Virtual events offer a lot of benefits to an event organizer. They provide access to a wider audience, can allow for more diverse content, can create better sponsorship opportunities, keep attendees safe from coronavirus risks, and provide a much greater return on investment. But, it isn’t just organizers and planners that benefit from the move to a digital format. Virtual attendees can see benefits as well!Yes, people attend conferences and trade shows in order to learn and grow their skill set, but they also attend to network with other industry professionals. A virtual event means that those face-to-face interactions will not be possible but that does not mean that you can’t facilitate and encourage networking all the same. A virtual conference or trade show presents just as many great networking opportunities as a live event, you just need to make people aware of what is available to them![embed]https://youtu.be/CMCQ-_3KJoM[/embed]
Because you are not present in person to take in the mood in the room, and people no longer have body language cues to work from, you will need to help people get into the networking spirit. Here are some steps you can take to encourage meaningful connections and interaction:
Some people in your target audience will not immediately see the networking opportunities contained in your virtual event. To prevent these people from taking a pass completely, include the networking opportunities in your marketing efforts. Promote the event as having specific networking sessions, Q&As, breakout sessions, virtual cocktail parties, private social media groups, gamification, and anything else you have planned to bring people together. This information can be shared on your social media channels and email marketing campaigns but can be fully detailed on your event website. Providing this information will show potential attendees that you have considered the value of networking at a physical event and taking the necessary steps to offer similar opportunities in a virtual environment.
Telling people you are providing networking opportunities may not be enough to actually generate audience engagement. Show them how to take advantage of these networking opportunities. Put together a networking guide that you can email to each registrant before the event. Detail when and where they can access each networking session but also show them how to use the virtual event platform. Show them how to develop their avatar, fill out their profile, or use the text and video chat features. Explain to them how they can easily share their contact details with other event attendees. Does your platform allow for virtual business cards? Tell participants how to share and receive these business cards. At a live event, people often gather in the common spaces between sessions. At a virtual event, people won’t be able to say things like ‘meet me outside the exhibit hall.’ Show attendees how they can directly interact with and message other attendees. If someone wants to hold an impromptu breakout session or virtual meeting, show them where and how to find a meeting room. Send these details to registrants in advance of the event so they have time to digest and prepare. If you have the resources to put together a video guide, as well as written instructions, this can have a powerful impact and lead to greater attendee satisfaction and overall improved experience.
Similar to creating a guide, consider inviting each virtual attendee to a pre-event meetup or networking session. This virtual event can help attendees feel more comfortable with the technology they will be using and serve as a bit of an icebreaker, leading to a more relaxed social environment for the start of the event. These meetups will show people just how easy it is to connect in this format and eliminate any concerns they may have in that regard. Another option is to host a live session on social media. Depending on your event and its audience, Facebook and Instagram are great places to start. Start a live feed with a video that talks about the opportunities at your event, ask the audience specific questions, and encourages them to respond in the comments. From there, you can read out some of the questions and address the concerns in real-time. Viewers may start interacting with one another in this format but at the very least, it gives you the opportunity to put minds at ease and start hyping the networking capabilities in advance. The more excitement that you can generate around the possibility of networking at your event, the more people will embrace the opportunities when they present themselves. Remember, virtual and online events and virtual networking is a relatively new landscape for most people. While it really is quite simple, and most folks have been doing it in one form or another on social media for decades, the simplicity does not immediately translate. Folks are living with a lot of uncertainty right now and anything you can do to add clarifications and guidance is sure to be welcomed.
When sharing details about networking at your virtual event, remind participants that there are many benefits to meeting in a virtual venue. For many people, face-to-face interactions can be difficult or intimidating. Shy individuals, or those with social anxiety, are less likely to engage or speak up at live events. A virtual format can eliminate some of this struggle and lead more people to interact in a more meaningful way. Attendee avatars can provide attendees with a sense of control and help them project the exact image they want to convey. No more worrying about looking the part and no more facing prejudices and stereotypes that can crop up at in-person events. Virtual chats and networking put all participants on an equal footing and the strength of the interactions is based on substance and not on a variety of other, unrelated factors.
When hosting a virtual event, you cannot sit back and assume that your audience recognizes the myriad of networking opportunities that are available to them. You will need to put a little effort into showing them! By taking the steps listed above, you will not only appeal to people who are looking specifically to network but you will demonstrate for attendees how to make the most of their opportunities and connect with a community that might just span the globe!