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Marketing conferences can be more than just a way to spend a weekend in a hotel ballroom with 800 strangers. While getting away to a gathering of industry professionals every now and again can be a good respite for body and soul, and it's a good source of free lanyards and pens, but you really shouldn't discount the benefits of a good conference to advance your career, even if you're a marketing newbie.

Where should you go for your next (or first!) conference? Instead of heading to the mega-conferences like SXSW or Inbound, which boast tens of thousands in attendance each year, try a smaller conference nearby, so you can minimize expenses for travel and fees, and have a better chance to meet people in your field more intimately, not just a quick meet and move on.

At a conference, you can really boost your career development, like networking (or networking practice), learning about new technologies available for your job, learning about innovations in career-adjacent subjects, make friends, just get a career recharge, and yes, get some swag.

Here are a few great conferences coming up that you might consider:

Get Designed

images.pngAt the HOW Design Live conference, you can meet a lot of creative all under one roof, and enjoy the kind of schedule busting that comes from having too many speakers to fit into one weekend. They boast up to 100 educational sessions and keynote speakers, and are a draw not only for graphic designers of all stripes, they also partner with the American Marketing Association to co-host the HOW Marketing Live conference in the same space to discuss the intersection between marketing and design.

Why go to this four-day event? Past attendee and professional graphic designer Sarah Walker says, "They get great speakers and it's a fantastic chance to get to peek inside the heads of the leading brilliant minds in my field."

Walker attended HOW when she was still in design school. She still thinks about the speakers she heard there, even years later. "It was inspiring," Walker said, to hear stories that were very relatable, from designers working in cities all over the country, not just major markets. She said there were lots of practical tips shared from seasoned professionals that she still holds dear.

She also remarks that was a great networking environment, where you can make connections everywhere you go, so brush off your elevator pitch before you attend.

The next HOW conference takes place in Boston, April 30-May 3, 2018.

Get Social

social media week.jpgBesides the networking that comes with attending conferences, you can try going to gatherings that are built around innovations in social media itself, even if your job doesn't involve managing someone's Twitter account 24/7. Social Media Week aims to work to spread ideas and opportunities at the intersection of media, marketing, and technology. Founders estimate their attendees are mostly young — 73% aged 21-35 — and 49% work in marketing, media and communications., but limits main conference attendance to just 700 people, which keeps things intimate. This year's conference theme is "Language and the Machine" and "examines how algorithms are shaping human language communication."

The next SMW takes place in Chicago, November 13-17, 2017. Can't attend? See what's happening near you, at one of the SMW events in 22+ cities around the world, or look to when SMW is coming to your town.

You're In for a Food Industry Fill Up

When it comes to working with the food industry, whether you're in the restaurant marketing business, or just part of a creative group with a lot of clients who like to stay on-trend, try the National Confectionery Association's Sweets and Snacks Expo in Chicago.

It's "amazingly well organized, offers a ton of relevant industry trends and data at presentations, and is very helpful to trade press. The plentiful product samples don't hurt, either," says Jenni Spinner, a freelance writer who's attended a few times.

Be careful what you wish for, however! Taking a sample at every booth might add up to more than you bargained for at this Expo.

"My first year I ended up bringing home 40 lbs. [of free samples]. I've since learned to dial that back," Spinner added.

The next Sweets and Snacks Expo takes place May 22 – 24, 2018.

Celebrate Women in Your Industry

grace hopper.pngIf you're a woman in a creative, tech, or marketing role, and you'd like to connect with others in your field, there are conferences for that, too!

Tech professionals should check out the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference. It calls itself the world's largest gathering of women technologists. Keynote speakers often range from the heavy hitters of the tech industry, like this year's speaker Melinda Gates, and the geek elite like Debbie Sterling (CEO and Founder of girl-centric learning tool GoldieBlox).  They boast over 200 sessions with 700 speakers, and conference founders aim to learn how to build inclusive cultures and find technical talent. This is a great conference if you're looking to boost tech in your field, or just connect with a lot of inspiring entrepreneurs.

Keep an eye out for next year's conference date announcement.

Writers and creatives interested in promoting women in their industry can try attending BlogHer conferences around the country. This female writer-oriented series includes a general conference (BlogHer 17 just wrapped up), a health and wellness writer oriented conference (BlogHer Health 18, taking place January 30-31, 2018 in New York City). All conferences are built around promoting female content creators, social media influencers, entrepreneurs, media makers and brand marketers.

"I've been to at least four BlogHers and enjoyed my time there," says Veronica I. Arreola, professional feminist. "I have been on a panel three of the four, including giving a talk before a keynote speaker in 2015," Arreola said.

There are some drawbacks to this conference, at least in the minds of some attendees over the years. "The biggest complaint I hear and do share is that Blogher is super commercial," Arreola said. "Brands attend to get the attention of women who might write about their products on their blog or social media accounts."

Remember: a conference is only as good as your efforts to get something out of it. This goes for Arreola at BlogHer as well.

"For me, I go and stick to the political and advocacy track. That is where I get to see my friends who have been writing and organizing online about how politics impacts our every day lives from parenting to public education for a long time. Those are my people and I hang with them. I wish I could go every year," she said. 

Go Local

forward fest.pngThere are conferences all over the world, and you don't have to live in a major city (or visit one) to attend something cool. Take the Forward Festival in Madison, Wisconsin, for example. Their intent is to connect "entrepreneurs, nerds, geeks, hackers, foodies, and creatives from the Midwest in an 8-day celebration of innovation and entrepreneurship." They offered 40+ events for 2,000+ attendees this past August, and are in the process of planning the ninth year of the event already, set for August 16-23, 2018.

Co-Founder Matt Younkle has this to say about the Forward Fest:

"You'd attend the Forward Fest to take in the authentic entrepreneurial vibe of Madison...of the Midwest. While the Forward Fest has grown a bunch since 2010, the event remains 100% organized and led by volunteers. We're friendly, approachable and a lot less 'corporate' than big tech events. We even brew our own beer each year with a crowd-sourced recipe: the Forward Festive-Ale!"

In Raleigh, North Carolina, the area known as "The Triangle" of higher education, tech and medical innovation, is also home to one of the East Coast's largest marketing communities. The High 5 Conference celebrates the intersection of not only marketing and creatives, but also innovation that comes when you live in a thriving high-tech corridor. Workshops planned for 2018's conference include behind-the-scenes peeks with Aaron Draplin of Draplin Design Co., behind super efficient with Neen James, and ramping up your content marketing chops.

Know of other great conferences coming up? Let us know in the comments!