After getting off the phone with Dr. Stephen Sands of Sands Research (stay tuned for a post on that interview), I hopped on Twitter to announce how much I love what I’m doing right now. I noticed #smchat was in progress and jumped in for the last 15 minutes. The topic was Realtime Trends for Conferences focused on how to make conferences more appealing through social sharing (transcript here).
There was some lamenting over waning interest in live attendance of conferences as content is shared in near real-time through social media channels. Others responded by pointing out the importance of face to face networking, and that got my neurons firing. I asked @thehealthmaven what the tipping point would be for her to attend a conference for the networking opportunities and she said, “business opportunity is the tipping point…hands down..that ROI just has to be there for me”.
What Needs to Change? Conference Networking Design
In an age of free-flowing content, if conferences want to lure business folks away from their desk, give up valuable production hours, and cough up registration, lodging and travel fees, networking opportunities need to be front and center, but they also need to be revamped and intentionally designed with human factors in mind (hat tip to Dr. Sands for the inspiration…it will all be revealed in the interview post).
We hear about the importance of networking, but do conferences take an active role in ensuring that networking opportunities are designed to be easy, pleasurable, and potently effective? No, they rely on old stand-bys of throwing some parties and naming them “networking events” where “enjoyable” and “ease” factors are sometimes left up to alchohol. Here’s the not so startling newsflash. These events work best for extroverts, only a small percentage of any given group. That leaves a lot of poor souls with dry mouths and anxiety, and if they walk away from an event with 10 business cards they then have to follow up. Does that sound like a situation that is promising enough for someone like @thehealthmaven to feel confident she’ll see some real ROI?
Think Outside the Box and Design for Human Factors
It’s time for conference organizers to think outside the box (like Tonia Ries does) on networking, designed with human nature in mind. Events that reduce anxiety, that facilitate putting the right people together, and have opportunities for interaction built in. If the real value of a conference is the networking, than ensure its value.
Think speed-networking events, like speed-dating, only for business relationships, not romantic ones. Divide people into two groups based on “need” and “service”. For example, businesses that are interested in expanding or creating a social media program are matched by a group of strategists and consulting, and the the speed networking begins. But businesses don’t want a bunch of follow-up calls from people they don’t want to “date” so further contact is left on the business side.
Think a large room of round-table discussions with each table having a variation on a topic, and folks play a form of musical chairs. 10 minutes the music starts to play and folks have to find a new table before the music stops. Find a way to make those discussions actionable for folks and allow for people’s best skills to shine.
Think of creating like-mind, like-size, like-skills networking rooms or areas. The “Triple Bottom Line” networking lounge for people interested in people, planet, profit. The networking lounge for introverts. The networking lounge for [fill in the blank]. Create smaller common grounds so people walk in already knowing their among “their” people.
Think about dedicated Twitter “mentioners”. Someone at every networking event and vendor booth tweeting about the people there. Like,
“At networking lounge for introverts and @verilliance is in passionate conversation with so-and-so about marketing and brain science”
“@verilliance is trying out our new user interface and just said “cool beans”, haha! Who says that?”
Tweet the little names, the middle names, not just the big names so that folks know if they talk to someone they’re going to get a shout-out.
So there you are, a few of many possibilities to make that “networking” aspect of conferences a much stronger pull so we can keep the face to face alive and well.
What are your ideas?