One of the most exciting things about working in social media is that the industry is always evolving. Conferences are great opportunities to learn about emerging networks, new strategies and consumer behaviors, and there are some fantastic events in the US and beyond. But attending big name events isn’t the only way to learn something new and meet fellow social media professionals.

After 15 years working in event marketing, I’ve found that the biggest events aren’t always the best. Some of the most valuable events I’ve attended are community-driven, local opportunities. Since no one is lucky enough to have unlimited time (or an unlimited budget), here are some tips on how to find the best mix of events to attend in 2016 and narrow down which ones might be right for you.

Focus on Learning & Connections

As you start to research social media events, think about how you want to grow professionally in 2016. If there are certain topics you’d like to learn about—social media analytics, community management, social advertising—make sure to seek out events, panels and presentations that offer in-depth insights into those fields.

Consider what types of people you’d like to meet too. Social media is widespread enough that there are large and small events dedicated to specific audiences: community managers, CMOs, social media managers, brand marketers and more. Smaller and more focused events often foster deeper conversations about specific topics—a great way to make meaningful connections that will transcend your event experience.

Find Great Local Events

As you start to plan your approach for 2016, I recommend starting with events in your own backyard. Even if you aren’t in a major metropolitan area, people are likely talking about social media—it’s just a question of tapping into the right networks.

Start your search by looking at professional associations and local organizations that focus on marketing and social media. If you’re interested in a broader range of events for marketers, groups such as the Word of Mouth Marketing Association and American Marketing Association often hold local events in cities around the US in addition to their annual conferences.

If you’re looking for local social media events, check out organizations like CMX, a hub for community professionals, and Social Media Club. Both groups have chapters around the world that regularly hold events for local professionals. Sarah Nagel, Community Outreach Manager at Sprout, is part of the CMX Chicago team, which focuses on helping community managers learn, grow and continue to build the community industry.

Participate in the Larger Events That Are Right for You

There are plenty of huge social media events around the world—but just because an event attracts thousands of people doesn’t mean it’s the best opportunity for you. If attending a couple larger conferences is part of your plan for the year, you want to get the most value possible out of these experiences. I’d suggest looking for established events that not only promise valuable content but have clearly delivered year after year.

A quick search for terms like “social media conference” will bring up plenty of options. As you evaluate different options, take some time to learn about how each event is run. Here are a few questions to ask yourself as you research:

  • Who is the target audience for the conference?
  • Is the event focused on presentations? Networking? Parties? An expo? Does this align with what you’re looking for and the kind of events you enjoy?
  • Who are the speakers, and what have they accomplished in their fields?
  • How are sponsors incorporated? Are speakers primarily from sponsoring companies, or is there a good mix?
  • Are there specific sessions on the agenda that interest you? If the conference hasn’t released its agenda yet, see if you can find last year’s.

If you’re looking for social media conferences, social media itself is a smart place to start. Live-Tweeting events has become increasingly popular, and unsurprisingly, it’s a skill at which social media pros excel. As you evaluate an event, look for posts using the event hashtag to see insights from previous years and learn what people thought of it.

Asking your own networks is another good way to get trustworthy recommendations for events. Try posting in industry-related LinkedIn groups, and, if you participate in our #SproutChat on Twitter or our #SproutChat Facebook Group, throw in a question for the community to see what events others would recommend.

Some Recommendations

After attending hundreds of social media and marketing events, I do have a few favorites. If you’re looking for a valuable event experience in 2016, I would recommend checking out these larger events:

Tell Us What You Think

As you plan your events calendar for 2016, we’d be honored if you join Team Sprout at one of the events we’ll be hosting, speaking at or attending. Check out our events page for the most up-to-date list.

Which marketing and social media events have you found most valuable? Are there other community organizations Insights readers should check out?