It used to be that content was king. If you looked at meetings a decade ago, says Shuli Golovinski, founder and CEO of events software company Newtonstrand and an innovator in this space, “It was 95 percent content and five percent networking.” But that’s changed — attendees want more networking events and less content (something they can always get online).
Meetings and events technology maven Corbin Ball, CSP, CMP, says that while networking has always had a role to play in events (“One good contact can pay for an entire trip,” he points out), the problem is that planners have never really had the right tools to facilitate it. “For years the key networking tool has been the name badge,” he says, adding that networking formats such as cocktail parties and receptions hadn’t changed much either.
The problem, says Golovinski, is that these conventional networking activities don’t work very well.
For example, a 15-minute networking break built into an all-day meeting program may work just fine for some individuals, particularly if they are extroverted. “So you may be a very open and easygoing guy who can start a conversation with anyone, but I’m kind of a shy guy,” Golovinski says. “I’m drinking a glass of wine, standing at the back of the room, waiting for someone to approach and start a discussion with me. So for people like me with that kind of personality, that 15 minutes is a waste of time — I’m not going to network with people during that break.”
Another networking activity is “speed networking,” which is akin to speed dating and which Golovinski says is potentially a “huge waste of time.” He recalls a speed-networking event he attended for the events industry in London in which he spent five minutes with a woman who really didn’t have a clue about what Golovinski did or could provide.
“I asked her what she did, and she told me she ran a dry cleaning service,” Golovinski says. Rather taken aback, he asked her why she was attending a function for the events industry and was told that many of her clients were from that industry so she considered herself to be an “events professional” who wanted to grow her business.
“So I told her — with all due respect — that this had been a total waste of my last five minutes,” he says. “I would prefer to spend 15 minutes with a planner instead of five minutes with the dry cleaning lady!”
In addition, Golovinski adds, from a numbers point of view, speed networking doesn’t make a lot of sense. If there are 50 people in the room and a planner wants all of them to meet each other in five-minute segments, that works out to about five hours of non-stop speaking. “So the question becomes that in a meeting or conference — some of which can be as big as 20,000 people — how do you identify the five or 10 people that you would like to meet throughout the event,” he says.
American Micro Devices (AMD), a multinational semiconductor company headquartered in Sunnyvale, CA, was the driving force behind the integration of a volunteer corporate responsibility event at a South by Southwest (SXSW) ECO Conference in Austin, TX.
It was the first time this kind of event had been integrated into the ECO Conference and, according to AMD Global Sustainability Manager Justin Murrill, it was inspired by a certain sense of disappointment with experiences at similar events in the past.
“When we come back from a lot of these events we talk about what we learned and what we liked about these conferences,” says Murrill. “And in our discussions with our director of corporate responsibility, we kept hearing ourselves talk about how the quality and quantity of networking at these events was limited. The other thing we are supposed to get excited about is the cause that we were there to support, but there was never any kind of action taken at the event. So we decided to do something about it.”
In organizing the corporate responsibility aspect of the event, AMD collaborated with other local businesses such as Dell and Whole Foods, as well as the City of Austin, Austin Community College and the University of Texas at Austin. It also partners with nonprofits such as Keep Austin Beautiful, the Waller Creek Conservancy, American YouthWorks and the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center.
“In our discussions with our director of corporate responsibility, we kept hearing ourselves talk about how the quality and quantity of networking at these events was limited.” — Justin Murrill
In conjunction with the conference, AMD sponsored the cleanup of Waller Creek, inviting hundreds of volunteers to help clean up trash along the urban waterway. Starting on the University of Texas campus, volunteers worked their way down to Lady Bird Lake, picking up litter by foot and by kayak. The daylong project covered 25 blocks of creek through central Austin and included tree planting on the UT campus.
So not only did AMD maximize attendee involvement in an activity that complemented what the conference was all about (environmental action), it also created a model it hopes it can follow in other events. And it did so in a manner that provided a unique networking opportunities for its employees — one that differed from the traditional reception/cocktail party that doesn’t always work.
So what did this event achieve from a networking perspective, that more conventional methods didn’t?
“I think there is an intrinsic value associated with the activity,” says Murrill. “So it creates a deeper, more meaningful experience when it comes to building relationships. It’s a much different experience that facilitates deeper conversations and gets people beyond the typical ‘who do you work for and what do you do?’ interaction. It’s the kind of discussion that will more likely lead to a continued relationship after that initial interaction.”
