Networking is an excellent way to grow, develop, or maintain business relationships. But, with the world trying to figure out a new normal amidst the coronavirus pandemic, most live events have been canceled or postponed indefinitely, leaving networking as something of an afterthought. The event industry has shifted toward hybrid or virtual event formats, but what does that shift mean for networking events? Should you switch to virtual networking events?
In general, a physical event is ideal for networking as attendees can meet in planned sessions but also at random as the event goes on. It allows people to meet face-to-face and encourages an easy exchange. An online event does not present these same opportunities.
For the event organizer who hosts regular live events, like a networking event, this presents a problem. How can you bring people together through meaningful interaction when you cannot get them into the same room?
The good news is that facilitating networking in a virtual setting is quite simple. All that is required is a focus on networking in the planning stages.
If you are thinking of hosting a virtual networking event, we have some tips that can help you with the planning and facilitation process. To be considered a success, a virtual networking event needs to be more than just a massive video conference!
Here are our suggestions for navigating this virtual environment:
How to Host a Virtual Networking Event
Know Your Event Goals
Before you can really dive into planning your networking event, you need to understand what it is you hope to accomplish.
What do you hope to do? Do you want to connect industry professionals? Are you trying to connect local business leaders for a particular project? Are you trying to connect coworkers during this challenging time? Do you hope to generate leads and prospects?
These answers to these questions will help you plan the event content and develop a clear marketing strategy.
Plan the Particulars
Networking in a virtual format is more than just a webinar or a massive Zoom call. It takes planning and a focus on bringing people together in a meaningful way.
Once you have defined your goals, you can begin to develop the particulars of your content.
It is easy for online conversations to descend into chaos, so if you add structure to the event, you can avoid some of the wasted and time and energy that comes with having to constantly refocus the group.
Think about your target audience and develop a structure that makes the most sense for both them and your event goals.
Some ways to provide value and structure:
- Bring in a popular industry figure or thought leader. This individual can act as a guest speaker and present to the audience on a topic of interest, generating conversation. With a live chat feature, attendees can interact with one another, the event host, and the speaker.
- Similar to the idea listed above, host a Q&A session with an industry expert. Again, this will get the ball rolling while allowing you to maintain some control over the interaction.
- Create separate virtual meeting rooms. By creating themed meeting rooms, you can give attendees some control over how they choose to interact with other attendees. If you are targeting the tech industry, for example, you can create rooms based on different parts of the industry or different audience segments. In this example, you might consider a room where people can go to discuss the future of the industry or a room that connects minorities with one another.
Choose a Virtual Event Platform
A virtual event is only as good as the technology that supports it. A virtual event platform will support your networking efforts in a way that is easy and intuitive for all parties.
Look for a platform that:
- Uses live chat: You will want a platform that allows attendees to chat back and forth via text and video. This is the minimum requirement.
- Enables breakout sessions: Sometimes, people connect on a topic or idea and will want to continue the conversation in a more direct way. Allowing people to have space away from the group will add value to your event.
- Integrates with social media: Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn are great tools for networking. An event platform that integrates with these channels will help people connect at the moment and remain connected well after the event is finished.
- Has a virtual lobby: At a live event, people often meet in the shared spaces. A virtual lobby can provide a place for fellow attendees to meet up before the event begins or between sessions.
- Allows for fun: A virtual cocktail hour or virtual coffee can relax attendees and allow for a more relaxed exchange without the same pressures of more rigid sessions.
A virtual event platform should make the logistics of your event simple. A platform like Accelevents can help you create a branded event website, market your event through social and email integrations, and make registration a breeze.
Market Your Event
Your marketing plan will depend on the scale and scope of your networking event.
Begin by looking at your current list of contacts. Does it make sense to invite everyone to this event? Focus on the ones that make the most sense for your specific event goals. If this doesn’t narrow the list, you may have to consider offering multiple sessions in order to reasonably accommodate the group. When it comes to virtual experience, too many people can pose a problem.
Once you have sorted through your email list, think about your event messaging:
- Who are you inviting?
- What do you want attendees to gain from the experience?
- Why should they attend your networking event?
Your email invitations and marketing materials should clearly define for people why your event is perfect for them. Define the value for them!
If you are bringing in guest speakers or planning something fun, like a cocktail hour or event gamification, be sure to include that in your marketing campaign. These types of sessions are not only suitable for driving registrations, but they are also great for boosting audience engagement.
Establish a Clear CTA or Follow Up
The most significant value in attending a networking event is the relationships that are formed. Make sure that it is easy and convenient to reconnect after the fact.
If you hosted the event to gain leads and prospects, the sales team will need a way to follow up with these folks. Don’t just spam their email accounts, offer them something of value. Provide an eBook or some sort of content that is relevant to the topics discussed during networking sessions, for example.
At the end of the event, encourage attendees to find one another on LinkedIn or provide a space where they can easily input and exchange contact information. If you can no longer physically hand someone a business card, steps must be taken to provide a similar exchange.
Most importantly, send a follow-up email to all attendees thanking them for their presence and asking them to fill out your post-event survey. This survey is the best way to get honest feedback from guests. You will want to know how they felt about the available networking opportunities so you can plan an even better event in the future!
Hosting a virtual networking event is new territory for most event planners, but as we all navigate this new normal, online networking is becoming increasingly important.
Networking is a necessary part of professional life, and the lack of in-person events doesn’t change this.
By following the suggestions laid out above, you can meet this networking need without having to sacrifice value and productivity. When you are ready to get started, reach out to Accelevents to learn how we can support your virtual networking objectives!