Networking. It's the real reason attendees go to your conference every year; not to go to seven breakout sessions or listen to speakers wax poetic about their favorite topics (although education is up there, too!). Seventy-five percent of conference attendees (and 84 percent of people under 35) say networking plays a key role in their event experience — a statistic indicating that the welcome reception can have the highest ROI of any moment at an event.
Event owners know this better than anyone, which is why networking has become the bread and butter of business events.
For a long time, organizers were stuck reusing the same bag of tricks to orchestrate the business version of a "meet cute" — think "speed dating" sessions, coffee breaks and an open bar that encouraged even the quietest attendee to open up a little. Now modern event managers can tap into technology and social networks to get everyone involved.
Make It Easy To Find People With Similar Interests
Whether you're chatting with other parents at your kid's soccer game or a new acquaintance at a conference, you'll find it's easier to connect with others who have similar interests and priorities to your own. It's simple sociology you can leverage to your advantage, enabling like-minded people to group together, online or off, based on several factors:
- Years attending: Get your first timers together for a cocktail party, or create a forum for them to connect before, during and after the conference. You can also do the same for your veteran alumni who love to talk about years past.
- Session topics: Enable attendees who share interests to connect before the session begins, ask questions among the group or request speakers cover a certain topic. After the event, attendees should find it easy to ask follow-up questions and keep the conversation going.
- Roles and regions: Strong connections are bound to emerge among attendees from the same geographic area, or with similar titles. Create regional groups or channels in your event app and, chances are, attendees will take it from there.
Build Your Own Social Network
Everybody understands social networks, so why not create your own mini-network for your event? Mobile apps are an easy-to-implement solution. Instead of opening Facebook when a session begins to drag, they can check out your app and connect with others. Here are a few tips to get started:
- Provide a searchable attendee list: Sure, it sounds simple, but it's one of the easiest ways for attendees to connect. Otherwise, they have to resort to awkward badge stalking at the cocktail hour, and no one wants that. Bonus points if you enable people to follow each other within your app.
- Enable direct messaging and @replying: Allow attendees to connect directly, like they would other social networks. Messaging is simple to switch on and will let people connect in advance, and set up meetings or informally interact during the event.
- Create a game with customized achievements: Networking can be a competition, too. A simple selfie game (the funnier, the better) with fellow attendees and a little positive reinforcement can bring out that competitive spirit. Earning achievements and participating in a highly engaging virtual game will raise a participant's visibility among their peers, and awarding those who complete all steps of the challenge will help drive participation as well.
Don't Shut out Other Social Networks (or Email)
In-app features are key, but smart event managers must think outside the app. The two most powerful communication and connection mediums are email and social networks — and both can amplify networking at your event. Here's how:
- Bridge the gap with email: Let's be realistic — most people likely aren't searching for your event app before the show starts. That's where email can help. Get them excited about the functionality so when the time comes, clicking "download" is a no brainer.
- Promote attendees' other social networks: Yes, you want people as engaged as possible in your event app, but you also want to make sure they broadcast that enthusiasm to the broader world. Encourage attendees to connect their social channels and to share their in-app activity out to their networks. The spark might start in your app, and those encounters can become lasting connections across Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.
Successfully networking at events, especially large ones, can be a daunting idea for those not gifted with an easy confidence or a little tenacity. But success is no longer out of reach for your less-outgoing attendees. The virtual space has leveled the networking playing field and with any luck you can help even the most introverted attendees create rich, lasting connections.