February 25, 2021
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PLANNERS: Virtual Networking is NOT Working

Walt Williams, Reporter at CEO Update, an independent publication covering association news, recently reached out to 360 Live Media for insights on how to best facilitate networking opportunities for virtual event attendees. The article, Making Networking a Valuable Experience in Virtual Events, published Feb. 4, 2021 is accessible online to all CEO Update subscribers.

Beth Surmont, Vice President of Event Business Strategy & Design at 360 Live Media, had more than a few things to say on the topic of virtual networking, so we dug in to share some tips and thinking with our fabulous association event planner community.

Beth will also resume hosting our monthly Event Innovators Exchange webinars on March, 31. Our first session will be a discussion on the current state of events and what to expect this year. Sign up here.

Q: First things first, is virtual networking the here and now, or the future?

Beth: Building community and bringing people together is the always, no matter whether it is in-person or online.

We were doing virtual before virtual was cool, so I've been happy to see the technology evolve in the virtual event space dramatically over the past year. Its become incredibly accommodating and user-friendly.  

Virtual meetings are going to be here for a while and that's a good thing. There are many things that in-person events do really well, but there are just as many things that virtual events do really well.  What I'm passionate about is the intersection of the two.

Extrapolating the best of both worlds for an omnichannel model is a conversation I have every day with our clients.

"We were doing virtual before virtual was cool."
Q: Does networking work in the virtual space?

Beth: I look at business cards the same way I look at the word 'networking.' If I leave an encounter with a stack of names that I may never look at again, the 'networking' aspect wasn't sufficient.

Networking is a passive catch-all, vanilla ice cream word. What we need to ask is, "networking...in the service of what?"

Call it something tangible that your attendees can truly understand. Call it idea-sharing. Call it solution building. Call it business building.

Once you can identify the purpose, you can design the experience around the goal.

Q: How do you foster business building at a virtual event?

Beth: Virtual experiences have to be highly intentional for all attendees, and planners need to be thinking about human-centered design. You have to over-engineer the experience in the digital space and make every decision through the eyes of your audience.

Events are inherently designed for extroverts. One of the things that has been a welcomed benefit of the digital space is the comfort it provides to introverts who are also looking to find solutions and advance their projects.

360 Live Media did more than 10,000 hours of virtual events in 2020. And one of the things that we saw is that the most successful interactions online were small groups of approximately eight people focused on a topic or a challenge.

A great format example is that attendees start in a large room with a level set panel discussion. Then you give them guidance for what to "do" during the second part of the session before sending attendees into breakout rooms. Breakout rooms allow people to talk to each other, provide commentary and further context on the main topic, and work on an outcome. Then reconvene the whole group and summarize. Remind people what they accomplished as a group and how to apply it to the real world.

Virtual experiences have to be highly intentional for all attendees, and it's critical that planner think about human-centered design.

Q. Can virtually networking be fun?

Beth: Absolutely. People attend a conference to meet other people, and their expectations are rising. Participants not only want more highly produced sessions that look like TV(music, lower thirds, green screens), they expect meaningful interactions mixed with fun.

And the key to a successful virtual event is that you want to facilitate business building, idea sharing, and collaborative moments without it feeling like work. Virtual "networking" is "not working." 

If you want to have some fun this year, just ping me at Beth@360livemedia.com. I've got a list of proven tactics.

Q. Last question. How do we carry back the lessons we learned in the digital space this past year to the in-person event to make it better?

Beth: I've made my career in bringing people together to make the world a better place, and virtual has exposed the flaws that we have in our in-person events.

When we can meet in-person again, events are going to look very different. They'll be better. Our receptions will be less about the finger food and drink and more about helping our attendees accomplish their goals.

Beth Surmont is a Certified Meeting Planner and Certified Association Executive. She was named one of the Top 25Influencers in the Meetings Industry in 2020 by Northstar Meetings Group, and BizBash named her 1000 Most Influential People in Events in 2019.

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