How to create virtual networking experiences that your attendees truly love.
Contributed by Kateryna Serhiyenko
Love it or dread it, networking is one of the most important components of any event. After the shift to virtual events, organizers have needed to create networking experiences as sophisticated, social and connected as the IRL equivalent.
Some hosts have struggled to create comparable virtual networking centers, but we’ve seen many more execute valuable networking experiences that attendees truly love. Done right, virtual networking can be just as productive as the IRL equivalent. Here’s why:
Connect with a wider group of people: Since virtual events are more scalable than IRL gatherings, your attendees will be able to connect with a wider range of people than they would at an in-person setting. Want to attract investors from Europe and Asia? Now’s your chance.
Follow up more efficiently: Many virtual event platforms integrate with email and scheduling apps, so attendees can put follow-up meetings on their calendars, on the spot. No lost business cards or forgotten follow-up emails here.
Prepare and prioritize for greater success: Event microsites open a week before the event, letting guests scope out who will be in attendance and plan their networking priorities in advance.
But as anyone who’s tried a dating app can attest, making friends online is… awkward. Some of your guests might write off the idea of networking off the bat, no matter how sophisticated your event’s virtual networking features are.
So to create a valuable virtual networking experience, you need to understand what keeps people from networking virtually, then design a virtual networking experience that resolves those issues:
Less individual interaction: At a virtual event, there’s nobody sitting next to you at the keynote or stuck in line for the bathroom with you. So in an online setting, guests need to actively seek out opportunities to talk to people one-on-one—and many don’t.
Limited time: Virtual events tend to be shorter, with less “extracurricular” outings that lend themselves to meeting new people. The compressed schedule makes it more difficult to approach all of your desired contacts, much less conduct meaningful conversations with all of them.
Lack of body language or cues: Face-to-face, it’s easy to tell whether your new contact is buying what you’re selling. Open body language here, strong eye contact there, and you know to follow up ASAP. Without that context, it’s hard to sell yourself confidently or determine a proper follow-up strategy, so many people just don’t network virtually at all.
Once you understand your audience’s potential concerns, you can design a virtual networking experience that combats them.
Build your Networking Experience:
As you plan your event, build your virtual networking center with the following in mind:
Open networking early: Especially in a virtual environment, guests may not feel comfortable making introductions to other guests right away. Prepare your guests for virtual networking by opening the Networking Center three days before the event starts. This way, guests can identify potential contacts and get warmed up, then jump into networking as soon as the event begins. (Pro tip: Have attendees submit a video introduction so they can start the event on a personal note.)
Give attendees Virtual Business Cards: Help your attendees position themselves to potential connections by creating Virtual Business Cards, individual profiles with the person’s name, title, headshot, social media and email links and a short professional bio. This way, your attendees can spotlight their expertise and spot prospective connections more quickly.
Provide pre-scheduled networking calls: If your event is only a day long, you don’t want guests spending a few hours scheduling a good time to talk. Allow guests to pre-schedule video calls with key contacts, so they aren’t distracted by other programming during the main event.
Facilitate targeted networking experiences with filters: Come noon on event day, your guests are probably going to be picking between networking and a lunch break. They’ll be more likely to pick the former if they know they’ll get some bang for their buck. In the Networking Center, include a filter function so attendees can search for people within a certain industry, title or company—then connect with only the most relevant people.
Engage speakers and sponsors: Let’s be real: Your attendees care most about your speakers and their expertise. So the more you can involve those speakers in networking experiences, the more your attendees will get out of those interactions. Highlight who’s going to be attending the event, then include them in networking chat rooms or VIP small group breakout sessions.
Consider creating a matchmaking service: Especially at the executive level, your attendees don’t care about getting a huge number of connections as much as getting a few great ones—the ones that’ll help them hit their Q2 goals, score their next job, etc.. Matchmaking services pair attendees with their most valuable connections for 20-30 minute appointments, ensuring that every conversation’s a valuable one.
Maximizing valuable conversations and minimizing the non-starters, matchmaking creates more efficient and streamlined networking experiences. The improved product allows you to charge a higher rate, creating a whole new pricing tier and elevating the prestige of your event.
