions – talking in small groups – which is useful for generating a variety of different ideas about the same topic, or for delegating different topics so the group as a whole can tackle multiple things at once. Tips: At any conference, I recommend that you check out the schedule ahead of time, and pick sessions based on topics and speakers who interest you. Personally, I made a point of going to see speakers that work for companies I’m interested in. That gives me a feel for the company’s style, and allowed me to tweet at them in hopes of getting noticed. If you really want to be prepared, you can come up with questions for the speakers ahead of time to ensure that you engage with them during the session, and that opens the door for a follow-up conversation after the session where you can really connect.Social protocols: I didn’t know what to expect at the conference, but the atmosphere turned out to be more relaxed than I had assumed. I saw people in everything from a full suit and tie, to leggings and neon Nikes. But most people went with “business casual,” like a collared shirt and khakis, so that’s what I’d advise. The tech etiquette also surprised me – about a third of the attendees had their laptops, phones, or tablets out, and I saw people openly checking their email (but nothing blatant like Facebook). Since this was a marketing conference the expectation was that participants would be engaging on a second screen – tweeting quotes and having a real-time discussion with other attendees. The social protocols will be different at every conference, so err on the side of caution, but I’d say you should dress professionally and bring both a notebook and a laptop, so you have that option in electronics use is socially acceptable.Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself to your neighbor while you’re waiting for a session to start – I met a guy who just founded a startup, and it turns out they’re a client of the marketing agency I interned at over the summer. I love the concept of the company, and I now know someone internally if I ever apply for a job with them.Why students should go to professional conferences:On the face of it, you go to a professional conference to gain exposure to cutting edge ideas, new resources, and debates in the industry. This exposure improves your analytical thinking on issues in your field, in the same way that regularly reading business magazines hones your business sense as you start to get a feel for common reasons that companies succeed, etc. Furthermore, a conference features the hot topics of the industry, which make good interview questions, so it’s helpful if you’ve thought about them. For example, I just applied for a summer fellowship and one of the essay questions was “What media industry issues within the past year do you think have had, or will have, the greatest impact (positive and/or negative) on the future of the electronic media business?” FutureM is all about the future of marketing, so this is exactly the sort of thing I heard discussed on panels.On a more immediate/practical level, going to a conference helps you get more engaged in the local industry. I connected with FutureM and MITX on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, where I’m exposed to discussions and job postings. By noting where speakers worked, I discovered a lot of local companies I can now apply to after graduation. I made a few face to face connections by talking to panelists after the session, but most of my new engagement took place on Twitter: After the conference, I looked up all the speakers I saw and their respective companies on Twitter, and followed the ones that seemed useful. By using and following the FutureM hashtag, I got new followers and found new people who tweet about marketing to follow. Some of the speakers even followed me after I tweeted things they said.Why does something as small as following a person on Twitter matter? Besides general engagement with what’s going on in marketing and the local scene, I can read a link they posted and reply with an interesting comment, which at the least gets my name into their heads. And following local marketing people and companies means that I’ll see it if they post about a job opportunity.Then when I apply, the conference makes a good intro/talking point for interviews and cover letters (“I first became interested in your company after I saw so and so speak…”), because it shows initiative. At one panel, a guy stood up to ask a question and introduced himself with his name and “I’m a student at BU,” and one of the panelists joked about how people should take his resume. It’s impressive if you’re so on top of your game that you’re already attending professional conferences as a student. You stick out because it’s clear that you’re serious about going into this profession and you’ve been working hard to learn and prepare.