Remember the feeling of bumping into an old friend at an in-person conference? You two step off to the side in the conference center hallway and take a few minutes to catch up before moving on to see the keynote speech together or to go find new medical professionals to network with. Your friend maybe even pulls you into a new conversation and introduces you to other people they know. If your conversation is cut short, you can always meet up later during the event when there's time. This is how fluid networking can be in real life.
With COVID bringing annual meetings and conferences online, we've found that members and planners everywhere are missing the delightful and spontaneous interactions of in-person networking. After speaking with dozens of event hosts, we found what problems hosts are struggling with most and what solutions the savviest meeting planners have discovered.
By now most people have experienced being in a large conference call. 50 faces are present but right now you're only interested in one: Stacy, a friend you met at last year's conference. With 48 others watching and listening, how can you possibly feel encouraged to say hello and catch up, something that would be easy in a real-life crowd? In group calls—even in smaller break-out rooms—you often don't have a space to seek out the people you know or the people you want to meet. Even if you're in the same online room as them, it's awkward to try and start a side conversation between just the two of you, as everyone else has to sit and listen.
An online networking platform should have the ability to host multiple conversations at once and enable people to pick who they talk to. With more simultaneous conversations going on, you ultimately get people to speak and listen for longer, which increases their interest in and engagement with the conversations they are in. It's like the difference between watching people take turns dancing on stage and everyone dancing together on the dance floor: it's clear which option gets people on their feet and excited to contribute.
Some attempts at hosting simultaneous and intimate conversations have resulted in randomized, timed networking sessions. You might have attended one of these sessions before. You get paired with someone and only have one minute to tell your story and another minute to listen to theirs, and you attempt to make a connection before you're automatically whisked away to the next pairing. Sure, it's very efficient and you quickly get to know a lot of people, but that's often where the interaction ends. Maybe you were interested in 3 of the 20 people you talked to, but it takes extra initiative to seek out their contact info and follow-up after the session.
At real-life events, there's plenty of opportunities to pick up these sorts of conversations where they left off: at the buffet line, while waiting for the elevator, or during a gap in the program schedule, to name a few. With online events, you don't always have the chance of bumping into people again or the ability to walk together to the next activity. Any gaps in the programming are competing with people's obligations to other tasks and the overall fatigue of being online for hours on end. Since your attendees' time and attention are harder to hold on to during an online event, shouldn't you optimize the time they have for networking?
What does a fluid networking experience look like and how can you create an event that embraces that? A lot of what makes networking successful is how attendee-driven it is. Members should be able to scan the room, choose who they want to talk to, and talk with them for however long they want.
Maybe you see another doctor whose research paper you recently read and loved, so you go discuss the topic with her. Your conversation eventually morphs into something different like recruiting research assistants, and she pulls you over to another professional whom she consulted in order to find good candidates.
This conversational freedom can be recreated online simply by letting attendees drive their own interactions. The way we do this at Gatherly is by providing a digital space where attendees can walk around and talk to people, much like they would be able to do in a room at an in-person networking event.
Unfortunately, none of this matters if you can't get people to come to your online networking sessions in the first place. Attending a networking session at an in-person conference is often as easy as walking over to the next room. It's probably already marked in your itinerary and you came all this way for the conference, so why not join the session?
The internet makes changing between tabs and windows so easy, but it also makes it easy to lose people to other distractions. Being at home and online creates a lot of distractions that fight for the attention of your attendees: kids, dinner, date nights, work, emails, funny cat videos, etc. Every transition in your online itinerary is an opening for people to fall through the cracks and for your attendance to dwindle. Because of this, you need to make sure your transitions are as easy and enticing as walking over to the next room at an in-person event, even if it's just to peek at what's happening.
The easy solution to this would be to lock everyone into one platform in which you can handle speeches, poster presentations, panels, group sessions, and networking. Of course, event planning is often not that simple. That's why, at Gatherly, we are eager to help with integrations into other platforms to make sure the switches between conference calls and networking sessions are as smooth as butter. We want to keep the door to networking wide open and help you encourage meaningful online connections between your members.
Being online and tuned in all day to endless meetings is hard enough for your attendees, so your networking sessions should provide opportunities to let them take back control and hang out with the people they want to, all while building a strong and interconnected community within your association. By letting attendees easily join networking sessions where they can have organic and fluid interactions, you'll be creating the types of events that they are excited to attend in the future.
At Gatherly, we are excited to navigate this growing online events space with you! If you're looking for advice on what platforms to use or how to make your event more engaging, feel free to reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.