Picture this. You are an event attendee who loyally attends the same conference every year. What do you most look forward to (aside from getting you up to speed on the latest and greatest)?
You look forward to joining the 6:00 am running group in the streets of San Diego. You look forward to the networking lunch groups (you know...the ones assigned based on your interests or company type). You look forward to the networking happy hour in the exhibit hall where you can stroll through the booths and check out the cool swag. You're ready to rock-out at the after party taking place on the aircraft carrier. Or maybe, just maybe, if you’re an extrovert, you can’t wait to introduce yourself to the person next to you in session and start a conversation with them.
Enter a pandemic (yes, we are all so sick of hearing that word). Your favorite conference is still happening but this year, it’s virtual. Sure, it’s free and the content still looks great. You are quasi excited about the celebrity keynote presenters. But you worry that without all the other stuff you love, it won’t be the same. You ask yourself, is this really worth your time?
As event organizers, these are questions we need to ask ourselves as we plan virtual and hybrid events: How can I help my virtual attendees make the valuable connections that they would have made at my event pre COVID-19? How do I make it worth their time?
If all this seems obvious, it’s not. Planners are often busy with presenters, content, logistics, technical requirements, budgets, timelines etc. It’s easy to lose sight of that elusive connection factor when you are knee-deep in everything else.
To confuse things even further, hybrid events are popping up. With all the social distancing, your on-site experience will still have networking opportunities, but they will be different than before.
Bottom line, for some time to come, a large portion of your event audience will participate virtually so we all need to focus on helping our attendees make connections during a virtual event experience and well as on-site.
So how can you ensure your event helps your attendees make valuable connections?
Channeling your inner event guest, here are the top 8 things that can help create valuable event connections for your audience.
What Makes an Event Connection Meaningful?
Before we get into the “how”, what makes a connection valuable? In the events world, the terms “meaningful” and “valuable” are often used interchangeably and yet, they hold a certain level of ambiguity. What’s valuable to one person may be completely insignificant to someone else. For example, one person may find having a “best practice” conversation with a presenter or other attendee valuable while someone else may be looking to forge a connection for their next job opportunity. Yet another person may be searching for a new solution to solve a specific pain point in their job. For others, it could be something as simple as swapping on-the-job war stories. To throw an even bigger wrench into all this, timing is everything. A valuable connection can only be forged at a time when someone is seeking it which hopefully, is while they attend your event. When you think of creating value, think of it in these terms:
Value = right people + right connection opportunity + right timing
As an event planner, there are things you can do to increase the likelihood of all three of these happening at your event.
How to Create Valuable Event Connections
- Pre-Event Networking
Positive anticipation and participation begins before your event does. One way to help your attendees feel more connected during your event is through pre-event networking. By creating online communities or conducting icebreaker activities before your event starts, your attendees will be more likely to make meaningful connections by reaching out to people they recognize.
- Demolish Networking Time Boundaries
A wonderful bonus to this new world virtual or hybrid events is that they don’t need to be bound to specific dates. In addition to pre-event networking, why not go ahead and open your event early for the purpose of networking? If your event is hybrid, this is also an opportunity for your on-site and virtual attendees to mingle and share ideas. Consider opening up roundtable discussions and BOF networking rooms for early access of all your attendees.
- Network Matching
In today’s climate, event technology is essential. But if it is not intuitive, your attendees may negatively perceive the event (and the organizer). Connections and networking opportunities can be well matched in a virtual environment and on-site with the right AI matchmaking algorithms. The hottest exhibit is easy to find with up-to-date mobile venue maps.
MeetingPlay makes it easy for attendees to find other like-minded attendees either in-person or virtually by making both individual and networking and roundtable session recommendations based on role and topics of interest. Similar matchmaking is possible on an exhibitor and sponsor level to help attendees find products and services they may find valuable.
- Influence with Influencers
Influencer marketing is hot, so let it add some spark to your event marketing strategy. By engaging with thought leaders across content marketing and social media channels, not only can you boost attendance, you can also maximize value and connection opportunities. Consider collaborating with influencers who are meaningful to your audience.
Do this before your event to generate buzz, during your event for continued engagement, and after your event for advocacy. Intersperse “Ask Me Anything” sessions with your influences at key points during your agenda. If your event is hybrid, be sure to include questions from your virtual audience and your on-site audience for a unified, connective experience.
Not sure which influencers to use? Paid influencer platforms, such as NeoReach and HYPR, can help you identify and connect with relevant influencers. They use algorithms that pool data from all social networks, which makes finding the right influencers easy. Manual outreach is also effective, as you’re building a relationship directly with your target influencers. Do this by engaging with them on social media first. Contribute to the content they create and help them share it.
- Connect Through Shared Purpose
According to Dr. Graham Berridge, event management expert, professor, and published author, it’s important to align your event with a powerful social meaning. Incorporating co-creation and collaboration is a great way to boost connectivity at your next event. Examples include group activities, contests, and points-driven games that connect people with a common, philanthropic goal.
Don’t be afraid to create activities that require a team collaboration made up of both on-site and virtual attendees. Allowing people to collaborate for a common goal increases a sense of purposes and provides connectivity through shared experience.
Pro-Tip: Remember not every single person who attends your event is a game-player. Consider smaller collaborations or more strategic/serious games for experiences that will be meaningful to introverts as well.
- Enhance the Knowledge Transfer
Sometimes, people will attend your events just to gain access to certain speakers for valuable insights. Meaningful event experiences provide a powerful platform for value exchange. But don’t simply leave it to the speakers to be responsible for the knowledge-transfer portion of events. The learning experience starts with planning. Facilitate this with a thoughtful layout (think session designs and networking space) and communication tools (think chats and forums) to add value and increase engagement.
For example, encourage presenters to get involved in chat discussions and host Q&A before and after their sessions, even if their virtual session content is pre-recorded. This semi-live format enables extra contact with experts and is a huge value-add for the attendees. If your event is hybrid, consider making some sessions only available virtually to encourage more mixing and mingling among all attendees with presenters. Whether it’s knowledge transfer or the new connections from networking, all these small wins will guarantee a valuable event experience.
- Your Community is a Resources Hub
Do some post-event legwork by uploading your materials and virtual session recording to your community. This way, you can continue to engage attendees even after your event ends. They can discuss ideas with each other, ask for notes on sessions they couldn’t attend, and find all presentation materials in one place. Ask the speakers to share additional resources in the resource library that complement their presentation. Link continuing discussions to your event community and encourage people to share any thoughts or further questions in the discussions. This spurs engagement and the community becomes a connected source of knowledge for the event.
- Keep Your Event Open Longer
Remember what I said about timing being everything? As an event attendee, the best time to make a connection might actually be after your sessions have closed. The good news is having a virtual component means that there is no set date on when your event has to end. Keeping your event open longer encourages attendees to continue making connections and create community.
Having a list of attendees who have opted in to share their contact info with others available in your virtual platform and event app will make it much easier for attendees to forge valuable connections, thereby, increasing your event’s impact. Keeping a few networking sessions open long-term or creating post-event communities can accomplish the same.
You work tirelessly to pull off grand events year after year. Capitalize on these efforts by keeping value and connection at the heart of the event experience, while also recognizing the importance of timing. It is a challenge for sure, and it’s totally impossible to please everyone.
It’s an evolution of process, an agility of planning, a learning from experience, and a little elbow rubbing with human psychology. When the details come together to create an experience that connects, inspires, and imprints, you’ve done your job and done it well. Good luck!