Association Congress

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Networking: conference’s greatest myth

It’s something you see on almost every advert for a conference. “This event offers excellent networking opportunities”. But do they? At our events we bang on about the number of people attending like this is a virtue: how can you speak to all of these people? If we take a step back can we actually say that the events we organize are ideal for networking? When we are selling to potential exhibitors to take stands alongside the conference we always talk about the amount of ‘breaks’ which the argument goes, allows them to guarantee time with the delegates. But does it?
Most of the ‘networking’ takes place on the traditional programme during registration; coffee x 2 and lunch. And isn’t that just the best time to talk and listen to other people as they queue and busy themselves in either filling their bellies or emptying their bladders? Now of course this is obvious to all who attend, but a lot of conferences still bounce you in to believing that the networking experiences they offer are ‘unique’. Like cream, the best networkers make it to the top and here’s 8 great top networking tips but what about everyone else who has bought into your great conference and its’ unique networking opportunities?
I think we therefore have two options: we are honest and admit networking is a myth or we deliver more quality networking and build it into our events. So here’s 10 things you can do to improve the networking at your conference:
1.       Allocate table places at the start of the day. Split groups up, put suppliers on the tables with their target customers, or big companies with small to allow compare and contrast in discussions
2.       Use cabaret format as it gently forces people to say hello to everyone on their tables (theatre style probably means you will speak to two people at the most during the sessions)
3.       Aim to get people in the main room at least 10mins before the first session, allow them time to chat and introduce themselves
4.       View ‘breaks’ as just that and ensure everyone has some time to soak up the learning and have a coffee in peace
5.       Mix tables up for the afternoon
6.       Build networking into every session. Allow delegates the time to talk about something from every session, or make sure you add ‘table discussion’ time at the end of each part of the day
7.       Embrace technology. Allow and facilitate 1-2-1 meetings arranged on line at your event
8.       Help your delegates take their networking off line by using Blogs and other social media
9.       Add something exciting or different to your programme that gives your delegates something to talk about
10.   Dedicate time to networking outside of the breaks, perhaps adding add a quiet informal drinks reception, with no entertainment, after the conference or an informal dinner before
I’ve deliberately stayed away from listing ways of ‘forcing networking’ like colour cards or badges, or finding a particular person by birth date, or code words or the like, as I believe the organiser knows if,  when and where these will work. So I’ve humbly suggested ways in which we can less obviously help those less likely to get the networking value from your conference. Good luck!   

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