conference networking

networking at conferences structuring connections

Networking at conferences is always one of the top three reasons that attendees give for attending a conference. So, if it’s so important for our attendees, I think that we event planners should do a wee bit more to structure that networking; to make sure that good connections happen.

So, I’d like to cover ‘structured’ networking. This is something very different from the networking that we casually think about: you know, the random meetings over coffee or picking up the delegate pack. So first, a definition of structured networking at conferences: “Using the environment, meeting design or technology to ensure that the right conversations happen”. 

Why is structured networking missing from many conferences?

The reasons that we don’t tend to “structure” people’s networking is that, we can think that our job is to being people together, and then hand over the networking baton to them. The least we can do is expect our attendees to network right? Maybe, but I think we can do a bit more. We also shy away from structuring conference networking because, we know that not everyone wants to network: there’s nothing worse than “forcing” people into uncomfortable situations.

So, to put your mind at ease, I am talking about unforced or at least gentle networking, when I cover “structured networking”. So if someone doesn’t want to take part, in the networking that you’ve crated, that’s fine. No pressure.

However networking is key for most attendees. That’s the reason that almost every conference – in its marketing material – says ‘unique networking opportunities’. Planners realise that attendees have to leave having networked.

Great networking adds a tremendous amount of value

So here’s three examples of structured networking that we did at our last conference.

1. The ice breaker tables

At the start of the conference we placed round tables and chairs in the main refreshment area. On each table we placed a different sign. The idea was to encourage others, gentle, to start to talk. By giving them an “ice breaker” topic it made conversations easier (especially as the morning coffee hadn’t kicked in yet). So for example we had some job-role based icebreakers: “Do you manage staff”, “Do you work for a international company”. We also had event related ice breakers like: “Here alone?” or “Here for the first time”.

These worked really well and all the tables were busy with people networking. The objective was to help people feel more comfortable and to start to chat (that’s the basic concept of networking!) A useful point is that you, as the event organiser, shouldn’t be too annoyed if no one actually talks about your chosen topic! You’ve done your job. 

conference networking

2. The content tables – changed throughout the day to cover the content covered in each part of the programme

Using the ice breaker tables from the morning we changed the signs to offer discussion tables throughout the day. We had the sessions title on each of the tables. On some of those tables the speaker sat down and joined the conversation. On others we had a facilitator ready to help and on the remaining tables we just left left our attendees to run the discussions. As well as offering a great way for others to network this added a lot of value to the content.

3. Badges that start a conversation

We asked our attendees to choose from different coloured badges. Each colour related to their confidence with technology. So the technologically experienced choose a different colour from the less techy. This was a great way to spark conversations. During the morning we saw each colour of badge huddled together as they took solace in their kind. Later in the day we found that the badges mixed as attendees felt more comfortable. We managed to spark some true networking as we had the experienced (red badges) offering advice and knowledge to the less tecky! We knew that this type of knowledge exchange would never have happened without some structure.

networking at conferences

Networking at conferences – get creative! Badges can help

Adding structured networking adds another element to your conference

To help attendees get the most out of your conference, planners have to help them put a bit more in.  Bringing the environment into play and changing the design of the meeting can add some structure, to that element of chance, that happens at any gathering. Unique networking opportunities do exist. But planners have to be creative and they have to think about structuring networking at conferences. I hope you find these three quick examples helpful.

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