Taming Conference Business Cards with Customer Support Tactics

Last week, I attended the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing in Minneapolis. It was inspiring, intense, vibrant, and information-rich, and gave me a lot of fire for the year ahead.

Like several other conferences before it (previous GHCs, Open Source Bridge, and unconferences here in Portland), I met a bunch of interesting, engaging people. I also got a bunch of business cards from those same people.

Unlike every previous conference, however, I actually reached out to every single one of them within 12 hours of getting back home.

This made me feel like a wizard, and it wasn’t nearly as hard as I feared it might be.

Overwhelmed by the very idea? You can do this, too. Let’s talk about how.

Step 0: Make notes as you meet people

Not doing this won’t ruin anything, but being able to refresh someone’s memory is a boon for that connection.

Keep a pen on hand, and when you get a new card, make a quick note about what you talked about, or why this person was interesting.

The kinds of things I wrote down this time:

  • Book recommendations
  • What context I met someone in (e.g. outside a full session, in a particular session about XYZ topic)
  • The type of work someone does in the field
  • Interests we have in common


Unless you had a particularly amazing conversation, you are unlikely to remember these small details later.

Step 1: Gather your materials

This is your mise en place. It’s also a nice quick success: you can put business cards in a pile! Done.

Step 2: Compile your snippets

This is the secret sauce: you don’t need to specially handcraft every single email you write to someone. This goes double for people you meet in a single context (e.g. everyone you met at a conference).

In my customer relations work, writing every single message from scratch every single time would burn me out fast. Don’t get me wrong: I give a lot of attention to everything I write. But there are lots of pieces I can reuse frequently, saving myself a little time and mental load.

You can write all these a single time, from your email or a plain ol’ text editor:

  • Email subject (e.g. “Great to meet you at XYZ Conference 2013”)
  • Greeting (e.g. “It was a pleasure to meet you at XYZ Conference this year!”)
  • Anything you expect to need more than once (e.g. “If you know anyone looking for $POSITION in $MYCITY, let me know — we’re hiring.”)
  • Closing (e.g. “Hope your trip home went well, and let me know if you’re ever in $MYCITY!”)
  • Signature, if it’s different than what you’d normally use. (I have a clean, short email signature for work, but for this kind of thing, I wanted to include more information — like my Twitter handle.)


If you use a program that will automatically expand keywords (like Alfred or TextExpander), you can even set up little shortcuts for these.

Step 3: Fill in the blanks

Now you can fly. For each person:

  • snap together your snippets like LEGO pieces
  • fill in anything extra that’s specific to that person (like what you wrote down on their card: “thanks for the Streetfighting Mathematics recommendation,” “I’d love to talk more with you about LMNOP,” “it’s so great to meet someone doing similar work”)
  • and save it.


I found that for some shallower connections, the greeting and closing pretty much covered it. For new people I really hit it off with, I took more time and wrote more.

Step 4: Send and smile

Paste your messages into your email (if you weren’t writing there), send them, and bask in your proactive glory.

You’re awesome.

What I did this time that made the difference

In previous years, my tactic was “gather cards, keep forever, feel shame about lack of followthrough, don’t write back because it’s been too long, but don’t throw them out because I might need them…someday.”

This eventually evolved to the exact same progression, but with responsible contextual notes on each card. This is essentially useless, since it’s missing the action piece.

Not exactly the wizard stuff I was aiming for.

This year, I diligently wrote my notes down on cards, but I went further. This time, I:

  • Dropped cards in the back of my badge each day, and put them in a central location at the end of the day
  • Opened a text document on the flight home, so I could do email work without the internet (the internet does not want you to get this done)
  • Typed the person’s email address at the top, then compiled my message to them right below, finishing with *** to distinguish between emails (Markdown-friendly!)
  • Wrote “√ draft” on each card to remind myself that I’d drafted an email to that person.

My drafts looked something like this (and yeah, sometimes I use a lot of exclamation points — especially if I have such an energizing week). The *sent* I added after I’d actually sent the email, because I like leaving breadcrumbs for myself.

Sample email to a contact: email address, greeting, something specific to the person, 'Cheers from Portland', expanded email signature

When I got back to the internet, I opened my email, then looped through these:

  • Created a new message
  • Pasted in the email address
  • Pasted in my subject line (“Beyond Grace Hopper 2013!” for most of them)
  • Pasted in the message I’d already written to that person
  • Sent it off
  • Basked in the glow of dopamine

Why I even bothered

There are several reasons:

  • Now I can search for their info in my inbox (name, email, notes I wrote on the back of the card). Way easier than searching through paper business cards.
  • I’m sure they have my information now. (I lost my business cards right before the conference, so I grabbed company stickers and wrote my email on the back. It worked, but it wasn’t much to go on.)
  • I don’t have to keep all these freaking cards anymore, unless they’re particularly awesome.
  • I’m not on the LinkedIn train, and I haven’t decided whether I want to be. Either way, this is more personal.
  • I want to be the kind of person who promptly writes back to new friends or professional contacts, and I want to be perceived as a person who does this.


If you’ve got field-tested strategies that have worked for you, I’d love to hear them!

2 thoughts on “Taming Conference Business Cards with Customer Support Tactics”

  1. I have done a version of this over the last two years, and it has been pretty darn great. If I don’t write the emails within one week, I’ve given myself permission to not bother. And writing info about the person on their card has been hugely helpful.

    I am working on not promising more than I can deliver when I meet someone (“I would love to check out your new service” instead of “I’ll be a beta-tester and do a million hours of free testing”).

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