Networking has always been one of the primary reasons we go to events. Beyond the insights we’d take away, we went because of who was going to be in the room and that chance meeting. Be it with a kindred spirit on a similar journey, a new client or a new employer; that connection made the time, effort and cost oh so worth it.
But let’s face it, the networking component of most virtual events is even more painful than it used to be IRL. If there is any networking at all.
That’s because most event organisers are unbelievably still not appreciating that virtual events are a whole different world. As the stats show, participation rates are in decline, and the lack of meaningful networking is a big reason why.
Virtual events are now a new normal. Get over it. So it’s time to re-imagine virtual networking.
Platforms, tech, production values are not the solution though, as many mistakenly believe. With pandemic-induced isolation an ongoing reality for most, we are desperate to actively participate in events rather than just passively observe. We want to be involved in something with a clear purpose, which truly engages us. And we crave basic human connection.
So how to do virtual networking right?
It’s the same as it was in person. Starting with Why the gathering is being staged in the first place is, well, the only place to start. We cannot tell you how many times this simple question trips people up though. We know for a fact, if the purpose of joining isn’t clear to a participant, and they don’t see value, they won’t join. And excuse us for stating the obvious but: no participants = no networking.
Once you’ve nailed why you’re having an event and what you want to get out of it, imaginative experience design and a carefully curated participant journey will take you the rest of the way.
We used to connect around common interest areas/topics IRL and this has a natural extension in the virtual setting. Thankfully, there are good platforms that can emulate this experience online, such as Qiqo and e180. Just like in real life, they enable participants the freedom to move between small-group sessions and engage with peers as their interests take them.
The Age of Conversation Summit by our friends at Haute Dokimazo is an excellent case study. “This event is about talking to each other” is how it was billed. And it delivered just that.
The second piece of the puzzle involves priming participants. Networking by definition is not a passive exercise. Given how much harder it is to do it online, there’s a degree of preparation required. Simply communicating that in advance sets a completely different dynamic. Sure, some might be intimidated and opt-out, but that’s okay. Effective virtual networking is not for the faint of heart.
Importantly though, for any online networking to succeed, it has to be Videos ON, Mics ON, Energy ON - for every participant. Our thinking is, you wouldn't show up to an in-person event with a paper bag on your head, so why do the equivalent online? But you'd be amazed at how many events we've logged into only to find half the participants are ghosts.
In the end, it doesn’t matter how many tools or what innovative software you throw at your virtual networking problem.
Participants need to feel actively involved and invested in the experience.
It can’t be something they just ‘show up to’; they need to be primed to ‘get to work’.
So let’s take the paper bags off and embrace our new reality!