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Seven Ways to Improve Your Virtual Networking Event

The years 2020 and 2021 were marked by a boom in online conferences, and even as in-person events resume in 2022, a significant portion of the audience is likely to attend virtually. Despite the many advantages of virtual conferences, they often fall short on networking opportunities. Our previous posts offered tips on engaging virtual audiences both during and after events, and we’ll now talk about ways you can facilitate networking—one of the main reasons researchers attend conferences—through virtual events.

1.           Encourage attendees to create detailed profiles, including social media handles. Detailed profiles help attendees get to know each other and discover commonalities, which can help break the ice. Profiles shouldn’t include merely what they’re researching, but allow attendees to share personal interests (e.g., yoga, gaming).

2.           When promoting your event, especially on social media, make sure to specifically mention the networking components and explain how to join or register for them. Audiences are still figuring their way around the various platforms and formats of virtual conferences, so it’s a good idea to make it as easy as possible for them to join a networking session.

3.           If possible, curate the attendee list of a networking event. Ideally, try to keep a balance of “regulars” and “newbies,” so that you don’t have 7-8 pals catching up with a couple of strangers staying on mute in the sidelines. Try not to have an obvious “odd man out” such as an early career researcher among a bunch of tenured professors, or a single non-native English speaker in a group of native English speakers.

4.           Get your timing right: for discussion to be meaningful, attendees need at least one hour. But after 90 minutes, serious “Zoom fatigue” can kick in.

5.           Set informal guidelines in both a pre-event email and at the start of the meeting. Since there will always be newcomers, it’s best to spell out clearly what topic(s) can be discussed, what an attendee needs to do if they’re leaving early, etc.

6.           Start the session 2-5 minutes early so that early birds can join. But keep your main icebreaker for 1-2 minutes after the event’s official start time, so that you have maximum participation. It’s also a good idea to choose a conversation starter that doesn’t specifically have to do with an attendee’s title, institute, or country. 

7. Choose a platform that enables attendees to create their own meetings and breakout sessions. In offline events, attendees serendipitously connect with each other and choose to engage with different people on a one-on-one basis. Having some semblance of this in a virtual meeting will improve engagement.

Conclusion

Although many societies have planned in-person conferences and congresses in 2022, the old status quo is unlikely to return: societies have realized the scope for a virtual component to an in-person event and even a series of virtual events to complement a single, big in-person meeting. Virtual networking events, though not interchangeable with in-person networking, have their own advantages. For instance, organizers can split participants into random groups online to promote mixing, whereas in offline conferences, attendees focus on connecting with either known faces or acknowledged leaders. Furthermore, in conferences of the future, virtual attendees should not be made to feel like second-class citizens. Hence, conference organizers would do well to actively improve their virtual networking components, rather than assume that only the in-person attendees have networking needs. 

Marisha Rodrigues

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