What a year?! Who would’ve thought that we would embrace phrases like lockdown, quarantine, social distancing, and the new normal? Or that we would spend most of our days staring at our computers and phones talking to squares instead of flesh and blood people?
Despite being a monster of a year, we also adapted, personally, and professionally. So the moment we realized that we couldn’t meet in person to build professional networks at in-person events, we shifted to a more virtual setup.
Say hello to virtual networking events!
If you haven’t attended one of these events yet, it can seem daunting, but hosting a virtual networking conference can be quite an engaging experience. And it’s a great way to continue building your networks, even when we are physically separated.
But how do you have meaningful conversations with people you don’t know if you aren’t in the same room? We give you the lowdown.
Before Virtual Networking Events
So, what are the first steps you need to take? A lot has been written and said about how to host a virtual networking event. If you are looking to host a networking event online, here’s what you need to keep in mind.
#1 Define Your Purpose
Answer this first. Why do you want to organize a networking event? Are you trying to reach out to potential customers? Do you want to connect with industry experts and peers? Is this an intra-company event for co-workers in different locations? Is it meant to boost company morale?
Your purpose for hosting the event will help you design the perfect event and craft the right activities.
#2 Craft a Structure
What kind of networking event are you hoping to host? Will it be a Q&A session or an open forum? Do you want attendees to walk into breakout rooms and forge virtual connections? Deciding this will help you create a framework for all that follows.
Remember those family video calls where everything tends to descend into chaos? And all you want to do is mute everyone.
Your virtual event can be the same. People can constantly talk over each other. But it can also be too silent because everyone is shy to speak up. This is why a facilitator must lead the conversation, whether in the main video call room or in breakout sessions (if you’re hosting a large group).
#3 Create a Value Proposition
Think about what your audience expects out of the event and provide value.
Can you have a small session with a popular industry figure to jumpstart conversations and chats? Can you host a Q&A session with the speaker? This way, the attendees take home valuable information and the experience of interacting with an industry stalwart.
You can create themed breakout rooms and give attendees control. Let them decide which conversations they want to join. For example, if you are hosting a conference for digital nomads, you could have meeting rooms dedicated to legalities, the expat life, job opportunities, etc. This way, attendees can interact with people and topics which hold their interest.
#4 Consider the Size of Your Guest List
Sure, offline networking events have hundreds of people who can all mingle with each other. But when you host virtual networking events, you may need to restrict the number of people you host in one session.
If your attendees can be segmented, do so, and host separate sessions for each group. Experts suggest that virtual networking sessions should be limited to around eight or fewer people.
“In the virtual world, we recommend limiting yourself to eight guests (including you), to ensure participants have enough time to speak and interact… Remember to make sure there is a sufficient mix of people who don’t know each other, so that no one feels like the “odd man out” who has been randomly added to a reunion of old pals.”
Dorie Clark, Marketing Strategist & Alisa Cohn, Executive Coach | HBR
#5 Choose a Video Conferencing Platform
Here’s one thing you need to know. All video conferencing platforms aren’t made equal. Ask yourself what the most important thing for your event is? Consider factors like cost, customer support during the event, security, etc. It’s important to ask if there’s a limit on the number of attendees you can host. Ease of accessibility is also an essential factor to consider.
Most importantly, check what engagement features the platform has. Can people chat during the session? Can you organize engagement activities like quizzes and polls to keep the momentum going? Are there breakout rooms? Toasty’s breakout rooms allow you to create an “Open Room” block during which attendees can move around as they wish.
You can also choose to organize icebreaker games that match attendees one-on-one in breakout rooms. Inside these rooms, prompt and Ask cards make it easy for conversations to start and flow.
#6 Think About the Logistics
How easy is it for attendees to sign up for the session? This is something that you need to make super easy. Once a participant confirms their attendance, send them a calendar invite with a link to the platform you have chosen.
Do they need to download the software, or is the event password protected? Ensure that the logistics are taken care of, and attendees have all the information they need.
Send out a reminder mail a couple of days before the event. Use this opportunity to introduce your attendees to each other. Include their names, descriptions, and links to their LinkedIn (or any other professional platform) profile. Of course, ensure that you have the attendees’ permission to do so.
Do you have any guidelines for the networking event? Is there a fixed schedule? Share all these crucial bits of information with your email as well.
#7 Market Your Event
Even if you already have enough attendees and are not organizing this event to get more prospects, you will need to have a marketing plan. It’s not enough to send out emails. You need to think about what else you can do to make your networking session memorable.
Can you send attendees a gift bag, similar to what an offline event would have? A coffee mug for a virtual coffee catchup or a bottle of wine for a happy hours session is a nice touch.
Think about how you can take the event beyond the actual session? Can you create a networking group on a social media platform so that attendees can continue their conversations? Doing this will ensure that the buzz around the event lasts much longer than the actual session.
During Virtual Networking Events
So the day is finally here. What are the things you need to do on the day of? Here’s what needs your attention.
#8 Be There to Greet Them
At an offline event, you would have a reception desk and someone to greet participants and guide them. Do the same in a virtual setup. Make sure you start the session at least 5 minutes before everyone else so that you can let people in and don’t make them wait.
As the facilitator, greet them and talk to the attendees about what they can expect from the event.
#9 Have an Introductory Session
With a small guest list, you have the unique opportunity to get the attendees better acquainted. Host an introductory session assigning each participant two minutes to introduce themselves. Start with yourself so that people have something on which to model their introduction.
Even before the event, decide on an order to invite participants to introduce themselves instead of waiting for people to volunteer. Not sure if this would work? Use fun icebreakers that can help attendees relax and ease the tension while introducing themselves.
#10 Structure the Conversation
In a virtual networking session, it’s the facilitator’s job to ensure that the conversation is continuous and not dominated by a single person. It’s also up to the host to ensure that the discussion stays on topic.
As the host, begin the session by asking participants specific, relevant questions, and once they put forth their opinion, open the floor to questions from the group. Encourage other attendees to pose questions through virtual hand raises instead of interrupting a speaker. Underline this at the start of the event.
#11 End it Right
While it’s easy to prolong a virtual session beyond the fixed time, we suggest ending the event in 90 minutes. Video call fatigue is a real thing, and it can be super easy for your attendees to tire out if the session is too long.
Before you end the session, give your participants a clear CTA, whether that is signing up for your product/service or joining the community group you’ve created so that the conversation can continue.
After Virtual Networking Events
So the event is all done, and it was a huge success? Do you think your work is over? Far from it. Here’s what you need to do next.
#12 Send a Thank You Email
The idea behind holding virtual networking events is to build relationships. And a great way to do that is to thank your attendees after the session. Send an email with everyone CCd, encouraging them to nurture the connections one-on-one and thanking them for their participation.
In a virtual setup, being proactive about nurturing professional connections becomes even more critical. Online networking events can’t duplicate an in-person event, but they are unique experiences in their own right. And they provide you with a way to interact with your audience instead of just canceling events. And in our dictionary, that’s a pretty big win.
🙌 Virtual networking events are the secret to building your professional networks and meet potential clients. At Toasty, we are super kicked about now having the ability to have large-group events and enable meaningful conversations between people. Check out how we do this on our website.