As hybrid events become a “must have” option within the meetings and events industry, establishing the best networking options for attendees is paramount. Networking has long been synonymous with in-person meetings and events, and now, thanks to the pandemic, it has become one of the biggest challenges facing today’s meeting planners: How to create the face-to-face networking options in a virtual environment where participants can think they are receiving a solid “return on investment” as it relates to making contacts and connections?
Brad Weaber, principal at Brad Weaber Consulting Group LLC, works with companies and organizations looking to improve their marketing and networking efforts, including in the virtual realm. As such, Weaber stresses that the hybrid or multi-access environment is rapidly evolving as we continue to navigate the bouncing “forward” of events. “One of the biggest challenges is how you create the face-to-face, ‘coffee break’ hallway conversations in a virtual environment, as well as making sure that sponsors or exhibitors feel that they have appropriate return on the exposure and dollars they have spent,” Weaber says. “For many organizations, they are seeing a spike in attendance at events because the flexibility of how attendees can access the information is evolving — you have the in-person component for those who can attend and are comfortable, but you also are attracting more global attendees or attendees who attend virtually as it works with their schedules. Events are becoming more like sporting events — those who want to be live in the arena and those who want to watch on TV.”
Debra Dinnocenzo, president at VirtualWorks!, agrees that networking has become a challenge in the pandemic era for hybrid meetings and events, as well as for business owners, job seekers and marketers. “While livestreaming of meetings and events and virtual delivery of content has been expanding in recent years, even prior to the pandemic, our desire for face-to-face interaction permeates the expansion of networking capability within online meeting platforms,” Dinnocenzo says. “Although technology for virtual delivery of content and events has improved significantly, we’re still struggling with ways to network and connect in meaningful ways.”
Dinnocenzo adds that the pandemic forced the use of social media tools and easy-to-access platforms, such as Zoom, for engaging from a distance, so we’re moving in the right direction. And attendees who leverage the engagement tools available in the hybrid meetings and events environment can achieve their networking goals. VirtualWorks! does not offer technology tools or platforms, and is ‘agnostic’ about sources for such tools. The company’s focus is on the human side of the virtual workplace and remote or hybrid meetings environment. “There is a growing number of platforms to support the continuing need to offer and leverage remote or hybrid events,” Dinnocenzo says. These platforms typically incorporate features such as polling, chats and Q&As to foster engagement, which leads to successful networking. “However, features such as these that are not fully utilized within an event are just that — features, not robust tools to nurture engagement and networking,” Dinnocenzo says.
According to John Pokorney, partner and CFO of LeTip World Franchise LLC, a privately owned professional business networking organization that runs local networking meetings at least once a week, the key to running successful hybrid networking meetings includes technology, etiquette and breakouts. “First, you need to understand that everyone who attends, whether in-person or online, should be able to play a role in the meeting. You cannot treat online attendees as second-class citizens, or they will treat the meeting as an end-class event,” Pokorney says. “In order to do this, there has to be the proper equipment in the room where in-person attendees are attending and online members need to also have quality equipment. Trying to attend a networking event while you are driving in your car doesn’t provide the technology for interaction.”
That leads to the second must, which is proper etiquette. Prior to the event, attendees should know what is expected of them. As Pokorney explains, in-person attendees need to know that background noise travels worse online than it may in the room, and makes online attendees think they are not part of the activity. “Online attendees need to know that having a static picture of themselves instead of a live feed shows that they are not interested, while doing multiple tasks — we’ve seen vacuuming, doing dishes and feeding cats — while attending a meeting is showing no respect for the other people attending the meeting,” Pokorney says. “You wouldn’t bring your cat to an in-person meeting and feed them, so you shouldn’t do it online either.”
And using breakout groups to increase interaction is paramount. Having 20, 30 or 100 people in an online video meeting doesn’t allow interaction in the same way as you get in an in-person meeting, so Pokorney suggests using breakout sessions throughout a long meeting to allow more people to interact with each other.
