Savvy organizations and businesses have long known that a digital approach is key to success in our modern landscape. In 2020, Covid-19 forced digital practices onto those who clung to old ways of operating, and many events and conferences have shifted online. Physical events still have their place, but moving forward they will be complemented by (or in some cases replaced by) digital activities.
Networking is a great opportunity for your members to build relationships and form communities. Many associations offer breakfast networking or wine and cheese evenings full of glad handing and swapping business cards. Events like these will always have their place in association communities, but moving into 2021 and beyond, events professionals should be thinking about how to create engaging networking experiences in digital settings.
Digital networking experiences will not replace in person events, and many of your members will continue to find the physical space the most valuable and productive way to make connections. But you can also facilitate the opportunity for them to try this new way of networking as an added benefit to their membership - and something they can access right from their own home.
The purpose of this article is to help your association understand how to compliment your in-person networking experiences with digital events.
Digital events are different to in-person events. Approached correctly, they can be just as valuable. But smart associations know you can’t just copy in-person experiences and paste them into digital formats. Why? Because behaviors and expectations are different in a digital setting. Think beyond the video call, and consider the specific nuances that the digital context offers. You need to look at what you want to achieve, who the audiences are, and how you will meet their needs. In order to excel you require a focused operational and executional strategy that will allow your digital event to flourish.
Here are a few top tips for planning your digital networking experiences.
Offer Speaking Opportunities
Given that digital events aren’t confined to geographical limitations, one of the benefits of digital networking is that it is much easier to open up access to a range of speakers. Let your members share their ideas with one another by offering opportunities to speak at the event or session. This provides members with added value as they can share their thoughts and promote their businesses, and also helps facilitate contacts within your membership organization. Make sure you make the speaker application process fair and transparent, so you are not prioritizing one member over another
Think Quality Over Quantity
Just because you can do more doesn’t mean you should. Organize fewer,better events, known for their top-tier quality. Space out the events (which has the added bonus of giving you time to plan and organize) and ensure that your topics and speakers are of great quality. Too many digital events will result in member fatigue, and you might see attendance and engagement drop. You can increase frequency once you know what works and what doesn’t.
Short And Sweet
People’s attention spans are shorter than you might think. Especially online. Zoom fatigue is a very real thing, and it is recommended that you limit events to 90 minutes or less. Even if you are used to association events running much longer, with the lure of email and search engines just a click away, it’s important that you capture attention, and keep it.
Keep things to time, avoid long blocks of sessions and make sure you get straight to the good stuff. Utilize technical functionality and interactive options such as polls and a live Q&A so that people can offer their own input and join the conversation. You don’t just want lots of people on the call or in the session – you want them to participate. In digital sessions, it’s not about numbers, it’s about engagement.
Think Both Macro And Micro
Large webinars and chats are a great way to connect people with mutual interests. But that’s only one step. Next you want to encourage individuals to speak on a one-on-one basis, allowing them to engage in conversation and make direct links. The data and insight that you have on your attendees means you can do work upfront to match individuals together who may have shared interests. You can facilitate those introductions and links to cultivate further relationships, again offering value to your members.
Prioritize Clarity and Outcomes
There are so many online events out there that it can be difficult to cut through the clutter. Make sure your attendees will choose you every time. Make it clear what you are offering, with clear takeaways and outcomes. Many people attend a networking event with specific objectives in mind, whether that’s to meet a certain person, gain a specific number of contacts, or learn something new. Give them the information they need to know that they can achieve that objective at your digital networking event. You might also consider tips and ideas on how to create an online presence, as not everyone will be comfortable with networking in a digital format.
Networking, if done correctly, shouldn’t begin and end with one interaction. You want to help members build relationships and form networks. Offer articles, resources and activities that relate to the initial event to help keep your members engaged, and repackage content to provide value in new ways. Consider setting up your own community group, either on your platform or social media. Make it possible for people to connect with one another all year round. The added benefit of setting up groups on Facebook or LinkedIn is that you can monitor conversations and gain insight into the types of topics that would work well for future events.
Plan for Before, During, and After
Don’t drop attendees in a room and leave them to it. Help your attendees plan and prepare, and leverage all your channels to maximize your event’s exposure. Send out a guestlist beforehand so attendees can plan who they might want to connect with. Provide contact details for those who have opted in, facilitating the opportunity of deeper connection opportunities. Let people know what to expect, which will help them feel comfortable and ready to make new connections.
And it’s not just before that matters - think how you can amplify the activity during the session. You can live tweet from the session, so external audiences know what they might expect should they join your association or attend your events. Set up a hashtag so that your attendees can also participate in the conversation and amplify the message – see if you can get your association’s event trending!
After the event, share that guestlist so attendees can make contact and connect. Encourage people to join your social media group so those conversations can continue. Point them towards more helpful articles, webinars, or learning modules that will expand upon the things discussed in the event. And gather feedback to test and learn.
It can be easier to get feedback with online events. You will know how many people are opening marketing emails and which promotional channels are working. You can see where people click away, and where drop offs occur. Over time you’ll start to see patterns emerge. All of this can help you gather insight to test and refine your approach. Agile associations know that they can use a data-driven strategy across the board to enhance their entire offering - including networking.
Filling in feedback cards after an event can be onerous, and after a few glasses of wine, the answers might not be as compelling as you hoped. Email them a survey link after the event with an incentive to complete it. They can do it the next day with a clear head and fresh feedback. Or better yet, set yourself up with the right data tracking infrastructure to negate the need for static survey feedback loops. You can quickly analyze that data and information to test and refine your approach for next time - through from marketing to execution.
So there you have it, some easy to implement networking event strategies and ideas for a digital-first world. Now go ahead, and create some industry leading networking events for your association - online.