Include networking in your pre-event marketing: Using screen recording and documentation, show attendees how they’ll navigate your Networking Center, initiate video calls and create their Virtual Business Cards. This reassures your attendees that they can come out of your event with valuable connections—and could even convince some undecided attendees to sign up.
Then the week before the event, send your attendees an email containing necessary logistical information: how to use their microphones and cameras, required browser and internet settings, etc. to minimize technical issues.
Encourage Event Day Networking
Now that you’ve built a high-powered virtual networking center, it’s time to drive your attendees there. On event day, encourage your attendees to network with our best practices:
Host a pre-event coffee break: This starts the day on a more informal note and gets people socializing before they are consumed by the events of the day. During the session, drop icebreaker questions into the chat to spark conversations among your audience.
Encourage networking during breaks: At IRL events, the most spontaneous interactions happen between sessions—standing in line for coffee, killing time between sessions, passing time while waiting for speakers. The virtual setting keeps those interactions from taking place. So it’s doubly important for organizers to explicitly tell attendees to use the Networking Center during their breaks—or just put a networking break in the agenda itself.
Create smaller discussion groups: Going into the event, your guests may not know exactly who to contact. Small discussion groups, hosted in breakout rooms, gives attendees a chance to get to know several other attendees at once and share their own perspectives. Guests can then identify and start one-on-one conversations with the connections that appear most valuable.
Pro tip: Recruit speakers and sponsors to join a VIP breakout session. This way, your speakers and partners can provide more value to attendees—and you can create a VIP ticket pass for extra revenue.
Host roundtables: Simple, but true: To get people talking, give them something to talk about. Roundtables are moderated sessions in which senior decision-makers discuss pressing, thought-provoking challenges with other executive-level peers. The elevated, complex nature of these sessions lend themselves to deep, rich conversation after the fact. Schedule a brief networking break right after the roundtable to get people buzzing.
Individualize it with one-on-one video chats: It’s easy to pull someone to the side at an IRL event, but historically it’s been harder to have individual conversations at a virtual event. However, BigMarker’s Networking Center allows guests to initiate one-on-one chats and video calls with other attendees. Since this is a relatively new feature, include it in your marketing and instruction manual so people know to take advantage.
Direct attendees to the Networking Center via exit links: Networking is kind of like working out. Getting out the door is hard, but it becomes exponentially easier once you’ve started. The same goes for networking: Use your virtual event platform’s architecture to nudge people toward networking opportunities. When a session ends, use the Exit URL to redirect your attendees straight to the Networking Center. Once your attendees have gotten through the door and see conversations tailored to their interests, they’re more likely to stick around.
Gamify it: Gamification is essentially a series of challenges that reward attendees for engaging with event modules and other attendees. If attendees complete the challenge, they can receive a virtual gift bag, sponsor discounts or a physical prize pack. Create gamification challenges centered on networking to nudge on-the-fence participants toward the Networking Center.
Create a Networking Guide for attendees: Optimize your attendees’ networking experiences by helping them navigate the platform seamlessly and efficiently on event day. Put together a short one- or two-page document with most frequently asked questions, then post it in your event’s lobby or Networking Center.
Some must-have information: how to navigate to the networking center, use the search function, start video calls with other attendees, complete Virtual Business Cards, etc.
Keep the Buzz Going:
After your event ends, help attendees cement their connections with the following:
Create an online community of event goers: With packed agendas and thousands of guests in attendance, your guests won’t be able to connect with everyone during your virtual event. But you can continue those interactions, and extend the reach of your event, by creating an online community of event attendees, either on social media or a media hub. Include an invitation to this community in your follow-up email.
Leverage integrations: Who hasn’t forgotten to follow up with a contact for a day… or a month after they meet? If your virtual event platform integrates with your participants’ scheduling apps, attendees can schedule follow up meetings on the spot, without needing to leave the platform.
Want to learn more about how the world's most innovative companies are using online events to drive business results? BIgMarker's team of Account Executives are here to help. Contact us at sales@bigmarker to schedule a demo and get started!
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