In addition, the activity itself, by definition, required a degree of collaboration and working with people, says Murrill. “You get three or four people together to try to figure out how to pull a waterlogged hammock out of a creek and other things like that that people can’t do themselves.” Making this group structure available within a prolonged time frame assures that everyone should interact with the other members of the group in a meaningful way.
The planners also held a reception after the event to provide the participants with a more typical networking experience.
Last July, networking events expert Sarah Michel, CSP, vice president, professional connexity, Velvet Chainsaw Consulting, Colorado Springs, CO, helped organize what is called “Sage City” for Sage Summit 2013, a huge annual gathering of customers and business partners of Sage, an accounting and business management software supplier for startup, small and mid-size businesses. It was held at the Gaylord National Resort and Conference Center in Washington, DC.
Instead of an opening general session with a keynote speaker, the summit features Sage City, a two-hour live conference networking event that allows people to meet and share what Michel refers to as “tacit knowledge” — the kind of actionable intelligence that people can use to solve their business problems.
“When you tell (attendees) ‘We’re going to make sure the networking you do is educational and we’re going to set it up for you to get some tacit knowledge,’ then that’s what they want.” — Sarah Michel, CSP
The most important aspect of Sage City, says Michel, is that it’s designed to foster networking not only during the actual event, but before and after as well. Before the Sage Summit takes place attendees are contacted and intelligence is gathered about an attendee’s background, interests, passions, concerns, as well as answers to random questions such as “name five people you’d like to sit next to during dinner.” The idea, Michel says, is to give attendees the opportunity to connect with people who work in the same space and are like-minded, “before they even got to the event.”
At the actual conference, the two-hour live networking event worked like theater-in-the-round — in this case a ballroom that on its perimeter had a series of villages representing the kinds of different jobs the attendees performed, with Michel in the center acting as the lead facilitator. And at each village participants had the chance to talk about hot topics collected from the attendees during the registration process. The groups met for two 40-minute rotations giving the attendees the opportunity to network in different villages and talk about different concerns “that kept them up at night.
“This got people connected from the get-go,” says Michel, “and those connections built up during the week.” And with the end of the conference came the creation of the “Sage City online community,” which gives the attendees the opportunity to continue the conversation that began back in Washington, DC.
This kind of emphasis on networking combined with education is critical, because that’s really what conference attendees are looking for, says Michel.
At the Sage Summit, slightly more than half of the attendees who were Sage customers were brand new to the event, she says. When she asked them as a group if they were at the meeting to network about half of them raised their hands. “But when I asked them how many were there to network, if the networking included education, almost everyone raised their hands,” Michel says.
So for many attendees the term networking still implies cocktail parties and discussions over bagel and coffee — activities many aren’t interested in, says Michel. “But when you reframe the question and tell them ‘we’re going to make sure the networking you do is educational and we’re going to set it up for you to get some tacit knowledge,’ then that’s what they want.”
What planners have to do is to create the space for that kind of networking to occur, Michel says. “Putting out bagels and coffee, saying we’re going to have a networking hour, and then hope that at least 50 percent of the room isn’t introverted and won’t know how to initiate a conversation, just isn’t going to work.”
What does technology have to offer? Newtonstrand has developed a tool called Chance2meet, which, Golovinski says, empowers structured networking. Prior to the event, attendees can log on to the event’s website where they can see the profiles of attendees (absent their personal and contact information) to get a sense of which ones are worth networking with.
It gives the attendees a chance to preschedule meetings — without the hassle of going through some ice-breaking process — so they can get right down to business and network for a prescribed period of time. “And if the chemistry is good, you can continue that discussion through and after the event,” Golovinski points out. “It’s a way for participants to take full advantage of a networking event.”
There’s been a “whole plethora” of social media tools that recently have been designed for meetings and events, says Ball. “Meetings were really the original social media, so they really go hand-in-hand with these new tools, many of which are free.”
One that he’s particularly excited about is a mobile networking application called Bizzabo. With Bizzabo a planner can create an instant social network for his or her attendees before an event takes place. The planner can incorporate event details such as logos, agendas, locations and social media links so that attendees can access meeting agendas, check out who’s attending the conference, message other attendees and schedule face-to-face meetings, and use social media links such as Twitter and LinkedIn.
Bizzabo also provides event analytics and polling features, which give planners some real data to work with while eliminating the need for feedback forms. “And it’s free, so the price is right,” says Ball. “It’s a good example of how mobile technology is changing networking.” Bizzabo also offers a tiered pricing schedule for larger events.
“We’re a gregarious animal — we’re always looking for ways to congregate and meet. It’s a biological imperative,” says Ball. “Now, we’re finally getting better tools to do it with.” C&IT