If there’s one consensus around virtual events, it’s that they’re great for delivering educational content, but fall short when it comes to networking. Nine out of ten exhibitors agreed live events are better for networking than virtual events. But why is this? Virtual networking should in theory open whole new opportunities to connect and collaborate on a larger scale.
Part of the problem is that event organizers haven’t embraced the power of digital networking; they simply tried to make in-person networking models fit into an online mold. Unfortunately, these unstructured, free-flowing, chat-with-whoever-is-in-the-room models just don’t transfer well into the virtual space. So what is the solution?
The recent Virtual Networking Incubator produced by Matchbox Virtual Media provides insights into some effective strategies event professionals can use to improve their virtual networking events. We’ve combined some of their insights with our own to bring you eight effective strategies to improve your virtual networking.
Define your audience
To deliver a successful virtual networking event you want to start with your audience in mind. Become familiar with who they are and how they relate to one another, what they are trying to achieve, and who they want to meet at your event.
First, consider whether or not your attendees have already been introduced, or if they’re total strangers. The level of familiarity your attendees have with one another will ultimately dictate how you structure your event. If your attendees already know each other, you won’t need to provide as much structure as you would for a group of strangers, who typically require more prompting to participate with confidence.
Second, think carefully about attendee goals. The reasons for attending a virtual networking event vary but here are some common networking outcomes listed by Matchbox:
1. Get emotional support/vent/normalize experiences
2. Discover vendors or consultants to work with
3. Solve problems/brainstorm solutions
4. Find a mentor or be a mentor
5. Identify future collaborators
6. Prepare for a job change
7. Make friends/have fun
8. Spot future trends
Now that you know who your attendees are and what they are hoping to achieve, you can start to design your event.
Design for the outcome
A successful virtual networking event is one that is designed with the outcome in mind. Understanding your audience and their motivation for engaging provides a useful starting point for deciding how you will run your virtual networking event.
For example, if you are organizing an event for strangers who want to identify future collaborators, you’ll need to provide considerable structure to the event so attendees don’t become lost and disengaged. You can create structure in a number of ways by including icebreaker questions to stimulate conversations, or by using a ‘speed dating’ style round to enable one-to-one interactions.
If you can, put together a test group of people from your organizing committee, or round up volunteers. It’s a great way to try out different activities and learn what works for your audience before the actual event.
Give attendees choice and control
Allow attendees to choose which conversations they would like to enter, and give them the option to leave at will. Networking tools like Wonder are great for enabling this type of autonomy. They allow attendees to pick which circles (conversations) they would like to enter, but also allow attendees to leave so they can explore other conversations taking place in the room.
Allowing attendees to move freely between conversations gives them autonomy to pursue areas of interest and exit activities that don’t match their professional development goals.
Limit group sizes to 3-4 people
It is easy to make the mistake of making your group sizes too large. Large groups can make it difficult for some attendees to interact and dilute their ability to engage in meaningful conversation with other attendees.
If you want to support meaningful and spontaneous group conversations, research shows that four tends to be the magic number. In a group of three to four people, attendees are more likely to feel engaged and contribute to the conversation.
However, it is important to note that the size of your groups should reflect the anticipated outcome of your event. If attendees are coming to your event to brainstorm, you may find larger groups are better.
Include icebreaker questions to create structure
As mentioned earlier, icebreaker questions are a great way to bring some structure to your virtual networking events. We spoke to Lawrence Coburn, CEO and co-founder of the networking platform Twine, who said, “At Twine, one of the things that we have found while hosting thousands of digital gatherings is that just a little bit of structure can help people get to a more interesting and meaningful conversation, than say a free-form conversation where people tend to gravitate towards small talk. One example of helpful structure is inserting a conversation starter into the networking room; these can be fun and lightweight, or deep and meaningful. Your attendees will appreciate the permission to talk about meaningful topics.”
The true benefit of icebreakers is that they can sow the seeds of amazing friendships, business partnerships, and more. When selected with careful consideration about who your audience is and what they are trying to achieve, they can create a truly memorable experience.
Attract the right people
A key aspect of any good networking event is making sure the right people are in the room.
If you have an audience made up of suppliers and buyers, it is likely that your suppliers want to network with buyers, not other suppliers. This can get tricky with networking events where you have to balance the audience so you don’t have too many suppliers and not enough buyers.
Matchbox suggests that buyers/core members are less likely to attend events with the word ‘networking’ in the title because it could imply a sales focus. To attract more buyers, they suggest defining the event’s value proposition and leading with its outcome. For example:
1. How to Be Productive Whilst Working From Home
2. Learn About Cutting Edge Event Technology
3. Using Data to Improve Attendee Experience
What is it that your audience will be able to achieve by attending? Build out some titles based on your outcome to help attract more buyers to your event over suppliers looking to pitch their products.
Nip socially disruptive behaviours in the bud
It’s an unfortunate reality that not all attendees will be well-behaved and welcoming to others. Some attendees may be prone to interrupting or talking over other participants, while a few may even display passive-aggressive behaviors or use offensive language. The best way to safeguard against these issues is to set clear guidelines for appropriate conduct. Be sure to communicate these expectations in advance of the event. This way all attendees will be aware of what is unacceptable and understand the repercussions for any ill-mannered behaviors. To enforce these policies you can use moderators, set up a way for attendees to report any misconduct, and privately message offenders or eject them from the event.
As a final point, setting clear expectations around the timing of each activity — and establishing ground rules for alternating participation — can help to avoid any single attendee dominating the conversation.
Send attendees an orientation email
The goal of sending an orientation email is to help your attendees prepare for your event. This is particularly useful for the introverts and ambiverts in your audience.
If you plan to cover specific topics/themes at your virtual networking event, it is worth including them in your orientation email. Consider also sharing some of your icebreaker questions so attendees don’t feel totally put on the spot.
A good orientation email allows attendees to hit the ground running and should help increase engagement. It can also familiarize attendees with the technology being used and the format of the event.
Virtual networking holds great promise with the ability to reach many more people than you would at an in-person event. However, the past year has demonstrated that it isn’t enough to take the ballroom networking format and just put it online.
What lies at the heart of a successful virtual networking event is structure. By providing more structure to your events in the form of icebreaker questions, countdown timers etc. you’ll better enable attendees to meet their objectives and encourage meaningful interactions.