Three Ways to Host Informal Networking Opportunities During Virtual Events

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Hallway conversations and chance meetings are staples of in-person events but can be hard to re-create in the virtual space. A look at three ideas for making it happen.

A few weeks ago, I came across this article on Wired.com about virtual tech conferences. The piece not only dove into some of the pluses of virtual events (e.g., lowered barriers to entry, reduced travel costs) but also highlighted what a lot of virtual attendees were missing, which it appropriately titled “the hang.”

Those are the chance meetings or hallway conversations that attendees have while in line at registration, as they grab a coffee, or when they are seated next to each other waiting for a session to start.

“Conferences aren’t just about what’s on the schedule, but the side conversations and the other social aspects,” said Christina Warren, a former tech journalist and current podcast host who now works as senior cloud developer advocate at Microsoft, to Wired. “I don’t think we’ve quite figured out as an entire industry what the best way is to bring in some of those social interactions when an event is virtual.”

Replicating “the hang” in a virtual space is definitely a difficult task. Here are three ideas I’ve come across in recent weeks that may be food for thought as your association goes about planning online events.

Daily concert. In late June, the American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science and the Association of Genetic Technologists held their 2020 Joint Annual Meeting  online. Ahead of the event, organizers sent swag boxes to attendees—called JAM Packs—that included a kazoo. During each day of the event, there was a Kazoom session, where participants could join a Zoom room and kazoo a song together. “[Attendees] called it ‘The Daily Kazoom,’” said Michael Cubbage, CMP, CGMP, who served as an independent planner for the event, to Convene magazine.

Casual connections. VidCon—YouTube’s event for social media influencers, execs, fans, and the brands that want to reach them—also moved online for the first time in late June. “We really wanted to try and as much as possible replicate the interactive experience of an event, both the connections that you can get to speakers and creators and other things in sessions, but also the casual connections that you make with people in the hallways, in the lounges,” said VidCon General Manager Jim Louderback to Forbes last month. One way his team did this was to offer a variety of online interactions. Among them: one-minute direct conversations between a fan and a creator—what Louderback called “a video selfie”—and “ask me anything” sessions with well-known industry professionals.

Virtual shuttle ride. When the Institute of Food Technologists transitioned its Annual Meeting and Food Expo to SHIFT20 Virtual Event and Expo, organizers didn’t want to lose all of the networking opportunities that participants had grown accustomed to. Since shuttle rides often lead to spontaneous conversations and connections (you never know who’ll you’ll sit next to on the ride to the convention center or evening reception), IFT hosted a 15-minute virtual shuttle ride before every evening event. Each night, two IFT members moderated a live shuttle-bus-themed discussion with a trend-watching guest to chat about the ideas emerging at SHIFT20.

What is your association doing to foster social interaction in its virtual event spaces? Please share in the comments.

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