For now, the days where you walked around in a suit with a glass of wine and a cheese plate talking to strangers are suspended. (The good news is that it’s impossible to hold both and shake hands simultaneously, without dropping something). At first, event organizers were mystified at how to facilitate virtual networking, and some cut it out all together.
Yet cutting networking eliminates a central reason that people attend events. At some conferences I've been to, barely anyone even attends the speaker sessions, because they are embroiled in meetings and conversations in unofficial areas the entire time - that’s how central networking is to the overall experience. Networking serves a variety of purposes: fueling sales funnels, finding new clients, doing business deals, looking for new job opportunities, making new contacts, finding people to collaborate with, and gleaning the positive feelings that come with meeting new people.
Benefits of Virtual Networking
Even though it’s a bummer not to be able to network in person, there are some overlooked benefits to networking at virtual events.
Easier follow up
Most virtual networking platforms provide easy links to a participant’s LinkedIn profile, calendar, and bio. With the click of a mouse, participants can immediately add someone on LinkedIn or schedule a call with them. This beats wading through that onerous stack of business cards after the event, an easily forgotten task.
Meet a wider net of people
Networking can be anxiety-inducing. Everyone has those solitary moments at networking events, where you suddenly do not know who to talk to, and likely end up back at the bar. Different software breakout features (Zoom and Icebreaker) match participants at random for conversations. This expands the diversity of who you meet and eliminates social anxiety because it doesn’t put the onus on you to go up and talk to someone. The global reach of virtual events also expands your capacity to network outside of your immediate geographic region. You can develop professional relationships with peers around the globe. Last week I spoke at a conference featuring participants from Liberia, Brazil, Switzerland, the UK, Australia, and more. Many were social entrepreneurs and creatives that likely wouldn’t have been able to travel to an in-person event.
Success Tactics for Virtual Networking
Here are some tactics that help you make a virtual networking event successful.
Strongly encourage using video
Regardless of all the technologies that exist, facilitating connections on the internet is not easy. According to studies done in 1967 by Albert Mehrabian, communication is 7% words, 38% tone of voice, and 55% facial and body language. As Dr. Vivek Murthy, author of Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World remarks, “The reason that online dialogue is so challenged….is because there is no relational contact for those exchanges. There are also no visual cues….when you are devoid of body language and the tone of one's voice, it can lead to toxic exchanges between people.” This is why Facebook debates can get so nasty.
It can also be difficult to discern emotions through lean media interaction. Emotions deliver the information we need to determine our reaction. Mark Brackett, the author of “Permission to Feel,” remarks “Emotions are signals to approach or avoid. Without visible emotions, it can be impossible to know how to proceed and difficult to connect."
Thus, we recommend that all participants utilize video for virtual networking. Be clear about the dress code in advance, so that people know if they are expected to attend in a blazer or will be fine in workout clothes. You can also clear the air for parents and pet owners, putting it out there that a dog may bark or child could interrupt, and that it's ok.
Participants should also not feel shy about their physical backgrounds. Seeing someone in their personal space provides a bigger window into who they are, which makes it easier to connect. When other participants see their living room, meet their pets, or interact with their kids, it is not only humorous, it is human. You see the side of someone that might never appear at an in-person event. You see what’s on their bookshelf, the posters on the wall, and the photography from their travels. It makes it much easier to relate.
Allow participants to opt- in to appear on a list with just their names and LinkedIn profile that can be shared with other participants before the event, so that people can check out who is going, and feel more comfortable going into it. Also, share the structure of the networking session in advance. Knowing what to expect will alleviate anxiety for introverts. It will also help people to know whether there will be people there with whom they want to network with.
You can also create an online community where participants can see and interact with each other before and after an event.
In the virtual networking format, how much time is necessary to foster a connection between two people?
There's no hard science to this, my recommendation is based upon anecdotes running a myriad of networking events.
I suggest at least 7 minutes for a 1:1 initial conversation, which allows wiggle room for tech issues and frozen screens. The conversation is not expected to foster true love but should allow enough space for participants to connect and assess areas of synergy or collaboration.
Participants should introduce themselves first and spend a minute or two talking about what they are working on, to give context for the conversation, before diving into icebreaker questions. Though icebreaker questions can be well-intentioned, spending seven minutes talking about the tv series you’ve watched during quarantine doesn’t really help you to get to know someone, or to evaluate if there is room for collaboration. If you do use icebreaker questions, a best practice is to start with casual questions and then make them increasingly related to the topic of the event.
To foster honest connections, you'll need to create an environment of trust. How does one do that?
In “The Science of Interpersonal Trust," Dr. Randy Borum says, “the affective component of trust is based upon shared goals, beliefs, values, and even identities among the parties.”
Thus, emphasizing any shared goals, beliefs, values, or similarities between participants can effectively prime participants for open conversation. Emphasizing similarities or overarching goals also reduces any perceived in-group/out-group bias.
For example, if it is a conference or networking event about future trends in healthcare, you can infer that everyone cares about promoting better healthcare. That’s a value and a similarity that you can make salient to participants. If you use icebreaker questions, develop one around belief systems, ie, why is this issue important to you?
Let’s give them something to talk about…
Often the conversation is much richer when content comes before it or interspersed, rather than a networking event alone. One model that we have seen work in the virtual space is to intersperse lightning talks with networking. Have a speaker or participant give a 3-minute virtual talk, and then break out into 1:1s or groups. Give them questions to discuss based on the content of the talk. For fun, you can give the speaker access to drop in on different groups to interact. Then come back together and move onto the next talk. This quick format will keep people engaged versus an hour-long speaker that can drag on.
I suggest a maximum of 6 people in a virtual breakout room or a virtual roundtable.
- For 1:1 - 7 minutes.
- For 4 people: 10 - 15 minutes.
