Too many conference organisers leave networking to chance. Or they go the other way and force it to the point that its real benefit is lost. People will naturally converge in the presence of the right dynamics.
Here are some of our tried & tested suggestions*:
Tame the programme
Who said every minute of a conference programme needs to be slammed full of prescribed learning and knowledge sharing? Networking is in itself a powerful means of gaining those ‘a-ha’ moments, through chance encounters with peers grappling with the same issues, or finding comrades on a quest to build something new. We can say with confidence almost every programme could do with more time for networking – so don’t be shy. Liberal helpings will deliver a more engaging experience for all.
Small is beautiful
Entering a networking function with hundreds of attendees can be daunting even for the most extroverted among us. Even then, it’s simply not efficient to ‘work’ an entire room to find your tribe. Break attendees into groups, optimising for compatibility, through either pre-selection or self-selection. Then create fun ways for them to congregate as a sub-group. Doing so generates a much more meaningful community and bonds which stretch well beyond the event days.
Go off-the-clock (and offsite)
People are usually mentally and physically committed to a conference for however long it goes for. This is otherwise known as the 'captive audience' effect. So if your subject matter is particularly meaty, not allowing for a lot of networking during the day, give participants time to digest the information and unwind at the same time at the end of the day. Take the event beyond the conference room to a local venue and let the conversations run free. Depending where you are, an inviting space conducive to mingling in small groups should be pretty easy to find. Oh, and don't forget to start a bar tab!
Yes, some might say it’s heresy, but what about taking a decidedly low-tech approach and blocking access to the internet, or asking people to surrender their phones, while your conference is in session? As controversial as this sounds, with some forewarning to participants, it can bring amazing benefits. Not only does it remove distractions, but it practically forces people to talk to each other (unless you have an extremely awkward audience that sits around the edge of a venue like a prom-goer without a date.) But again, don’t leave things to chance. Create a reason for people to find their tribes and then get out of their way. Without a phone to busy themselves with everyone will end up gaining something, and thank you for it.
Depending on the size of your group or style of event, take the opposite approach to the previous point and invest in the power of technology. There are loads of amazing offerings that do the heavy lifting for you. Before the event, take advantage of tools that profile and match participants. Or invest in RFID for a great way to match peers on-site through technological means. And don’t forget the power of polling and push notifications through an app, to get the room talking.
*If you try or have tried some of these out, we'd love to hear from you - drop us a line firstname.lastname@example.org with your feedback!
Let's inspire your community - Team UC