Like many of you, I attended my first virtual conference a few months ago and while the content was great, I missed the networking that I value so much from conferences. 

Now, I’m planning my second virtual conference of my own and I’m prioritizing not only implementing technology that supports networking, but making sure that I create a culture in the conference around actually using it.  What follows is some advice for both conference organizers and attendees to get the most networking out of an event.

Principle #1:  Talking heads put people into “passive mode” and they check out.

Solution: Mix up engagement models throughout the conference. 

Sure you can have keynotes and panels if you must, but then have breakout sessions where people are encouraged to talk, question and share.  Build in plenty of “white space” – time where people can engage with the networking opportunities your virtual conference has provided.  And finally, provide opportunities for both one-on-one networking and small group interactions.

My first virtual conference had built in networking functionality, but I really couldn’t figure out how to use it, and when I did reach out to others, they apparently couldn’t figure out how to respond either.  Online networking is as much a “warmware” issue as a software challenge.  Conference organizers need to not only have software that facilitates networking and collisions, but they need to train users to make sure that they understand how it all works and that using this functionality is expected of them.

I started planning by thinking about how networking happens at face to face conferences.  There were six main ways that I connect with my peers at conferences:

  1. “Collisions” where I run into peers in the hallways at events.
  2. In session connections – it can be rude, but finding someone you know and sitting next to them and chatting when appropriate.
  3. “Clusters” where three to five people meet up casually in-between sessions and chat.
  4. Meals and Cocktails where you seek out people you want to meet with and have lunch, dinner or cocktails with them.
  5. Trade show style booths are also a way to meet with vendors you’re hoping to connect with.
  6. Pre-scheduled meetings are a more intentional way to make sure that you meet up with the people you need to see at an event.

All of these are based on finding a physical space or place to connect which seems to run counter to the structure of a “virtual conference.”

When planning for my upcoming conference, I thought of it not so much as a website, but as a physical event space.  Here’s a blueprint I came up with to designate the reception and checking area, hallways, breakout sessions, plenary sessions, and vendor booths. 

By breaking all of the different ways that people would interact with each other into a physical space model, it makes it easier for conference attendees to get a feel for how they are supposed to interact in this unfamiliar virtual conference space.  As an attendee I can see the expo hall options, the network drop-in sessions, one on one opportunities and the presentation spaces.

To make this work, we ended up doing something a bit unconventional.  We used Hopin as the reception and networking areas for the conference, and Zoom for the Plenary and Roundtable sessions.

We did this because Zoom is well established and familiar to everyone.  We needed a platform that our speakers could plug into easily and that would have familiar interfaces for presenters to share their screens while viewers had the ability to connect via chat.  But Zoom means talking heads and we wanted to break out of that mold. We really like the concept of Hopin and it has some of the best networking options we’ve seen, but the Main Stage is quite difficult to navigate and getting someone backstage is tricky.  Once they’re there, sharing screens and seeing what you’re presenting is not so easy.  Rather than risk a disaster, we opted for the dual platform.

Hopin’s networking allows us to facilitate multiple types of networking on the platform, which is really great.  Here are the ways we used Hopin to facilitate connections at the conference:

  1. Hang out rooms – We created Hopin “sessions” where participants can join in with smaller groups to get to know each other.  These sessions are open during the entire conference, so attendees can stop by any time and see who’s in the rom.
  2. One-on-one Networking is a great feature in Hopin.  This zone automatically pairs participants who opt-in to be connected with each other for three minutes (or longer if they want to extend) and then the platform facilitates sharing contact information if they want to connect later.  I found this function to be fun and to be a great way to meet people in a way that I wouldn’t easily have available to me at a typical in-person conference.  It is similar to speed-dating networking sessions I’ve seen at certain events, but not typically at conferences.
  3. Wine-Down:  We’ve created an end of day small group networking opportunity for participants to grab a glass of wine, beer or cocktail of their choice and connect with others at the conference in a casual setting.  We supply sample discussion points to get things going, but those are strictly optional and people can chat about whatever they like.  We set up a wine sponsor who sent discounted gift boxes of high quality single serve wines to participants who opted in for that. 
  4. Trade Show Booths
  5. Impromptu Sessions with one or more participants

For the Roundtable sessions, we opened up Four Zoom Rooms so that each of the different breakout topics would have their own room.  With this structure, we were able to allow all participants to be able to turn on their video and microphones and actually engage in discussion.  (Of course, microphones go on mute when not speaking.)  We could host between 100 and 500 people in each of these sessions.

Plenary sessions where everyone is viewing keynote speakers or, in our case, venture capital pitches, were also done in Zoom.  This allowed us to switch rapidly between presenters and everyone was already familiar with the platform.  The key, though, is never to have more than sixty minutes with any one kind of interaction.  Keep it moving by switching up how attendees interact and their brains will be stimulated.

Final advice for attendees:  be proactive in how you approach a virtual conference.  If done right, attending a virtual conference with a good networking platform can provide you with MORE rather than fewer networking options! 

Look through the registrations (if available) and identify who you want to meet with in advance.  Learn the connection options and reach out to make connections with one or more people at a time.  Make sure you get contact information to follow-up with people you’re interested in.  If you have to miss a panel or two in order to make great connections, don’t worry.  Most virtual conferences record the sessions, so you’ll often have a chance to catch up on the content later while focusing on relationship building during the conference.

Shameless Plug:

If you’d like to see all this in action, and get great startup content about resiliency during the pandemic, be sure to check out the Colorado Capital Conference.  Even if you’re not from Colorado, this event is open to anyone and the speakers and pitches apply virtually anywhere.  We’ll have Brad Feld from Foundry Group to talk about many types of resiliency and some of the themes in his new book, The Startup Community Way: Evolving an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem  We’ll have Denver’s Mayor Michael Hancock sharing the unique resiliency the city has shown in responding to the pandemic.  Join us! 

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