How to turn your event into a business networking platform

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This is a guest post by Shuli Golovinski, founder and CEO of events software company Newtonstrand Innovations and author of Event 3.0—How generation Y & Z are re-shaping the events industry and From Gimmicks to Value: The Future of the Events Industry. A two-time winner of the Bill Gates Innovation Award, Golovinski has spent the past 15 years thinking about ways to revolutionize the events industry. Here's how he thinks we can rev up the networking that happens at meetings and events.

We used to think that people just came to conferences to listen and learn, not network, and so we didn’t give it a lot of thought beyond the usual coffee breaks and receptions. Now we know that this isn’t true, that participants want to network and socialize in order to create business connections with others. In fact, today’s attendees measure a lot of an event's successfulness by the connections they make.

While meeting planners now know that networking is a critical part of any event and that they must create enough time for it the meeting, most of what we call “networking” at our conferences is not effective in enabling attendees to build a true platform for business.

Breaking down traditional networking breaks
Although networking breaks over coffee or buffet lunches do provide opportunities for attendees to get to know each other, they are far too short to allow delegates to have meaningful conversations. And there’s no way for people to find the right people to talk with. If they meet a key contact for future business, it will be by chance, not design.

A second problem with this type of networking is that it depends on the personal ability of the individual to reach out and meet new people. If they are outgoing, they come to an event with stacks of business cards and within an hour will have handed most of them out. But introverts are more likely to stand at the back of the room and wait for someone to approach. These delegates are not able to maximize their networking and future business opportunities in the traditional setting.

Another problem with this type of networking is that participants need to use this short break to reach out to people they don’t know. However, this is a rare thing because most are going to stay in their comfort zone and just speak with people they know. They are not really networking, they are mingling with friends and colleagues they already work with.

Business speed dating
Some event organizers have tried to solve these problems by introducing business speed dating to the event. The main problem with this is that delegates waste a lot of time with people who are just not relevant for them or their business. They end up spending five or 10 minutes with people they may not need to have any future connection with. Instead of having an hour of 12 five-minute meetings with non-relevant people, delegates would prefer to have four 15-minute meetings with potential customers. However, they can’t identify who these potential customers or associates are until they get around to talking to them.

Another problem with business speed dating is that it simply cannot work on a large scale. Imagine as an event organizer trying to introduce 50 people or companies to each other. Each person needs to talk or present for at least five minutes, which equals 250 minutes. Add in some breaks and this would take up five hours of the conference! Just think how much time it would take to connect 100 people to each other, or 1,000. This amount of talking is just not feasible, and even if it were, I doubt attendees who experienced it would ever choose attend a future event like that.

The structured networking track
There must be a structured networking track that allows delegates to see who else will be there, including exhibitors, sponsors, attendees, and speakers. Then they can pre-schedule one-on-one 15-minute meetings on site that take place at numbered tables. This way delegates don’t have to break the ice: If they know they have a meeting at table 14 at 1 pm, they can go straight to that table. The attendee has arranged the meeting and both parties at that table are there to discuss potential business with each other. With the 15-minute time limit, they can get right down to business, but they also can extend the conversation later during coffee breaks or evening social events.

The event organizer can consider who may want to meet with whom at the event. Today it is very common for delegates—normally hosted buyers—to meet with exhibitors via a prearranged meeting. However, speakers may want to meet with members of the press or event attendees. Delegates may want to meet with other delegates. Exhibitors may want to meet with press and speakers.

Embracing the new business and fun framework
But we need more than just structured networking—we also need to bring the fun back by creating an environment where delegates can mingle with people they have met during the day or with industry colleagues in a relaxed atmosphere. A formal dinner only allows delegates to sit with a limited number of people—often the same ones they have been with all day. They will be listening to more speakers and perhaps seeing some entertainment but not actually getting to know their colleagues. Cocktail parties allow industry delegates to build future friendships, based on business as well as personal interests. These friendships will create an element of trust for the future business relationship—those who have gotten to know each other personally will feel more at ease asking for business help or suggesting future business ideas.

As a meeting or event planner, your objective will not be to keep your networking track as a “hidden gem” to be discovered when an attendee arrives. It will be one of the main draws to get them to come to the event, and this is where organizers can turn their events into a true business platforms. It is up to us in the industry to help develop the new formats needed in events by creating an incredible experience for traditional members who have been in the industry for many years, as well as opening our meetings and networking possibilities for the new younger members, ensuring we meet and exceed the needs of all delegates.

To quote from my latest book, Event 3.0—How Generation Y & Z are re-shaping the events industry, “Networking is going to happen whenever people with similar interests come into close proximity to one another. As an event organizer, your best bet is to create a place where this natural networking is going to not only be allowed but encouraged. Part of the networking is making sure people can find one another. However, simply finding each other isn’t enough. You need to make your events into fertile ground for getting people to interact with one another, as opposed to simply meeting by chance.”

Note from Sue: Shuli’s company, Newtonstrand, developed the Chance2Meet structured networking platform more than seven years ago to provide the type of networking potential he talks about in this post.

What do you think of the latest in pre-, during, and post-show technologies designed to promote networking? Do they encourage the kind of interaction he's talking about, or is it difficult to get enough people to buy into the program and participate to make it really sing? And one final question: How does (or does) the rise of social media affect the need for this type of formal, structured networking program?

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