- For 6 people 15-20 minutes.
We've seen networking events where a virtual roundtable of six people are expected to contribute their voices in 5 minutes. It is impossible for everyone to get to speak for even one minute in that format, and leaves everyone feeling unsatisfied. In every event that I’ve run, people always request more time in the breakout groups.
Use a facilitator
All events should have a moderator. Their role is to keep things organized, give instructions, conduct “housekeeping,” and keep things on schedule.
But there's another role we see as critical to online events.
At the best live networking events, there is at least one person floating around the room making introductions, eliciting introverted voices, and prompting conversation. We call this person the facilitator. Hiring a facilitator is even more important in the virtual space, which can feel very awkward. In the latter, it is often unclear who is supposed to speak first and things can easily become a jumbled mess, where the same voices are always speaking.
I have facilitated dozens of events and workshops, and work as a team with the moderator. The moderator is typically too consumed by logistics to serve as both and might not have a trained facilitator’s skill set. Putting the two together creates magic.
Some roles of a facilitator:
- Conducting opening and closing exercises
- Running creative participant introductions
- Clarifying questions
- Ensuring inclusivity in discussions
- Bringing out shy voices
- Making/easing introductions
- Tying themes and remarks together
- Energizing participants
- Engaging participants through humor
- Helping people to have fun
- Helping people to get what they are looking for out of the event
- Posing thoughtful and inspiring questions
- Elevating discussions to a deeper level
The facilitator can also move between breakout groups in software like Zoom, where they can help bring conversations to the next level.
As Toni Morrison said, "People will forget what you say, but they will never forget how you made them feel."
A facilitator can make the difference between a mediocre event that blends into the rest, and a spectacular event that people won't forget because it got them out of their head and into their heart.
Fun activities for virtual networking events
There are a variety of things you can do to create an engaging and entertaining virtual networking experience. Here are a few of my favorites:
Host a musician - Musicians are struggling right now due to the lack of live shows, and people are sad they can’t go to the theater or concerts anymore. Hire a musician to come on and do a few sets, or a DJ to provide dance music between sessions. The platform High Fidelity is terrific for hosting musicians. Participants, represented by colorful dots, can "gather" around the music booth and move the dots around to simulate dancing. Crystal clear sound is great for the audience, and the lack of a live chat means the musician doesn't have to worry about a chat and can focus on performing. High Fidelity can also be used for “background” music because people can move their little dots on the screen far enough away from the music that it can still be heard, but still have an audible conversation.
Cocktail kits - Send participants cocktail kits in advance, and hire a mixologist to instruct them in a cocktail making class to start the night off right.
Comedians - Break it up with a stand-up comedian cracking a few jokes. Especially right now when things are rough for a lot of people, participants will be grateful for the comedy and laughter.
Improv- Starting out with some improv exercises is also a great way to get people to open up, get their creative juices flowing, and let down their guard before they meet other people. A good facilitator can run these.
Clothes/Attire - Can you ask participants to wear a certain color, a fancy hat, or to bring their favorite memento to share? You could even send them surprise swag in the mail to wear. Anything that could be a fun conversation starter.
Dancing - Hire a salsa instructor to give a brief dance class or teach a few steps. Encourage people to get up out of their chairs and dance together.
Invite Your Pet - Ask participants to introduce their pet to the group, and to share a funny anecdote about their pet.
Virtual Networking Software
If you’re holding an event specifically for networking, there is highly customized software built explicitly for this purpose. Here are a few worth considering:
Swapcard is a software program that uses AI to match people for networking.
Price: Starts at Free for basic, $7/attendee
Use case: Virtual conference networking
Braindates are one-one or small group meetings based upon a proposed topic. They can help to align participants around specific learning outcomes.
Pricing: Contact to learn more
Use case: Virtual conference networking
Brella’s secret sauce is its AI-based matchmaking of attendees, based upon mutual interests and goals. They call it “intent-based” matchmaking.
Price: Contact to learn more
Use case: Virtual conference networking
Remo simulates a reception room at an event where participants are seated at virtual tables. They can then get up and move tables to network with different people for set periods of time.
Price: Starts at $100 mth/50 attendees, $360 mth/200 attendees, $680 mth/500 attendees
Use case: Virtual conference networking, virtual conferences
Icebreaker is a platform with different themed ice breaker questions specifically designed for networking.
Price: Contact to learn more
Use case: Virtual conference networking, happy hour
High Fidelity (BETA)
High Fidelity simulates a real party. The host can choose a photo to superimpose on the background, so participants can feel as if they are walking into a lawn party in the back of a Hamptons house, or on the deck at a Newport mansion. Voices dim in and out based upon where the participant (a colorful dot) is situated, like at a real networking event.
Price: Free while in BETA
Use case: Virtual conference networking, concert, happy hour, party
For groups of 50 and less, Toasty’s software splits up breakout groups based upon learning activities, and has interactive games, such as “personal interests guessing,” and “who said it.” They also have plugins for Miro and Google Docs for holding interactive workshops.
Use case: Virtual conference networking, happy hour, video meetings, workshops
If you utilize creativity and create a space where participants can have fun, virtual networking events can be enjoyable. They can expand the boundaries of who we get to meet, make it easy and quick to connect with others, and involve enjoyable activities similar to those that we would get to experience in person. The best part is that none of this is tried and true, and the capacity to try new things in this space without judgment is endless.
Samantha is a facilitator, trainer, and public speaker with a specific focus on DEI, women’s leadership, and social impact. She has run workshops and trainings all over the world at educational institutions, NGOs, and companies, such as Harvard University, IE Business School, Verizon, Slalom, and CRESA. She is the founder of Empower Global, and is also a trainer for Equal Reality, a virtual reality company focused on DEI, and CREDAS consulting.