Tips and advice for ONA conference first-timers

Even for seasoned attendees, the Online News Association’s annual conference is a blur of trainings, networking functions and round-the-clock social engagements. For first-time attendees, ONA18’s 80+ educational sessions, 15+ official networking functions and 20+ high-level sponsored events — to say nothing of the many informal and offsite meet-ups — can feel overwhelming.

Consider these tips to help you approach all of the learning and professional development opportunities with confidence.

1. Conference prep for the unprepared

Download the Guidebook conference app and create your own schedule of sessions and networking events, chat and set up meeting times, leave feedback and access the social and activities feed.

Note: guidebook requires a passphrase when you search for a guide. Simply type ONA18 and you’ll be on your way!

Roughly map out your three days, sorting prospective activities into “must-do” and “other.” Remember to set reminders, arrive early and RSVP (where necessary) for high-interest sessions.

You should also take a look at the conference attendee list (sent to you via email) and think about who you want to meet, why, when, how you’d like to introduce yourself and which aspects of your professional and personal life to emphasize.

2. Making sense of a full program

With your schedule somewhere between full and bursting, you might feel like you need to be in several places at once. There are ways to get your program down to a manageable size, however, without missing wide swaths of the weekend.

You might sort the program by one of five ONA18 learning tracks:

Or, consider whether you’d prefer a lean-back learning environment, like a masterclass, or an interactive one, like a workshop.

When in doubt, give yourself a break. Getting some rest will help you make the most of the intensive program. Go to bed early on one of the nights. Skip something cool to grab a bite with a new friend. Give your brain a moment to process. Virtually every session will have digital docs posted.

3. Networking doesn’t have to be so hard

Regardless of where you sit on the intro-to-extrovert scale, networking at ONA18 needn’t be a chore. About half of all attendees are first-timers, so when it seems like everyone knows what they’re doing, remember that they are more like you than you think.

Remember that your passion—your interests, ambitions, dreams and hobbies—is what makes you interesting. Lead with it, and try to discover the same in the people you are talking to. Show an interest by asking a question, and then follow up with three more.

When in doubt, dumbstruck by social terror or drowning in shop-talk, look to strike diverse connections. Seek out someone who doesn’t look like you, who is different in generation, area code, background and experience.

4. Things one recent first-timer wish she’d known

Corvaya Jeffries, an Associate Producer at CNN, had a whirlwind, exciting time as a first-timer at ONA17. Still, there are a few things that she wishes she had known coming into last year’s conference

For example, you cannot get to everyone in a day. You might not get to everyone in three days.

That you won’t get enough rest unless you plan to get enough rest.

That you should dress comfortably and like yourself, but make a point to stand out: If it’s your favorite bright lipstick or a conversation-piece button, make sure that people remember you, even just enough to say “Hi.”

That you should set a robust away message, explaining where you are and why, and give people a chance to check in with you on social media.

That you need to not only take notes, but read and edit them. If not every day, then at the close of the conference. The days are so packed, you’re bound to lose track of things you don’t note.

5. Taking it all back home

It is heartbreakingly possible to get through three days of high-intensity learning and networking, arrive back at your desk Monday morning and remember … virtually nothing you learned.

To counteract this, consider organizing a brown bag lunch to talk about specific lessons or share conference materials to prompt a broader conversation.

Here’s another tip: Identifying even a single experiment that you can take home to your work environment can make the difference between feeling like you came up empty and growing professionally from the experience.

Finally, if ONA18 proves to be the kind of productive experience that we know it can be, consider joining one of the dozens of ONA Local groups around the globe, or even starting one in your hometown to keep the inspiration and learning going beyond the conference.Join your ONA Local group, or start your own!