Virtual networking events: 7 tips and best practices for hosting them successfully
Networking is essential for any business; It offers a means to find new opportunities, sales, or even just provides a space to reconnect with colleagues. But virtual networking is, for most, an entirely new concept, which has only been thrust into the fore as a result of the ongoing global pandemic, which for first-time virtual event hosts, can present plenty of challenges.
While handshakes, face-to-face interaction, and most importantly – drinks at the bar – have all been put on hold due to the pandemic, many of the elements we all know and enjoy that make networking so great can be achieved online. This can make virtual networking just as valuable and meaningful as networking in person.
In this article, we attempt to provide a handy set of tips that can help you better navigate virtual networking event best practices, giving you a list of actionable steps to use and consider when putting together your own virtual networking events.
So, without further ado, here are our seven tips and best practices to help make your next virtual networking event a success.
1. Clearly define the purpose and goals of your virtual networking event
Networking events – especially those held virtually, online – pose a wide range of challenges to event organizers, amplifying many of the same challenges organizers would encounter when running a similar event in-person.
Before you do anything else, you’ll first want to define what the purpose of your networking event is. Are you using it as an opportunity to connect with prospects, helping to reconnect co-workers, or simply bringing together like-minded industry professionals?
Without purpose, you won’t be able to define goals – and without goals, you won’t be able to determine whether or not your networking event was a success. Whatever your goals are – whether it’s finding new leads, building your email list, or connecting with potential partners – make sure you clearly define them before you move on to planning.
2. Getting the number of attendees and character of your networking event right
One area where virtual networking events can be particularly tricky – especially when compared to those in-person – is getting the invite list right, both in terms of the who and the how many.
When networking takes place in-person, it’s far easier for attendees to break off and form their own smaller groups, have focused side chats, and meet up with others they are most interested in meeting with. This means that who and how many you invite is less important, as people will naturally reorganize themselves without too much difficulty.
This is much more difficult to do at a virtual event – making it essential to limit and size your virtual networking events, keeping them focused and relevant to all those who attend.
You also want to get a good mix of attendees – whether this is existing customers, lost customers, new prospects, or industry experts. This is because the last thing you want is to have attendees feeling lost or alienated as the same old usual suspects use your event as more of a reunion than to meet new people.
3. Keep networking sessions short to keep participants properly engaged
One of the biggest challenges when running virtual events – not just virtual networking events – is attendee engagement. It’s much harder to keep people engaged virtually than in-person, so make sure to keep sessions short and on-topic to help keep attendee zone-out to a minimum.
So, what’s the correct length for a virtual networking event, individual networking sessions, and other content – like keynote speakers? Well, you want to try and keep your event to a run time of no more than 60-90 minutes, while sessions – both networking and keynotes – to around 15-30 minutes.
It’s also best to avoid a schedule that feels too tight and binding – keeps things as fluid as you can, letting attendees meet and engage with each other organically, helping to make your event feel far closer to the sort of thing you’d expect in-person. Using an event platform with features like a virtual expo hall, where attendees can self-organize on tables or that enables attendees to create their own meetings and breakout sessions – like Event Anywhere – is an excellent way of doing this.
4. Just because it’s virtual, it doesn’t mean you don’t need to prepare
Arguably, one of the best things about virtual events is that they’re easy to spin up at a fraction of the cost and time required to plan an equivalent in-person event. But don’t let that fool you – just because it’s easy from a technology standpoint, this doesn’t mean that you don’t need to put in much of the same planning and prep work.
The first thing you’ll need to sort out is which technology solution you opt for. There are plenty to choose from – Zoom, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, or a dedicated virtual event solution, like Event Anywhere. Once that’s out of the way, you’ll need to get cracking with a solid plan, creating your invite list and marketing plan for the event.
As part of this, you’ll want to think about and define the purpose of your event, what attendees will get from it, why they should attend, and who else is attending that might peak their interest. Once you’re able to define and articulate this to prospective attendees clearly, you’re ready to start your marketing and outreach efforts – which, as we all know, require plenty of forward planning and work to pull off and make your event a success.
5. Prepare or pre-record an intro, greeting and welcoming attendees at your event’s virtual door
Just like you would at an in-person event, you’ll want to meet and greet event attendees at the virtual door, before they jump into any networking sessions. This could be as simple as jumping on a live stage for a few minutes at the start of your networking event or posting a pre-recorded introduction video to your event’s registration page.
The latter – posting a pre-recorded video – is particularly beneficial when it comes to promoting your event, as this will go a long way to explaining what it’s all about and the value that prospective participants can expect to get out of it. This will help attendees determine whether or not your event is worth attending, as well as giving them ample time to prep for it – something that will make the event more worthwhile for everyone involved.
If you’re doing your introduction live, it’s best to wait a few minutes after your events scheduled start time to give all attendees the chance to join. Remember to be authentic and don’t overdo it – your introduction doesn’t need to run for more than a few minutes – and whatever you do, avoid the urge to drop a sales pitch. The last thing you want is to make attendees think they’re stepping into a 60+ minute sales pitch, offering them little to no value.
6. Introduce participants and reach out to others where it makes sense to
Almost all networking events start with an icebreaker or chat, led by the events organizers, explaining the purpose of the event and giving attendees the opportunity to introduce themselves and find out what each of the other attendees does and how they might collaborate with each other, before a session starts.
One way of doing this would be to have attendees record brief introduction videos or voice notes posted onto a public timeline for other attendees to watch or listen to. Doing so can help make your networking event more useful for attendees, as they’ll be able to plan ahead who they want to meet and network with, making sessions more focused and useful.
This is an area in which Event Anywhere excels – offering all of this functionality right out of the box, making it easier than ever before for attendees of virtual networking events to properly introduce themselves prior to the start of an event or networking sessions.
Another thing you will want to think about is how you can play an active role in bringing people together – connecting those who will benefit from networking together, making individual introductions where it makes sense to do so. This will help to make your event more useful to participants, increasing the likelihood of them attending subsequent networking events you decide to host.
7. Give attendees an easy way to connect post-event
The whole point of networking is to connect – this means giving attendees a way to share contact information to pick up and continue their discussions after and outside of your scheduled networking event.
One option is to use a virtual events platform that offers social networking and communication elements, allowing attendees to interact and engage with each other directly, using chat messages, video calling, and voice notes.
Platforms like Event Anywhere have a wealth of communication technology built-in and can be kept online long after the official close of your event, making it easy for attendees to communicate with each other long after the end of your event.
Networking is all about meeting like-minded people, bringing together individuals with similar needs, wants, and interests to collaborate on achieving these. As we all adjust to the new normal, everything-virtual way of doing things, it can be challenging to bring people together to network in a meaningful way, as the usual format for a networking event doesn’t always translate well to an online setting.
The biggest takeaway is to keep your networking event short, on-topic, and limited to a smaller number of highly-focused attendees – avoid events with huge attendee lists from various sectors and niches, as these simply don’t work virtually.
Research shows that Zoom-fatigue – something we’ve all struggled with during the past 12-18 months – kicks in after around 90 minutes. So, if you want people to go away from your virtual network event with a warm and fuzzy feeling, more likely to attend the next one, be sure to keep your event under this time limit.
And remember to follow up post-event. The best way to find out what worked and what didn’t is to ask those who attended, helping you improve the format for any subsequent virtual networking events you intend to run. Happy networking!
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