Online meetings are new for a lot of us. Association professionals and event organizers have been shoved into a world where the in-person meetings we know so well have been turned upside-down and we’re all being forced to adapt and learn brand new tools and methods for bringing people together.
I’ve seen even the most engaging and creative associations struggle with hosting the meaningful networking activities we have come to expect during meetings.
After attending several virtual conferences this year, I have found that virtual networking often leaves something to be desired. We’re all learning, and doing our best to try new things, but I think this is one area in our industry where there is much room for improvement.
Before I begin, let’s agree that you’re at least using a video streaming service like Zoom or other tool to broadcast your content. In most of these tools, there’s already a chat component built in where attendees can introduce themselves and participate in the discussion guided by presenters. This is a great place to start, but still fails to create the meaningful connections your attendees expect from your event.
As an active networker and virtual event attendee, I’ve put together two simple tips you can incorporate in your next online meeting to help your attendees connect in meaningful ways.
Tip 1: Create spaces for conversation on social media.
We’ve been using event hashtags for years. In the absence of the hallway conversation and unplanned paths crossing, these hashtags are now more valuable than ever for people to connect where they are.
- Promote your event hashtag in marketing materials early and actively support and engage these discussions leading up to your event, during and after.
- Check out #ASAE20 on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or LinkedIn for some great examples of conversation from attendees around the world.
- Encourage attendees to share their takeaways and new ideas sparked from the discussion.
- Consider hosting a social media contest to bring the experience outside of the computer screen and into their homes and offices.
- Prompt attendees to share photos of their viewing set up, their “coworkers,” how they get up and move in between sessions, or what kind of meals and libations they are enjoying where they’d otherwise be chewing through conference chicken or waiting in long lines at the cash bar.
- Help your attendees document their memories of your event with their peers on social media in a way that will be preserved for years into the future.
Tip 2: Build in networking time with discussion prompts.
While people can connect in the chat during sessions or through social media, there’s still a pressing need for face-to-face engagement. I’ve seen a few organizations use breaks in the schedule for “networking time,” and even though it was well promoted, it was poorly attended.
- If you’re going to create networking space in your meeting, try this: incorporate one or more 30-minute networking activities in between education sessions.
- Don’t just assume that creating the space means that people will use it. IMHO, it’s just as bad to host unfacilitated discussion as it is to not host a networking activity at all. You can’t expect people to engage in a video meeting the same way as they do in-person, and I have seen this to be the case. Maybe you have, too. If you want the time to be spent intentionally, you should put intention behind it.
- In the very least, make sure you have a facilitator to ask questions and encourage all participants to engage in the conversation.
- Try creating a theme for each networking session and invite a facilitator to host the discussion with attendees to share takeaways from the education or prompt casual topics like favorite vacations, TV shows, or places to visit.
- Pro tip: this is a great way to engage a sponsor! Invite sponsors to serve as facilitators and offer a bonus of promoting their company in your event platform as a session sponsor.
- You can up-sell vendor packages with sponsored networking breaks and link their profile listing directly in your event platform, like Map Dynamics’s Event Home Base. This is an easy and impactful sponsorship that is a win-win for everyone.
- I also challenge you to experiment with group sizes and the breakout feature in Zoom.
- Try experimenting with the Zoom breakout feature to divide your attendees into 20 people at most and one or two rounds of four to six people in a breakout room.
- The more touches your attendees have with specific people at the event, the more likely they can create meaningful connections and develop relationships that they hope to gain from your organization.
Online meetings will continue to be a challenge for many event organizers who are still trying so many things for the very first time. I encourage you to embrace a spirit of experimentation, focus on your intentions, and embrace these new ideas that will help surprise and delight your attendees.
Alexis Simoneau, CAE serves as an account manager and association ambassador for Map Dynamics, a world-class event management and floorplan booth sales system for in-person, virtual, and hybrid events. She focuses on supporting clients with the highest level of customer service and providing resources to help them achieve their goals using Map Dynamics’ technology.