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The Return to
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Best of Both Worlds

Take Networking Up a Notch

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A little structure, facilitation, and audience participation can take networking out of its sometimes awkward, stilted past into a reimagined, reinvigorated future, whether your meeting is in person or virtual.

The unplanned shift from in-person to virtual events meant that a vital component of meetings was suddenly missing: networking. And it is very difficult to replicate remotely. Although many conference attendees are yearning to get back together in person, networking isn’t going to be the same in any meeting format.

The Virtual Networking Incubator Roundup report, based on insights from more than 150 association professionals who participated in a six-week exploration of networking in virtual settings, showed that traditional networking elicited feelings of fun, belonging, joy, and happiness. The surprising flip side? Fifty-eight percent of the participants said anxiety and concern were a big factor for them with traditional networking, but only 16 percent pointed to anxiety and concern during digital gatherings.

Support Structure

In-person networking events, particularly receptions, can be stressful for participants unless they know a lot of attendees, or they are there with a friend or colleague. “If you’re really connected, receptions are a blast, but if you’re there by yourself, receptions are painful,” said Amanda Kaiser, CEO of Kaiser Insights and coauthor of the report.

A lot of structure and activities help, especially fun activities like games where people have to work together to solve a problem or accomplish something. Participants get a sense of each other and have a chance to get acquainted. “They’re understanding that they’re part of a community that is bigger than themselves,” Kaiser said. Structure also helps newer people who don’t have a network yet because it gives them something to do.

“Sometimes when we’re hosting an event, we’re not necessarily putting ourselves in our participants’ shoes.”—Amanda Kaiser, Kaiser Insights

“Sometimes when we’re hosting an event, we’re not necessarily putting ourselves in our participants’ shoes,” Kaiser said. Meeting planners organize beautiful receptions with great settings and elegant food and drinks. But once they’ve staged the environment, “then it’s up to members to do their thing.” A better plan is to curate the experience for attendees and facilitate conversations when everyone gets together, she says.

Audience Participation

As more conferences return in person, networking opportunities will need to be “baked into everything,” said Sarah Michel, CSP, vice president of professional connexity at Velvet Chainsaw Consulting. Going back to the pre-pandemic formula of a session followed by a 15-minute break isn’t going to cut it.

“You have to really reimagine it and realize that community and connection are what people are really starving for,” she said.

Michel recommends working with speakers in advance and investing in training and coaching to get speakers to provide more evidence-based, interactive education, which can fuel networking among attendees. Start with the speaker RFPs and make it clear from the beginning that 35 to 45 percent of the presentation should involve the audience.

“What people really want when they’re coming to a meeting is to solve a problem and find a solution,” Michel said. So why not leverage the intellectual equity in the room and get attendees more engaged? “The speaker is not the smartest person in the room anymore.”

A common issue with hybrid conferences is that the in-person audience doesn’t network with the virtual audience. A good way to bridge that gap is to have a content weaver, emcee, or moderator to keep the virtual audience engaged, Michel says.

“It’s a role that’s not a nice-to-have, it’s a must-have,” she said. The moderator doesn’t have to be a professional—a board member or a staff person who is naturally good at facilitation or has some training could do the job.

Helping your attendees network effectively is more important now than ever as people crave the professional connections and personal interactions they’ve been missing throughout the pandemic. The most successful meetings do more than set a stage: They actively encourage participation and provide an atmosphere, virtually and in person, that makes it easy and natural for people to engage.

Lisa Boylan

Lisa Boylan is a senior editor of Associations Now.

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Hybrid meetings have allowed associations to reach new audiences, attracting people who might never have attended without a virtual option. Smart organizations will take steps to bring them back to the next event, maybe even in person.