The general consensus when talking with business leaders and event organizers is that business conferences will not return to their past full size and scope until, at the earliest, the middle of 2021. I’ve heard talk that fall of next year is more likely. While smaller, invitation-only events are already beginning to come back, if you and your business relied on large-scale events as an opportunity to network and build a sales pipeline, you’ve almost certainly shifted from that strategy and will continue to need to build your network in another way.
While virtual events have done a nice job of filling the content gap left by in-person events, many have failed when it comes to the networking aspect of the event. Content at your event is great, but many people make the choice to travel and invest in attending an event for the purpose of growing their network to drive sales. Fixing the virtual networking problem is a huge challenge. Here are a few things to consider.
Event networking is hard—but it doesn’t have to be.
Since everyone shows up to an industry show with the same general goal—grow the business and learn something new along the way—meeting new people who are actually interested in your business can be challenging. For example, I attended Outdoor Retailer in Denver, Colorado for three straight shows. It was not until the third show, when I had met the same group of people on multiple occasions, that I was invited to the afterparties where deals really begin. While you’re on the show floor, there are 20,000+ people milling around trying to talk to decision makers. Most of the decision makers are in meetings for their own purposes, and when they’re not in meetings they’re taking care of fires that have started up during those meetings. In short, their attention isn’t on meeting new people and expanding their networks—regardless of the potential benefit for their brands. Even at afterparties, people tend to mingle with who they already know.
With a virtual event, you have an opportunity to beat this all-too-familiar situation. Thanks to technology platforms virtual events can create side rooms for networking opportunities, and invite specific groups of people to those rooms at specific times. Now, instead of walking into an event with 20,000 people and not knowing where to begin, you can have small group conversations with people who are interested in the same topics or trying to solve the same problems you are. It creates true conversation centered around common interests—which is what good networking always turns into.
Audience segmentation and personal marketing make networking shine.
You have all your speakers lined up for your virtual event. You’ve picked out and tested all the appropriate technology. You know what to do if the audio or video goes out. You feel prepared; but how’s your audience doing?
It is a huge miss to forget to interact with your audience leading up to the event. And it needs to be more than a confirmation email and a single reminder 24 hours before your event goes live. Start to get your attendees excited about the content they’re going to consume and the opportunities to meet new people virtually at your event. There are a few strategies you can use to make this happen.
Create anticipation for each speaker.
You’ve certainly announced who will be speaking at your event, but have you given them a chance to get your audience excited about their message ahead of time? Depending on how many speakers you will have, one way to help generate anticipation among the attendees is to create a quick video series highlighting each speaker. For example, have each speaker take a short (a minute or less) selfie video highlighting the main points of their speech. Put this into an email to attendees, add some creative copy, and remind them of who will be speaking. This not only gives your attendees a taste of what is to come, but also allows them to make smarter decisions around which speakers make most sense for them to see. This is especially important if your event has multiple tracks—and it will help you determine who might be right for connections later on.
Consider opening virtual networking rooms at specified times.
Honestly, no one wants to sit in front of their computer in silence watching an event for eight hours straight. Outside of scheduling appropriate break times, you can also take on the creation of virtual networking rooms to break up the constant stream of watching, and to give attendees a chance to talk about the ideas they’re getting from the event. This is best done if you work to segment the group ahead of time and to create enough rooms so that you have small groups of individuals in each. This takes some work, but it will create a unique experience for your attendees compared to other virtual events they’ve attended before.
If you’re looking for technology to help you accomplish this, consider Mixtroz. They are a startup from Alabama and have a great platform for exactly this purpose.
Make your speakers and sponsors accessible to the attendees.
While not necessarily a perfect fit for very large-scale, multiple-track events, if you know a good deal about your audience and have a manageable attendee list, this idea can be a unique way to drive sponsorship value and create networking opportunities.
After a speaker has presented, give five minutes for everyone to stand up, grab a drink, and digest what was said. Then immediately have a fireside chat with a sponsor asking questions, and your speaker answering them. Some questions can be prepared beforehand, but also make sure you take some from participants to build engagement. Invite the attendees to send their questions in via the general chat so that others can see them. These questions give immediate starting points for conversations between attendees, and the chat function on most software allows intra-chat messaging between attendees.
This drives value for your sponsor because they get facetime in front of attendees, it drives value for your speaker because they get even more chances to sound smart and position themselves as a thought leader in their field, and it gives your attendees a chance to get their specific questions answered while understanding what other attendees are interested in learning more about. It’s a win-win-win.
Virtual networking will never replace face-to-face networking, so don’t try.
The biggest mistake I see with virtual events is taking what was once physical and just trying to translate it directly to a digital platform. Recognize that you are playing a completely different game. The same goes for networking. Virtual networking simply will not generate the same feel-good endorphins that human connection does. But it has a major leg up in terms of efficiency and communication clarity.
At an in-person event, you may never meet the person you went there to see—you might happen only to pass their booth when they’ve stepped away, or there are simply too many people to find the ones you really want to meet. With virtual events that is not the case. You will have common talking points, and most messaging platforms allow interactions between attendees to happen naturally and easily. Play up the accessibility and efficiency of your virtual event and its networking options, and you may just surprise yourself with how successful the event turns out to be.
“Whatever you are, be a good one.” This advice has served Joe well as he’s worn many hats throughout his career–from college soccer player to marketing expert to Business Development Manager. He’s passionate about using big ideas to build mutually beneficial partnerships, because “to help yourself is to help others.”
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