Lee Gimpel, founder & principal at Better Meetings, a meeting design, facilitation and training company in Washington, D.C., says when it comes to networking within the hybrid meetings and events space, meeting planners feel like they have to connect people who are online with people who are in-person at a hybrid event. “We often think of networking as something that happens all at the same time within one big room, and then we try to approximate that with online or hybrid events,” Gimpel says. “However, a really practical approach is to do some individual matchmaking and not stress out about getting the technology to work as part of your event. In this case, you may just pair people up who seem to make sense, regardless of whether they’re attending in person or not, and then send them an email asking them to connect on their own time. Or perhaps you set aside some open time during the event to let people set up their own meetings. We can overcomplicate putting in a big technology solution, when it may just be convenient for two people to hop on the phone on their own.”
And Gimpel advises that meeting planners don’t just think about networking as what happens during a so-called “networking reception.” Rather, networking can also be a lot more subtle and covert. For example, if you have roundtables or little working groups at an event, that’s a great place for people to network with peers — even if networking isn’t part of the session description.
Dion Beary, former director of business development at Jumbo, a virtual event production company headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina, is seeing an evolution in thought regarding networking at hybrid events. Rather than planning the hybrid event as two separate components, one in-person and one online, the most imaginative event planners are finding ways to combine the remote and in-person networking opportunities into a seamless experience. “Savvy event planners are beginning to reject the introvert/extrovert dichotomy, where we falsely believe some people always find a cocktail mixer intimidating while others always find an email impersonal,” Beary says. “It’s like asking ‘Would you rather watch a movie at home or watch a movie in a theater?’ The answer depends on a host of factors on a given night, but we all agree we want the choice. The best hybrid events offer that choice.”
There are a whole variety of technology answers as to how to make that happen. First, both event planners and attendees are getting tired of Zoom, Meets, YouTube and other generic technology. “These just scream low-effort,” Beary says. “Structured interactivity is key when looking for hybrid networking technology. Look for tools that allow for multiple points of engagement. I’ve seen a lot of technology that values visuals over functionality. I’d avoid those like the plague. Most attendees we talk to are much more satisfied with easy-to-navigate linear websites than complicated gamified, rendered environments.”
To really help attendees engage in real time, Eric Holmen, CEO at Splash, an event marketing technology company, started using networking circles. As Holmen explains, when planning hybrid events, hosts can pre-create networking circles at any time during the event and break virtual attendees into small groups. “Whether you break them up randomly or take a ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ approach, these circles help promote networking through virtual, face-to-face conversation,” Holmen says. “Once the planned activity ends, the event host can bring everyone back to the main content. Essentially, event hosts have the power to ensure that virtual attendees feel as included and engaged as an in-person attendee, and that they’re able to network in real and valuable ways.”
Beary has also seen great watch-party technology that allows users to view live content while sitting at virtual tables with one another, as well as technology similar to game-based learning platform Kahoot!, where in-person and online users can both compete in trivia games. “One important technology consideration is to house multiple tools in one platform. This allows you to centralize attendee data for better engagement tracking, and to brand certain tools, allowing them to become sponsor elements,” Beary says.
Other hybrid networking techniques include Q&A sessions, where users submit their questions via online live chat, allowing in-person attendees and online attendees to have the same level of access to the speaker. “We’re also seeing full digital ecosystems where event maps and schedules exist in the same platform as virtual watch parties and hybrid live chats, pushing in-person attendees into the cyberspace world, deepening the experience for both sets of attendees,” Beary says.
Indeed, Weaber stresses that technology should be an accelerator, not a hindrance, in creating networking opportunities. The key is to know your attendees and use the technology that they are most comfortable in trying. “I have seen organizations using avatars that are wildly successful in creating a fun networking environment, but I have also seen it fall flat if the group is not tech savvy,” Weaber says. “Know your audience and select the right technology based on that. Having pre-show content and network marketing is invaluable to help energize the attendees.”
One of the most important and needed roles in creating a robust hybrid networking environment is to have a professional host/emcee keeping the audiences engaged and to help tell the story of what is happening at the event.
A very successful networking experience brings people together with like interests. For example, Weaber suggests a “Birds of a Feather” social networking for virtual audiences. They select a room where they can be with those of similar interests. This can be related to various work fields or more social. Social examples may have breakout virtual rooms with topics such as “wine lovers,” “gamers,” “binge-watching favorites,” etc. “I have also served as an onstage emcee for hybrid events where I am live in the room and the virtual audience is streaming, and then I go to an on-site studio during break times, meals, etc. and have ‘unplugged’ sessions with speakers to the virtual audiences so they can answer questions,” Weaber says. “Having an emcee report out live to the virtual audience with a sponsor or exhibitors can create custom experiences. There are also many virtual trade-show tools that have evolved so that they can serve both audiences.”
Dinnocenzo agrees that the key to effective remote/hybrid events — be they webinars, team meetings or major conferences that nurture engagement and support networking — is to utilize a skilled facilitator. The facilitator opens the event shortly before content delivery begins, welcomes attendees and engages in the chat to encourage attendee interaction. Throughout the event, the facilitator prompts additional interaction by posing questions in the chat, manages and comments on polls, and responds to questions and comments by attendees.
“The facilitator of a hybrid or remote event fills the role that the master of ceremonies plays in traditional on-site events, though without the ‘rah-rah’ and performance aspect that characterizes the emcee function at large events,” Dinnocenzo says. “Rather, the facilitator must be adept at creating a welcoming space, competent in prompting and responding to questions, and authentic in nurturing meaningful engagement.”
For further networking success, the event host can provide — with appropriate attendee permission — access to participant profiles, photos and contact information. As Dinnocenzo explains, this allows attendees to seek out event attendees with shared interests and find those who are relevant networking targets — just as they would do at an on-site event. Meeting hosts can also leverage social media platforms to encourage networking within and beyond the event.
Organizing a hybrid event is challenging enough, but when you try to incorporate successful networking programs within a hybrid event, even more challenges arise. “Meeting and event planners must recognize that remote and hybrid meetings are different. Not everyone wants to actively engage in online events — some participants elect to attend remotely because they are interested primarily in the content, and networking is of less value to them,” Dinnocenzo says. “So, sponsors and planners of remote or hybrid events must ensure that they are delivering great content, providing opportunities for and in support of networking, but not forcing interaction that doesn’t meet attendee needs.”
For example, use of breakout rooms can be an excellent way to nurture networking, but breakouts should be organized around participant interests rather than randomly assigning participants to breakout rooms for discussion. Where possible, let participants indicate areas of interest through polling or targeted chat questioning, and let them select breakout discussions that are of greatest interest.
Another human-side reality of hybrid events that event planners should consider is the essential role keyboarding plays in active engagement by attendees. As Dinnocenzo says, this is a barrier for some people who are uncomfortable sharing via text chat. “Also, engaging in text chat during an event can contribute to the downsides of multitasking, which can minimize the value derived from the event content,” she adds.
Weaber says the biggest mistake meeting planners make as it relates to hybrid networking is thinking that “one size fits all,” meaning a planner may try and do the same for the in-person audience and virtual audiences. “There is a distinct difference that can be overcome with creativity and having the right energy. I also see event professionals not taking risks enough. This is a time to try out creative ideas as audiences seem to crave something unique and overall are flexible and show grace towards the effort,” Weaber says. “Try it; they may like it.”
While the pandemic wreaked havoc within the meetings and events industry, one thing is for sure: Meeting planners embraced the challenges they were presented and used technology to bring together audiences in new and unique ways. For many, they think hybrid events are here to stay.
Weaber suggests that technology will become even more robust and costs should start to be more manageable as efficiencies are gained from what we have learned. “As the meta technology continues to evolve, this will be the space to watch on how it incorporates itself in the event realm,” Weaber says. “Multi-access events are here to stay, and while it may not make sense for every event, the number of events that will continue to have this as part of their experience will continue to grow. I&FMM